Vacillating on vaccines


The flood of social media posts of donated medical supplies being unloaded at Kathmandu airport every day, gives the impression that the outside world cares more about the humanitarian emergency in Nepal than the country’s own leaders.

This week proved that the Nepali politicians still do not get it. Except for the chatting classes locked up at home, not many Nepalis follow, or care, about a dissolved Parliament, elections in November, or writs at the Supreme Court. They are preoccupied with trying to prevent relatives from breathing their last.

Prime Minister K P Oli has proven that he is not just a shrewd manipulator, but also has elastic ethics. In the past year, he has shown that he will stop at nothing: split the NCP that he himself united, dismantle his own UML, dissolve a Parliament in which he had a two-thirds majority. All is fair, it seems, in love and politics. 

Nepalis might have followed the political games in Kathmandu more closely if the alternatives to Oli inspired more confidence. But they are all tried, tested and failed ex-prime ministers themselves. The main contender Sher Bahadur Deuba of the Nepali Congress lined himself up to be PM for the fifth time, and has still not given up.

The crises due to the pandemic would have been the opportunity to form a national unity government, and work together to fight the virus. This would be the time for all the parties to skip a generation and bring up some young do-ers. That is what they may have done if this was a war. But this is a war.

The needs are great: ensuring adequate oxygen supply, rushing relief for the millions who have lost their income during the lockdowns, ensuring that ICU care is available and affordable to the general public, and negotiating a reliable vaccine pipeline. Preoccupied with politicking, the leaders had little time for any of this. 

Most of Nepal’s politically-appointed ambassadors overseas are more beholden to their patrons back home than to the people. With the exceptions of our female envoys in Oman and Spain, other missions have not stepped up to the task of conveying the emergency like we did after the 2015 earthquake.

The oxygen cylinders and medical equipment that have arrived are mostly through donations from the Nepali diaspora, citizens groups that have mobilised through social media, and friends of Nepal. 

No wonder the rest of the world does not take us seriously. When a state does not demonstrate accountability towards its own citizens, there is little trust even from governments that genuinely want to help, to provide urgently needed material. 

And there is not much the outside world can do when the malaise is within. Nepal has to resolve its own governance crisis that has messed up its Covid-19 response. 

Having said that, the international community could show more concern for the urgent need for vaccines. There are many flights bearing ventilators, concentrators, PPEs and test kits, but much vacillation on vaccines. 

Nepal is not getting the urgent help it needs to immediately vaccinate 1.4 million people whose default date for the second dose is now. On Monday, the government extended the dose gap to 16 weeks in the hope that someone somewhere will quickly send the AstraZeneca (AZ) vaccines we paid the Serum Institute of India for, but which were never delivered.

This is a major failure of Nepal’s vaccine diplomacy, but it is also India, Britain, the EU, US, the WHO that have let us down in this hour of need. We get it that vaccines are now a geo-strategic item, and countries are stockpiling it for the third wave. But some countries have enough doses to vaccinate their populations several times over, at a time when their own citizens are refusing to take AZ because of the panic over clots. 

Across France, AZ vaccines are being dumped because they are nearing expiry, the United States has a cache of 80 million Covid-19 vaccines, and nearly half its population refuses to be vaccinated. Ship the shots to people who want and need the vaccines.

We would like to see fewer Tweets of donated items that Nepal can afford to buy, and more timetables for vaccine deliveries.