3 health ministers in 1 year

From left to right: Finnish Ambassador Pertti Anttinen, EU Ambassador Nona Deprez, the new Health Minister Sher Bahadur Tamang, Nepal’s third in one year, with German Ambassador Roland Shäfer at Kathmandu Airport on Tuesday to receive another consignment of medical assistance from Europe. Photo: AMIT MACHAMASI

When Nepal’s new Health Minister Sher Bahadur Tamang went to Kathmandu Airport on Tuesday morning to receive another international consignment of medical assistance, he was the third Health Minister since the pandemic began.

Tamang was brought into the Cabinet by Prime Minister K P Oli last week in a reshuffle in which he inducted 12 ministers from the Janata Samajbadi Party (JSP), removed prominent ministers from his own UML, and kept seven portfolios for himself for now.

Tamang had earlier sided with the Pushpa Kamal Dahal-Madhav Kumar Nepal faction of the Nepal Communist Party, but defected to the Oli side after the Supreme Court disbanded the party earlier this year.

Health Minister Sher Bahadur Tamang greets EU Ambassador Nona Deprez at Kathmandu Airport on Tuesday. Photo: AMIT MACHAMASI

He succeeded Hiradyesh Tripathi, who was former minister of federal affairs and general administration. Because he graduated in political science from Russia, he had been entrusted by the Oli administration to buy 5 million doses of the Sputnik V vaccine. 

Tripathi had negotiated with the Serum Institute India for the purchase of 2 million doses of the Covishield AstraZeneca vaccine and even sent advance payment. But only 1 million doses were delivered, before India banned the export of vaccines. 

Tripathi later blamed the Serum Institute of India’s representatives in Nepal of trying to take a bigger cut from the next order of 5 million doses for the failure to produce vaccines in time. This allegation was later refuted by the representatives, Hukam Distribution & Logistics, which said it was due to India's ban, and that it was just following the law that allowed 10% commission.

As the second wave surged through Nepal in April, Tripathi said in an interview with Nepali Times that the pandemic had overwhelmed Nepal’s health system and it could not contain the pandemic. He said it was now up to the public to take proper precautions.

Before Tripathi, the health minister was Bhanubhakta Dhakal, who was in charge when the first scandals broke in the procurement of Covid-19 test kits through Omni International, a local company. The kits were found to be faulty and overpriced. 

Dhakal was made Tourism and Civil Aviation Minister during a reshuffle last year. 

Swiss Ambassador Elisabeth von Cappeler handing over 30,000 PCR kits to Health Minister Bhanubhakta Dhakal at Kathmandu airport last year on 8 May. Photo: KUNDA DIXIT
Swiss Ambassador Elisabeth von Capeller (centre) handing over Swiss medical assistance to Health Minister Hridayesh Tripathi on 22 May this year at Kathmandu airport. Also pictured, Head of Cooperation for SDC Silvana Hogg. Photo: AMIT MACHAMASI

The new health minister Sher Bahadur Tamang as MP has been lobbying for the legalisation of the cultivation and controlled sale of cannabis to lift rural livelihoods. He was at the airport on Tuesday to receive the new consignment of assistance from Germany under the European Union’s Civil Protection Mechanism.

The material arrived on a Turkish Airline cargo charter that brought 62 ventilators, 27,500 FFP2 masks, 30,000 surgical masks, 100 gumboots, 200 body bags, 5 isolation centre tents, and 25,000 litres of disinfectant. 

Also on hand at the airport to receive the aid package were German Ambassador Roland Shäfer, EU Ambassador Nona Deprez and Finnish Ambassador Pertti Anttinen.

A Turkish Airlines cargo plane brought another consignment of medical equipment from Germany under the European Union’s Civil Protection Mechanism to Kathmandu on Tuesday. Photo: AMIT MACHAMASI

Although the official daily total for confirmed Covid-19 cases has been going down, public health experts say it is an underestimation. The number of hospital cases, ICU patients and those on ventilators are all going down in Nepal’s cities. However, the virus is said to be ravaging the remotest villages in Nepal where access to health care is rudimentary.

They say what Nepal really needs now is vaccines. Some 1.4 million doses are needed immediately for elderly people waiting for their second dose of Covishield, and then for the 18 million adults in the coming months as the lockdown is eased.

Nepal registered 3,370 new cases on Monday and 6,950 recovering, which has brought the number of active cases to below 90,000 for the first time in 6 weeks. The number of Covid-19 deaths in the past 24 hours was 92, with a total of nearly 8,000 since the beginning off the pandemic.