Nepal has no health minister as Covid-19 cases rise again

Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba waits for his turn at a J&J vaccination centre in Kathmandu. Photo: PMO

During his address to Parliament on 18 July while seeking a confidence vote, Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba claimed his government’s topmost priority was vaccination and managing the Covid-19 pandemic.

“The government's first priority is vaccination, second priority is vaccination, third priority is vaccination,” he said emphatically.

This week, he had a photo-op with American Ambassador Randy Berry as the handicapped received the Johnson & Johnson single jab inoculations. He then waited in line with others to get his own shot.

He then summoned health officials to Singha Darbar for a pow-wow and instructed them to be at battle stations against a possible third wave by setting up holding centres at the border as well as increasing testing, supply of oxygen, beds and ICUs in hospitals.

After becoming prime minister for the fifth time, Deuba has spent most of this first week in office dealing with Covid-19, leading many to believe his priority is indeed the health sector. 

However, he has yet to appoint a health minister, even as he was quick to name trusted supporter Bal Krishna Khand as Home Minister and hand over powerful finance and the energy and water resource portfolio to the Maoist Centre.

This is in direct contrast to the Oli administration that switched five Health Ministers in three years, and four since the pandemic. The very lead ministry in tackling the pandemic has been plagued with uncertainty and indecision.

Nepal might be at the tail end of the second wave but the rate of decline in daily infections and deaths has stalled. There is also the threat of a possible third wave and spread of newer strains as the country struggles to increase its vaccination coverage.

“Unstable leadership affects the entire system and its operations. And in a country like ours with underdeveloped mechanisms, stable leadership is of utmost importance, ”says Bhoj Raj Pokhrel, former Chief Election Commissioner.

Bhanubhakta Dhakal was the Minister of Health in January 2020 when the first case of Covid-19 was detected in Nepal. He was in charge when the first scandals broke in the procurement of Covid-19 test kits, which were found to be faulty and overpriced.

Hiradyesh Tripathi then took over and was entrusted by the Oli administration to buy 5 million doses of the Sputnik V vaccine. That did not materialise, and he negotiated with the Serum Institute of India (SII) to buy 2 million doses of the AstraZeneca Covishield vaccine. But only 1 million doses were delivered before India banned the export.

Tripathi later blamed SII’s representatives in Nepal for trying to take a bigger commission from the next order of 5 million doses. This was followed by the devastating second wave.

Tripathi was succeeded by Sher Bahadur Tamang, who served just three weeks as health minister before the Supreme Court ordered Oli’s Cabinet appointments null and void. Krishna Gopal Shrestha, who was also the Education Minister, had an even shorter tenure because the Oli government fell on 13 July.

Former director of the Epidemiology and Disease Control Division Baburam Marasini says that at a time when the Health Ministry should have been most proactive it became a victim of politics.

There are rumours that Deuba may appoint Gagan Thapa as health minister, and many remember his previous tenure during which he showed decisiveness and knowledge of the job

He says: "Only when the leadership is strong and stable can all agencies of government effectively implement a strategy. It is imperative that the government appoint a can-do, well-informed health minister soon.”

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