Common sense is uncommon in fighting COVID-19

Communication is the first line of defence against a communicable disease


The whole world is now using vocabulary that we assume everyone, everywhere, will understand in the same way: pandemic, lockdown, self-isolation, quarantine, flatten the curve, exponential spread, COVID-19. In a country with low adult literacy rate, really poor health infrastructure, Nepalis need to be careful with these terms and how we explain it to the public.

Although the country’s economy is ruined, Nepalis themselves have so far has been relatively less affected. Once this pandemic dies out, as it will one day, we have a change to rethink development, revamp our economic development model and update the school curriculum to make it relevant, timely and useful to both the student and society at large to deal with future health scares.

How soon should our young be learning about pandemics and epidemics? Nepalis have lived through an armed conflict, became a republic, written a new constitution, lived through an earthquake and Indian economic blockade – all within a generation.

We have restructured the state, and now we are coping with a global pandemic. That is a lot of content for a whole set of new text books. High school history books in Nepal still do not mention the war. Now, we really have to work on how development, environment and health issues are taught in our schools so that the students grow up to be able to respond individually and collectively to future crises.

Education is the key to preparedness. We also cannot end up in a situation where people know, but do nothing because students just regurgitated memorised passages in exams.  We need to create an education system that focuses on action, results and impact. This will be challenging because the facts are changing rapidly, and knowledge itself comes with an expiry date.

Read also: Pandemic is a chance to rethink development, Ivan G Somlai

The bigger challenge is to change people’s behaviour based on the information they receive, and the education they have had. Policemen do not need to beat people walking on the streets, they need to be able to stop them explain what a lockdown is, and the costs and benefits of compliance to society.

Lockdowns are cruel, they bring societal inequities to the surface. Just as the virus targets the vulnerable, the measure used to control it by enforcing a lockdown also disproportionately impact on the poor, elderly or those far from home. In a situation where people do not trust the government and black marketers are politically protected, we cannot blame a public that is skeptical of government moves.

What is the use of buying insurance only to be told that it does not mention COVID-19 in the fine print? How is anyone supposed to know? For teachers and students of economics, there should be a chapter on how to deal with unprecedented global disasters like pandemics.

Businesses in Europe and North America show profit, give shareholders their dividends, and then use government subsidies to buy back stock to keep share prices high. Is this the advice multilateral and bilateral agencies give us? If it is, we really need to rewrite our economics text books.

The pandemic is a real teacher if we are willing to learn. How do we explain to college students why the US stock exchange rose over 6% on the day 3.3 million eligible citizens filed for unemployment benefit and the number of COVID-19 infections kept rising. How do hospitals choose which patients to treat and which ones can be left to die because there are shortages of equipment and medicines?

We shall also need the best minds working on the experiences of other countries so we know what works and what does not in a federal political system like the United States. The pandemic is unfolding in real time on our tv screens and monitors, and the challenge is to stay ahead of the curve – for which communicating with the public is key.

The fact that we are teaching people how to wash their hands in 2020 does not speak a whole lot about where we are and where we need to be. Nepalis have been through a lot and have paid a heavy price for not being prepared for disasters, for being poorly governed, and for over-dependency on foreign aid. Experience and education should provide us the common sense needed to take collective action. After all, common sense is not very common.

Anil Chitrakar is President of Siddharthinc and writes this exclusive fortnightly column ½ Full for Nepali Times.

Anil Chitrakar