Will politicians pass the COVID-19 test?

Just like the 2015 earthquake, COVID-19 is an exam for leaders to prove their worth


It is the fifth anniversary of the big earthquake that shook us all on 25 April 2015. The rebuilding process has been slow, but contrary to public perception it has been steady.

Many first-time visitors to Kathmandu are quite impressed with the recovery, and often ask me where all the damage is. It is also noteworthy that in the last five years since the disaster, we promulgated a new Constitution, survived a Blockade, held elections to all three levels of government, and we hoped that with political stability there would be development.

Infrastructure, energy, health, tourism and education sectors were finally getting the attention they needed. World class school buildings and health facilities come up across the earthquake affected areas. Women have been trained in masonry and carpentry, information technology applications have spread across Nepal’s remote locations.

Traditional artistans have done us all proud by reviving the craft and skills to restore our monuments. The restoration of Boudhanath set the pace and the rest followed. The flow of resources assured us that Nepal still has many friends all over the world.

But just as we were getting over the aftermath of the upheavals of the past five year, we have been hit by an unforeseen and unprecedented disaster. Once again, we are confronting some of the challenges we overcame after the earthquake.

The pandemic has exposed societal inequities, state inaction, lack of transparency. We still do not know who the poor are in this country.  We tout poverty numbers and percentages all the time, but is that true picture? Who are the most vulnerable, and how do we help them?

We are bombarded by heart-wrenching videos of families who have run out of cash and food on the long march home from Kathmandu. These are the underserved: they were in Kathmandu because of state’s inability to provide rural jobs, and they are victims of state apathy after the lockdown. The meagre belongings on their backs, and being forced to walk hundreds of kilometeres in flipflops are symbolic of the state of governance.

When the earthquake hit Nepal, we did not have elected local governments and identifying the poor and vulnerable took time. We started to define them, but now we may have to redefine vulnerability. This time it is frontline health workers, food and medicine store keepers, taxi and bus drivers,  are most vulnerable. Even a month after they returned, there is stigmatisation against migrant workers who have returned from abroad.

Then there is the catch-all phrase: capacity building. In the 1980s, the Hetauda cloth factory did well in Nepal and the neighborhood with high quality textile products. Then, like in other spheres of national life, a combination of political interference, mismanagement, low productivity and inability to compete, the factory closed.

In the post-earthquake and post-COVID economy, why not revive the Hetauda factory to produce cloth for the army and police and design it to produce masks and PPE? In an earthquake, it makes tents, and soon in the monsoon it can produce rafts and rain gear.

The new normal is where a textile factory needs to quickly become a PPE and mask maker. How do we train the staff, and what kind of skills will workers need? In the next cold wave this winter, we will need sleeping bags and jackets.

Pharmaceutical companies in Nepal have to gear up to acquire the license to produce a vaccine or drugs for COVID-19. Which companies have the capability? Capacity building has a whole new meaning in the post-pandemic, post-earthquake, and during the climate induced disaster-prone Nepal.

Another aspect of capacity is related to leadership at the centre, the provinces and local governments. Leadership, we have seen, is about who can keep millions of people to stay the course, lay out clear plans and communicate clear instructions at times of crisis.

It is about trust, transparency and accountability. The next election is less than three years away, that would be the perfect time to reward the do-ers. The earthquake was a great teacher, and COVID-19 is an exam for those who want to rule over us. Can they pass the test?

Anil Chitrakar writes this fortnightly column ½ Full in Nepali Times, and is President of Siddharthinc

Anil Chitrakar