Ritu Raj Subedi
Like many other nations, Nepal is undergoing a big crisis owing to the COVID-19 pandemic that is raging globally, turning the people’s life upside down. The novel coronavirus is an externally-induced threat to Nepal but it has laid bare its many societal fault lines. In history, Nepal had endured many existential crises ranging from war against foreign invasions and epidemic to earthquake, anti-state insurgency and economic blockades. In every crisis, Nepal has been successful in riding the storm. But the ongoing medical emergency differs from the previous calamities for it is the by-product of globalisation and interdependent world. The fast travelling contagion is the litmus test of Nepali nation state that has transformed itself into a federal republic over the past few years.
To date Nepal has been able not to allow the contagion jumping into the third stage, thanks to prolonged lockdown that is in its fourth week. The government is punching above its weight by intensifying the testing and quarantining the suspects and treating the infected persons. The lockdown is a harsher choice to crush the virus. It is accompanied by social-and physical distancing, a weird way of living run under the social Darwinian and Malthusian impulses. The people have to fend for themselves for the disease is beyond the control of medical science. Given the unavailability of the anti-coronavirus vaccines, lockdown remains the only alternative for the countries fighting against the invisible enemy. At the same time, without proper preparedness, contingency plan, effective relief package and economic stimulus, mechanical style lockdown imposition may trigger other disasters in the form of mass unemployment, starvation, revolts and brutal collapse of system.
The coronavirus has taken the world by storm, causing a big crack in the existing neo-liberal order. The pandemic has hit at the heart of Anglo-Saxon capitalism with fatal blow to Donald Trump’s ‘America First’ rhetoric and Boris Johnson’s British exceptionalism. Interestingly, China, the initial victim of pandemic, is now acting to rescue many pandemic-hit nations by supplying the essential medical goods to them. This signals the evolution of new international order. The corona crisis is bringing back the role of state/government in handling the governance affairs and public problems. It has prickingly reminded the world of a neglected verity - market forces and private sector do not come in the rescue of people when they face the big crisis as that of present.
What can Nepal learn from the unfolding COVID-19 calamity? Could our political leadership take a lesson from this crisis to rebuild the nation on the strong ecological socio-economic foundation? The novel coronavirus has exposed the fragility of Nepali nation state and debunked some constitutional illusions. Nepali citizens - be it at home, borderland or abroad- are left in the lurch due to the virus’s potential to spread. Hundreds of people have found it impossible to bear the brunt of lockdown in Kathmandu Valley and left for their home districts for fear of starvation. Nepali constitution has clearly spelt out that the country will be geared up for building a socialist-oriented economy but it has proved to be a chimera for a large number of daily wage earners, the poor, needy and sick. They make a heartrending scene on the east-west highway as they are travelling hundreds of kilometres on foot, braving thirst, hunger and fatigue. Their problem can be sorted out with the concerted efforts of three-tier government without threatening the health of local community.
The wails and cries of Nepalis stranded a few metres away from the border in the far-west Nepal can be heard across the country. Thousands of Nepalis living in the country’s economic backwater have found their own motherland strange and unreceptive in time of woes. As their masters kicked them out of job in India, they naturally tried to return home but their plea to land on their soil was lost in the wilderness. Their alienation and despair can be risky in the future. It may further widen the mental distance between the centre and the periphery, undermining the process of attaining national integration and shared prosperity.
Citizens need state when they face existential crisis in their life. If the state turns a blind eye to their plight, they will lose their faith in state’s capacity to protect them, deliver basic public good and services, and muster public trust and loyalties. In the ancient time, the state was supposed to protect its subjects from enemies and defend its territories, provide livelihood support and awareness. But in the modern time, the citizens want the government to guarantee their basic rights - food, health, shelter and social security. The state has obligation to protect specially the weak and vulnerable groups in all adverse conditions. This is necessary to foster the state-citizen bond.
Nepal’s waning capacity to confront the bigger crisis stems from the defective neo-liberal policies that goes against the grain of the constitution which envisages a robust welfare state. Under the market economy and privatisation drive which the country followed since 1990, the real economy was destroyed. In place came the symbolic economy that promoted crony capitalism, comprador class and rent-seeking tendency among the politicians, bureaucrats and business people. So it was no big surprise when the private hospitals turned away the patients suspected of COVID-19 during the lockdown. The state-run hospitals have become the final hope for the people suffering from the virus. Now the state must assert its legitimate roles and responsibilities, and revamp the dilapidated health infrastructure so that the people will not turn to the mercy of profit-driven private hospitals operated under business models, not social service. This is a crucial time to strengthen the state’s debilitating institutions essential for the strong national sovereignty and functional democracy.
Every crisis brings an opportunity with it. The spread of coronavirus has vindicated the persistence call to effectively regulate Nepal-India border. The porous and open border has now posed a big threat to the health and public security of Nepalis. The larger number of corona cases detected inside the country is imported ones. The Indian citizens who sneaked into the Nepal’s territory are not only carrying virus with them but also spreading virus to the local community. Now the country must beef up security along Nepal-India border avoid the possible flow of communalism, coronavirus, non-state armed groups and criminal elements. A strong border security benefits both the countries and controls the movements of socially undesirable forces often inflicting mutual trust. This will drastically reduce the security threat arising from terrorism, disease and human trafficking.
(Deputy Executive Editor of The Rising Nepal, Subedi writes regularly on politics, foreign affairs and other contemporary issues)
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