Highlights from ‘Nepal: Himalayan Country in Crisis’ — a virtual panel discussion on the COVID-19 response in Nepal and South Asia

‘Nepal: Himalayan Country in Crisis’ was organized by FNF South Asia in collaboration with Samriddhi Foundation on June 29, 2021. The event was joined by speakers Mr Patrick Walz, Ms Betina Stark Watzinger, Mr Rampratap Thapa,  followed by a panel discussion. The event was held online and broadcast live on FNF South Asia YouTube channel

The panel discussion featured Dr Dhawal Shumsher Rana, Mayor of Nepalgunj Sub-metropolitan City, Mr Gagan Thapa, a Nepali politician and Ms Suhasini Haidar, Diplomatic Affairs editor at The Hindu with Dr Bishal Dhakal, a Nepali entrepreneur as the moderator. The panellists shared their insights on the ongoing COVID 19 pandemic in Nepal and the South Asian region and how Nepal along with its neighbours can move forward from this tragedy. 

Dr Rana kicked of the session, talking about the initial response towards COVID-19 by Nepal and how we falsely believed ourselves to be immune to the virus. He said, “On this note, I would say that the federal structure failed miserably, even the union structure failed miserably. They were not prepared for what was there — actually, nobody was prepared. But, there was a big confusion. And in the beginning, there was no proper, even a protocol, you know what was supposed to be done. And, there was a dearth of funds. There was a dearth of oxygen, a dearth of machines, dearth of medical staff. And the different tiers of government seemed confused. They were not clear. We, at the ground level, everybody was working really hard here. But we could not get prompt responses from the federal government, or from the union government, which was actually very sad. We were told to do things without the financial backup to do those things.”

According to Mr Thapa, the response to the pandemic was very reactive instead of proactive. He said, “Had he [the former minister for health] listened to the suggestions from experts, —  and it was not about resources, it was not about money. We were full of resources at the time. It was about the intent. It was about the decision. It was about believing in science. It was about believing in evidence and data — then Nepal, for that matter Nepalgunj or Kathmandu, would not have had to cry for oxygen. We would have saved a number of lives.”

Ms Haidar shared that despite stressful times in India — where people felt abandoned by the government — local people, communities and the private sector came together to bridge gaps and provide solutions on matters related to medicines, oxygen and food resources. Ms Haider stressed the need for regional cooperation among South Asian countries to solve the challenges of the pandemic. She stressed the fact that South Asian countries should come together to create strategic plans to help each other.

Commenting on the lack of vaccination supply in South Asia, Ms Haider added, “The truth is, had we started to do what we had started to do, which is to say SAARC is our basic unit. Is South Asia taken care of when it comes to vaccines? Then at least we can say, we are not a threat to the world. That all of South Asia has been vaccinated. We actually, possibly would have been in a much better position. We didn’t take that chance and we didn’t take that choice. Instead, India was exporting to Brazil, exporting all over the world. Of course, we did start with the neighbourhood. We started with Bhutan, Nepal, and Bangladesh. But it doesn’t help that if you give the first vaccine and you don’t get the second vaccine.”

Dr Rana stated that there was an absence of a functioning regional institution,  that people of the South Asian countries could rely on. He also said that the governments of India and Nepal, two interconnected nations, should come to an understanding of creating a shared response to the pandemic. 

Unless the government focuses its attention on its preparation for better pandemic response, its COVID-19 management plan will likely face the same problems of inefficacy as in the past. As Mr Thapa added, “The coming days are not easy but if we operate on the same level, do the same things again and expect different outcomes then that would be insanity.”
Samriddhi Foundation would like to thank all of the speakers, panellists and moderators for their incredible insights on the COVID-19 management in Nepal. We hope the members of the audience found the session equally informative and constructive. If you missed the event, you can watch the recording here.