COVID-19 and state

The Covid-19 outbreak has infected millions, isolating everyone from their regular lives. Economies all over the world have been affected.

Small and large organizations in every sector of the economy have been hit hard. It is crucial to comprehend the roles of the government, business houses and development associates in preparing for and responding effectively to this situation. A much needed discourse on the role of the state during this pandemic was organized by Thames International College as a part of our Expert Sessions on 10th July, 2020. Mr. Saugat Gautam was our expert for the session. Mr. Gautam is a development practitioner, a program manager at ICCO Cooperation (South and Central Asia), a political analyst, a visiting faculty at Thames and a political science graduate.

The session was moderated by Ms. Simbali Gadal, a journalism student at Thames. The session began with a brief introduction of COVID-19, followed by several questions presented to Mr. Gautam. The first question was regarding the measures taken by the Nepali government in response to COVID-19, and whether or not the crisis had been addressed properly. Mr.Gautam replied with a disclaimer that the pandemic, the need for social distancing and the lockdown are challenges never before faced by the state or the citizens. That said, majority of Nepali citizens are not happy with how the state is handling the crisis. Though we must understand the capacity of our government to handle this unfamiliar crisis is limited, it is true that they have been neither satisfactorily prepared nor have they taken proper action Mr. Gautam stated that the government missed the opportunity to take necessary measures at the right time, however it was better late than never. He further added that the state lagged behind early on, when it should've learned from other countries’ mistakes.

In answer to a question from Ms. Simbali regarding the government’s decision to impose lockdowns and set up quarantine facilities and relief distribution mechanisms, Mr. Gautam highlighted that these decisions had not been taken collaboratively or collectively. Rather, they had been imposed on citizens, many of whom equated the lockdown with curfews. The state had failed miserably in considering how democratic certain actions and decisions were.

For a time,, citizens supported these decisions out of fear for their health, but other major decisions related to quarantine facilities, testing and the issue of many helpless Nepali citizens stranded abroad were made poorly and drew backlash from citizens. Mr. Gautam pointed out that many other decisions taken by the government had failed to deliver. For instance, it took the government months to just list out people who were in need of relief, and only a few had had access to it.

The session moved on to the issue of remittance, and the kinds of initiatives the government had taken to keep the country's economy going through the pandemic. It is clear that the economy is shrinking, many jobs have been lost, businesses are collapsing and many have suffered pay cuts.. Many social scientists and historians have predicted an increase in social inequality worldwide. In order to combat such problems, the government must work on the yearly budget and plan pertinently. Mr. Gautam stated that the government must now focus on sustaining the economy by reviving the primary sectors in Nepal, and should develop welfare schemes.. Crises and social problems are very closely connected. Women, children, and people with disabilities are at high risk of becoming even more vulnerable. With increasing cases of domestic violence and rape cases being reported, the government must be held accountable with ensuring that quarantine facilities are safe for vulnerable groups That said, added Mr. Gautam, we have to consider that the facilities and technologies available to us have been set up on a minimal budget, and might not be as effective.

The government's role in maintaining transparency and accountability in the dissemination of information related to budget and testing was also discussed. According to Mr.Gautam, it was definitely a weakness of the state to not have been able to effectively test potential patients returning from abroad as well as be transparent about funds and the overall COVID-19 response . The state should've unquestionably mobilized enthusiastic youth-led groups to spread awareness, work at quarantine facilities or distribute relief funds. Distributing relief funds via young volunteers would have built their trust in the government, as they would’ve worked with the authorities and the government would have been transparent with the funds.

As the session came to a close, the movement started by a youth led group, Enough is Enough, was discussed. Mr. Gautam said that the movement, which is properly constructed without any political bias or affiliations, is a much-needed response to the incompetence and recklessness of the state. =During this time of crisis,, this movement led by citizens and small enterprises has opened a new route for citizens to question the government and practice democracy.

An important issue was also brought up during the session by Mr. Gautam. It is very easy to blame the state, but we must also question how responsible are we at an individual level,' he said. How we as citizens are responding to the crisis and supporting the measures taken for prevention of infection should also be considered.