My latest for Nepali Times:
Transparency. Concealing information fuels conspiracies, rumour-mongering and the ‘fake news’.
March 24, 2020
Full marks to the Nepal government for imposing the much tougher lockdown that we are living under since 6AM today. As of Monday afternoon it was still possible for Kathmanduites to get a suit tailor-made, meet friends for chiya and chat, or celebrate a birthday at a favourite restaurant. That made no sense: pandemics demand much more than half-measures.
Inexplicably the coronavirus has not walloped Nepal yet while it has devastated countries from our northern neighbour China to Italy and the United States. With only two confirmed cases here we need to learn from those sad examples. Keeping people at home under lockdown will go a long way towards ensuring that no further social transmission occurs.
Some details of the lockdown still need to be ironed out after it was abruptly announced Monday night. Shops providing essential goods will remain open but which ones and what hours they will work is still to be seen. Wisely, officials have decided to not limit shopping hours, otherwise we would likely have seen a rush on stores that would negate the entire point of social distancing Still, measures need to be put in place to ensure that people do not get into the habit of strolling over to their local store daily to leaf through rayoko sag.
We can expect most Nepalis to understand the inconvenience of living under lockdown and do their part. In turn, the government must exhibit true leadership by encouraging and informing us. The media must be permitted to continue its essential work of providing updates, and insights. Yet, we should not have to wait for an enterprising journalist to reveal that the government has tested fewer than half of the suspected COVID-19 cases than we were led to believe. Concealing information further fuels conspiracy theories, rumour-mongering and the ‘fake news’.
We can expect most Nepalis to understand the inconvenience of living under lockdown and do their part. In turn, the government must exhibit true leadership by encouraging and informing us.
Canada’s prime minister is in self-isolation since his wife tested positive more than a week ago. Yet he is giving daily press briefings to update the situation there (where there have been 24 deaths and 2,049 confirmed cases at the time of writing). We are not recommending that Prime Minister Oli do the same, as he still needs to recuperate from his recent kidney transplant. However, we do need to see an authoritative, empathetic figure as spokesperson to provide daily updates via the media.
S/he need not be a government official, most of whom are unfortunately tainted with a party label that renders them suspect to a section of the population, but might well be a retired health expert. This regular flow of credible information would be an important step toward stifling the ill-informed or ill-intentioned voices that are being amplified via social media.
One of the first tasks of that spokesperson could be to explain what is expected of businesses, big and small, and ordinary people during the lockdown — and the consequences if those rules are not followed. What are the measures authorities are now taking to fight COVID-19? We ‘know’ unofficially that testing is being broadened but it is unclear exactly by how much and to who. If that measure fails to identify new cases, what might the next steps be? If we are all in this journey together we deserve to know which direction we are moving in.
It is heartening to see funds established to finance the response of the health care sector in what is sure to be a long fight against the coronavirus. Thank you to all the frontline health workers who are labouring under sometimes woeful conditions to keep the rest of us healthy.
We would hope also that the Oli government swiftly announces compensation for the hundreds of thousands of people who will be without work, and pay cheques, in coming weeks. The poorest of the poor should not be left to fend for themselves, especially if economic assistance is provided to industries.
Local governments across Nepal have been working overtime in recent weeks to establish isolation wards in case of an outbreak If we all do our part to respect the current lockdown, thanks to the measures that came into force today it is now much more likely that we will not witness the sad spectacle of those facilities filling up.