Big confusion as top body responding to Covid-19 becomes defunct
All legal frameworks related to the country’s Covid-19 response, including the Covid-19 Crisis Management Centre, no longer exist now, which experts and officials say could make it difficult to deal with the coronavirus crisis.
With the annulment of the Covid-19 Crisis Management Ordinance 2078 BS, the Covid-19 Crisis Management Centre, known as CCMC, an agency created to respond to the pandemic, has become defunct from Wednesday midnight. The ordinance was presented in Parliament on July 18 and it must have been endorsed by September 16, as such ordinances must get through within 60 days since the date of their tabling.
As the ordinance has no effect now, Provincial Covid-19 Crisis Management Centres and District Covid-19 Crisis Management Centres of all 77 districts also have become defunct.
“Actually, all legal frameworks including the infrastructures functioning under the CCMC have now become defunct,” said Balananda Sharma, chief executive officer of the now-defunct CCMC.
The Covid-19 Crisis Management Ordinance 2078 BS was issued on May 20 as the House of Representatives was then in recess. Accordingly, the Covid-19 Crisis Management Centre was created. The ordinance allowed the government to declare a health emergency, if needed, and ease the process to procure medical goods, equipment and vaccines to battle the Covid-19 pandemic.
Through the ordinance, a powerful steering committee was set up under the chairmanship of the prime minister comprising ministers from key ministries, chief secretary, chief of Nepal Army, and member secretary of the Covid-19 Crisis Management Centre.
The ordinance also empowered authorities to initiate actions if anyone was found flouting new orders aimed at controlling the virus, as the Infectious Disease Act 2020 BS was considered too weak in fighting infectious diseases. With the ordinance becoming ineffective, the government can only apply the 58-year-old law.
Sharma, a retired lieutenant general of the Nepal Army, was appointed chief executive officer of the Covid-19 Management Centre on May 25.
Sharma said the CCMC now does not legally exist, and a small team has been attending the office “informally” to support the emergency activities, as the Nepal Army, which has a key role in responding to the Covid-19 situation, won’t accept requests from any other authorities.
“I have been attending the office and trying to support with whatever I can,” said Sharma. “I am doing this on humanitarian grounds and it necessarily does not reflect my official position.”
According to officials, the prime minister and the chief secretary can do nothing to respond to the emergency situation. “Obviously, the prime minister and the ministers, who were in the steering committee of CCMC, have nothing under their purview,” said Sharma.
The CCMC had the mandate to perform at least 14 duties, including treatment, management and health infrastructure expansion; creating public awareness and information management; formation and operation of quick response teams and emergency transportation; and rescue and arrangement of patient receiving team and corpse management.
Besides, the centre also looks after the provision and security of health manpower, infrastructure and materials; management and operation of Covid-19 fund, research and suggestions; prohibition order implementation; traffic management by land and air; provision of testing, quarantine and isolation; and regulation of supply and travel of essential goods during prohibition orders.
Now with the ordinance failing to get through Parliament, travel protocols too no longer exist. Tourism Ministry officials, however, said they have been making efforts to find a legal alternative.
“We have tabled a proposal before the Cabinet to issue a new travel protocol,” said Buddhi Sagar Lamichhane, joint-secretary at the Tourism Ministry. The earlier rules, seven-day mandatory quarantine for tourists, health safety measures at the airport, and other security issues no longer exist.”
Lamichhane said they were hopeful that new rules will be in place as soon as the Cabinet gives an “approval in principle”.
As the government has transferred dozens of joint-secretaries, with the appointments of new chief district officers, the defunct structure of the District Covid-19 Crisis Management Centres has created problems.
Officials say the needy people may be affected with no legal Covid-19 response system in place in the country.
Nepal has constantly been staring at Covid-19 risks. Cases have been increasing of late after a decline in recent days. Experts have warned that the third wave could hit the country anytime, with festivals just round the corner and no prohibitory measures currently enforced.
The countrywide death toll has now reached 11,012, way above the casualties reported during the 2015 devastating earthquakes. Nepal on Friday reported 1,558 new coronavirus cases in the last 24 hours, according to the Health Ministry. The number of active coronavirus cases stands at 25,497.
As soon as the CCMC became defunct, Sharma said he has not attended any scheduled meetings of the Health and Home ministries.
“We were in the process of purchasing medicines, equipment and vaccines,” said Sharma. “All these efforts to control the deadly coronavirus could be affected now.”
However, a minister, who wished to remain anonymous, said the CCMC becoming defunct was not a big deal as the Health Ministry can discharge all Covid-19 related responsibilities. “The CCMC itself was a burden. A financially burdened body.”
As per the ordinance, the CCMC had designated Bir Hospital as the Covid-19 Unified Central Hospital and under it, Covid-19 Unified Provincial Hospitals were under operation.
“All these infrastructure are also defunct,” said Gopal Nath Yogi, secretary of the House of Representatives. “It takes at least one month to endorse a bill from both houses after it is registered.”
The Post spoke to at least half a dozen officials, including politicians, but no one could provide a clear answer to how the state would respond if the third wave hits the country.
Existing holding centres, isolation centres, quarantines centres which were functioning under the CCMC cannot function without the laws now.
Currently, the country is also facing a government shutdown, as the budget has failed to get through the lower house, just like the Covid-19 Crisis Management Ordinance 2078 BS could not. A government shutdown means the government cannot spend money from the state coffers. Experts say such a situation when the government is facing a financial gridlock and the key agency tasked with responding to the Covid-19 getting defunct could spell a catastrophe.
Dr Baburam Marasini, former director of the Epidemiology and Disease Control Division, however, said the prime minister could do something to continue the operations endorsing some legal provisions from his Council of Ministers.
He said one of the major functions of the CCMC was to coordinate with different ministries to combat the pandemic
“Even though it was not as effective as it should have been, there was some solace that there was an agency to respond to the Covid-19 crisis. Now with this agency also becoming defunct, we are headed for a serious crisis,” Marasini said. “Procurement of goods needed to fight the pandemic will be hugely affected. The government must come up with some alternative measures.”