Covid-19 raises questions about the future of the Nepali state


Nepal will have to debate and talk about our ideas about the nation-state.

Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli was discharged from the hospital Friday following a kidney transplant for the second time. Instead of resting as advised, he was eager to promote an optics of good health and political control. But he stumbled. While he was admitted at the hospital, the Covid-19 pandemic shifted its locus from China and Iran to the US and Europe, exposing the weaknesses and strengths of many countries, including Nepal.

Although China initially fumbled, it wasted no time in tackling the virus, which was first seen in Wuhan, allowing countries around the world several weeks to prepare. While countries like South Korea and Singapore displayed an ability to control the disease, many western countries failed, allowing the outbreak of Covid-19 to turn into a pandemic.

The contrast in the response of developed countries to the pandemic has once again exposed the critical linkages between capitalism, democracy and politics. It has also re-emphasised what is common knowledge—that the state matters. The characteristic features of a state matter even more.

The US is one of the most developed countries in the world and has the largest economy, but it has so far failed to put people first. Its response has been shackled by the needs of the capitalist economy and the interests of political leaders.

The case of US shows that prosperity, and capitalism, can be unwieldy and may not always serve its people when a crisis hits. Besides, growing inequality and the rise of big capitalist enterprises have pushed out a large number of people from accessing essential services and social protection.

On the contrary, China’s image after the coronavirus scare has been mixed. While its initial response was secretive and was criticised for limiting people’s freedom, its ability to tackle the pandemic and serve people has earned praise.

For a helpless Nepal, China’s capacity and a friendly neighbourhood policy offer hope, which in turn can permanently alter public perceptions about the US and China, two of the world’s superpowers. The US, in particular, is gradually losing its image as a model of democracy and development.

Such a shift in public perception can have significant impacts on Nepal’s political course. While the US has been providing sustained assistance to Nepal, especially in the health sector, such support has not been visible on a national scale. Now its fall from grace, amidst a great tragedy, could harm its international standing as well.

The pandemic could generate a regional response, particularly at the initiation of India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi. Such regional cooperation is based on the perception of immediate needs and interdependence of the countries in South Asia.

Covid-19 tests the ability of globalism and international cooperation. What’s more, they also highlight the trends of anti-globalism and the role of states in managing capitalism.

One of the reasons for the tension between nationalism and globalism in the US is the gradual shift in the locus of the base of production from the US to other places in the world. As capitalism’s movement across the globe generates insecurities among people, they turn to the state for protection and, sometimes, adopt narrow ideals of nationalism.

Such trends are already appearing in Nepal. For example, some parties and people are placing themselves on the wrong side of history by trying to cling to constructed identities like a unitary Hindu state. While a secular and federal state is inclusionary—the idea of a unitary Hindu state fails to include all communities and identities.

Capitalism, the rise of technology, and pandemics like Covid-19 will test the ability of Nepal to represent the interests of the people vis-a-vis capitalist or vested interests. The pandemic and its impact on the global economy is likely to be felt in Nepal, especially as it will affect remittance, tourism, foreign investments, and availability of jobs.

Although major political parties have championed the idea of democratic socialism, the state is consistently unable to represent the interests of citizens. We have a fascination for big and visible infrastructure development like the railway link between Kathmandu and Tibet. The government finds ideas of big banks and commercial ventures exciting but has fixed minimum threshold for FDI at nearly half-million US dollar.

Nepal needs to think small if it is to be sustainable. To create a sustainable economy, it should promote small and medium enterprises that are based on productivity. This is primarily because the rule of law processes are largely absent in big commercial sectors like trading, where profit is largely derived from extractive practices and corruption. These sectors weaken Nepal’s economic security and fail to generate employment.

But this idea of promoting small and medium enterprises is directly linked to the ability of the state to adopt new technologies (e.g., ridesharing, Facebook and technological integration) that will weaken the power of the state to control the power of the citizens.

In such a situation, as PM Oli tries to go back to work and maintain political control over the political and social process that is increasingly going out of control, Nepal will have to debate and talk about our ideas about the nation-state. Do we want the state to cater to capitalist interests or do we want to put the interests of the people? Do we want to be open to foreign direct investment and technology or do we want to protect the crony capitalists? Do we want to promote productivity-based growth or corruption-based profit?

These are some of the questions that the pandemic and growth of technology have raised in recent days.

Frequently asked questions about the coronavirus outbreak

UPDATED as of March 15, 2019

What is Covid-19?

Covid-19, short for coronavirus disease, is an illness caused by the coronavirus SARS-CoV-2, short for severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2. Common symptoms of the disease include fever, dry cough, fatigue, shortness of breath and breathing difficulties. In severe cases, infection can cause pneumonia, severe acute respiratory syndrome, kidney failure and even death.

How contagious is Covid-19?

Covid-19 can spread easily from person to person, especially in enclosed spaces. The virus can travel through the air in respiratory droplets produced when a sick person breathes, talks, coughs or sneezes. As the virus can also survive on plastic and steel surfaces for up to 72 hours and on cardboard for up to 24 hours, any contact with such surfaces can also spread the virus. Symptoms take between two to 14 days to appear, during which time the carrier is believed to be contagious.

Where did the virus come from?

The virus was first identified in Wuhan, China in late December. The coronavirus is a large family of viruses that is responsible for everything from the common cold to Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) and Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS). After an initial outbreak in Wuhan that spread across Hubei province, eventually infecting over 80,000 and killing more than 3,000, new infection rates in mainland China have dropped. However, the disease has since spread across the world at an alarming rate.

What is the current status of Covid-19?

The World Health Organisation has called the ongoing outbreak a “pandemic” and urged countries across the world to take precautionary measures. As of Sunday, Covid-19 had spread to 125 countries and infected more than 156,583 people with 5,947 deaths. In South Asia, India has reported the highest number of infections at 84, with two deaths. Nepal has so far reported just one case where the patient recovered.

How dangerous is the disease?

The mortality rate for Covid-19 is estimated to be 3.6 percent, but new studies have put the rate slightly higher at 5.7 percent. Although Covid-19 is not too dangerous to young healthy people, older individuals and those with immune-compromised systems are at greater risk of death. People with chronic medical conditions like heart disease, diabetes and lung disease, or those who’ve recently undergone serious medical procedures, are also at risk.

How do I keep myself safe?

The WHO advises that the most important thing you can do is wash your hands frequently with soap and water for at least 20 seconds or use hand sanitizers with at least 60 percent alcohol content. Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth with unclean hands. Clean and disinfect frequently used surfaces like your computers and phones. Avoid large crowds of people. Seek medical attention if symptoms persist for longer than a few days.

Is it time to panic?

No. The virus has miraculously not entered Nepal yet, except for one case in January. So far, no one else has tested positive for Covid-19 and the government has imposed travel restrictions to limit the spread of the virus. There is no need to begin stockpiling food, cooking gas or hand sanitizers. However, it is always prudent to take sensible precautions like the ones identified above.

This article was first published in The Kathmandu Post on March 16, 2020

Author: Ajaya Bhadra Khanal

Photo: Pixabay

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