Nepal tries to form a new govt as its COVID-19 crisis deepens

May 13, 2021
Nepal Prime Minister K. P. Sharma Oli, seen at a public meeting, was removed from his position after losing a vote of confidence on Monday.
Nepal Prime Minister K. P. Sharma Oli, seen at a public meeting, was removed from his position after losing a vote of confidence on Monday.

KATHMANDU — Nepal has been thrown into political turmoil after the country's prime minister was forced to step down following public anger over his response to a deadly second wave of COVID-19.

K. P. Sharma Oli — who touted unproven coronavirus remedies and attended crowded events even as cases rose — was removed from his position after losing a vote of confidence on Monday.

Just a month ago, the Himalayan nation of 31 million people was reporting about 100 COVID-19 cases a day. On Tuesday, it reported 9,483 new cases and 225 virus-related fatalities, according to its Health Ministry — the highest single-day death toll since the pandemic began.

Some have linked the country's second wave to the outbreak in neighboring India, which began in mid-March. The two countries share a long, open land border that people easily travel back and forth across.

Scenes in India, of funeral pyres and people queuing outside hospitals, are being replicated in Nepal, where hospitals are running out of oxygen and turning away patients.

Critics say public complacency and government inaction likely worsened Nepal's coronavirus outbreak. While it might not have been possible to prevent a second wave, experts say the government could have done more to control it.

As the crisis developed, the government's key coalition partner, the Maoist Centre, withdrew its backing, prompting Oli to seek a parliamentary vote to prove he had enough support to remain in power.

Oli needed at least 136 votes in the 275-member House of Representatives to ensure a majority and save his government. But he only received 93 votes — 124 members voted against him.

Given Oli's failure to secure a vote of confidence, Nepal's President and ceremonial head of state Bidhya Devi Bhandari will now put out a call to form a new government.

Nepal's coronavirus cases began rising in early April, but the government was slow to take action, allowing mass religious festivals, large weddings and other public gatherings to continue.

On April 8, when daily new cases had already tripled, Oli said COVID-19 could be treated by gargling with guava leaves — adding to his ridiculed comments last year that Nepalis had stronger immune systems due to their daily intake of spices.

It wasn't until April 29, when daily cases had reached more than 4,800, that the government imposed a two-week lockdown on the capital, Kathmandu.

In May, authorities closed border crossings, ordered oxygen cylinders from overseas, built new health care facilities and banned all international flights. But by then it was too late.

The messaging from Oli and his administration has at times been unclear and contradictory. On May 8, Oli told CNN the COVID-19 situation in Nepal was "under control," insisting the government was taking appropriate action.

"We are taking very serious measures to control the situation to supply oxygens, to supply beds, to supply ICU beds," he said.

When asked about large events held in the country in recent weeks, he admitted "some mistakes" had been made, but said: "this should not be a political issue."

"People are not getting beds, people are not getting oxygen, people crying out for help," said Suraj Raj Pandey, a volunteer at Covid Connect Nepal, a volunteer-run website that connects patients with supplies and beds.

"And the executive head of this country comes up and says to the international community, 'Yeah, everything's fine, Nepal is normal, everything's under control,' while people are dying out in the streets."

Oli took a dramatically different tone two days later, in an opinion piece published in The Guardian newspaper on May 10, before the no confidence vote.

"Nepal's history is one of hardship and struggle, yet this pandemic is pushing even us to our limits," he wrote. "The number of infections is straining the healthcare system; it has become tough to provide patients with the hospital beds that they need."

Despite government efforts, "due to the constraints of resources and infrastructure, the pandemic is turning out to be an overwhelming burden," he wrote.

"I have, therefore, appealed to the international community to help us with vaccines, diagnostic tools, oxygen kits, critical care medicines and equipment, to support our efforts to save lives. Our urgent goal is to stop preventable deaths occurring."

Later that day, he was removed from his post. All the while, as Oli and his administration fell into chaos, Nepal has continued to drown under COVID-19 cases.

"It's a humanitarian crisis at the moment," said Eeda Rijal from volunteer group Covid Connect Nepal. "And we, working in the front line, we've seen that surge, and we don't understand why the government has not been able to see this."

In an interim order on Tuesday, Nepal's Supreme Court urged the government to set up a task force to direct the distribution of oxygen cylinders and other life-saving equipment.

The court said no Nepali should be deprived of medical treatment due to oxygen shortages, and that it was the government's responsibility to ensure supply and save lives.

A lockdown in the Kathmandu Valley -- home to around 2.5 million people -- has been extended until May 27, with residents advised not to go out unless necessary. Gatherings have been banned at party venues, and gatherings in private homes are capped at 10 people.

The ban on international flights has also been extended until May 31 — although two flights per week are allowed between Kathmandu and the Indian capital, New Delhi, under a "travel bubble" program, according to Nepal's Civil Aviation Authority. — CNN

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