Remarks by Kul Chandra Gautam· at Nepal and the World: NEF-Talk Event
Nepal Economic Forum & Institute of South Asian Studies – NUS
Kathmandu, 11 November 2021
During the past two years, the COVID-19 pandemic has dominated all our lives in Nepal and the world. But COVID is only one among four pandemics facing Nepal and the world today.
A pandemic is defined as a dangerous disease or a condition that occurs over a wide geographic area across many countries and continents that causes large-scale disease, death, social disruption, economic loss, and general hardship. Besides COVID-19, there are three other phenomena that meet this definition of a pandemic. Those are – the specter of climate change, growing inequality in the world, and bad governance. All these four pandemics are mutually reinforcing.
As we heard at the COP-26 conference in Glasgow, and as we have experienced right here in Nepal, climate change and global warming are causing unseasonal rains, floods, droughts, and disease, that leave an impact on our human habitat, food systems, health, education, and livelihoods of millions of people.
Growing inequality of income, wealth and assets has also become a pandemic-like universal phenomenon. COVID-19 has exacerbated it. Millions of people have become poorer because of COVID. But COVID-19 has also been a windfall for many billionaires who have become multi-billionaires.
The economic stimulus and increased demand for diagnostic tests, PPE, oxygen, vaccines and medications, have made the owners, shareholders and brokers of pharmaceutical and biotech industries filthy rich. Dozens of executives of such industries in China, India, Canada, Germany & USA became COVID billionaires.
Last year, at the height of the COVID-19 crisis, we saw a record high number of 500 new billionaires added to the list of already more than 2,000 billionaires in the world. And 5 million more people were added to the list of over 50 million millionaires in the world, including dozens here in Nepal. The revelations we saw in the Panama and Pandora papers, were just the tip of the iceberg.
Add to all of this, the vaccine inequity –less than 7 percent of people in Africa are fully vaccinated, while more than 70 percent are vaccinated in the OECD countries. The big talk of treating COVID-19 vaccines as global public goods, became almost a farce as many rich countries hoarded more vaccines than they needed, while the poor countries waited for their leftovers.
And how about bad governance as a pandemic?
The COVID-19 crisis has led to many authoritarian leaders, and even some democratically elected ones –imposing all kinds of harsh restrictions and violating people’s human rights. In the name of public health, many governments are using brute force to crush opponents, to settle scores, and restrict freedom of the press. According to Freedom House and Reporters without Borders, there has been a steady decline in democratic freedoms around the world.
As we are learning the hard way, tackling one pandemic is tough enough. Tackling all four pandemics simultaneously is an unprecedented challenge of our times.
But tackle them we must.
The rewards of doing so will unleash a virtuous cycle of building a better future for our children and grandchildren. And failing to do so will bring unprecedented gloom and doom for humanity. So, what should be done?
Sadly, there are no magic formulas or simple solutions.
But there are solid recommendations to tackle each of these four pandemics proposed by high level commissions of eminent personalities that await serious political commitment by world leaders.
At the global level, to tackle COVID-19, The Independent Panel on Pandemic Preparedness and Response, co-chaired by former Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and former New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark has come up with 7 major systemic recommendations to stop future outbreaks of infectious disease from becoming catastrophic pandemics.
We don’t have the time today for me to elaborate those recommendations.
I would only say this: Let us just follow the 7 main recommendations of that Panel, which provides a detailed roadmap to prevent and cope with future pandemics.
At the national level, here in Nepal, we have learned many lessons on how to handle or mishandle a pandemic.
Some of the key lessons include:
- Build a much stronger and more responsive health system;
- Ensure that the whole of government, not just the Ministry of Health, is mobilized in times of pandemics;
- When I say the whole of government, I want to specifically emphasize the need to mobilize our 100,000 strong Nepal Army more effectively to help tackle pandemics and other disasters, as human security is the foundation for national security.
- While focusing on pandemics, let us not neglect routine health services, such as childhood immunization, maternal health, nutrition and sanitation which cause far higher mortality and morbidity on a regular basis than the pandemic;
- and finally, let us ensure that the education of children is not unduly or inequitably disrupted over a prolonged period
Turning to the pandemic of climate change, at the global level, what is needed is to honestly honor the commitments of the 2015 Paris Accords and whatever comes out of COP-26 that ends in Glasgow today.
The world’s best minds have worked on these issues taking account of the latest scientific evidence as well as political realities.
There is no need for second-guessing their recommendations, other than to take heed of the voices, views and aspirations of the younger generation who have shown great courage and leadership in what they rightly call the climate justice movement.
In the case of Nepal, it is true but rather trite to say that Nepal suffers greatly from the impact of global warming although our global carbon footprint is negligible. But that attitude of blaming others and playing victim is a lazy response. While we have no control over what the rest of the world does, we must take responsibility for what we ourselves can and must do.
It is good that our Prime Minister committed in Glasgow that Nepal aims to reach net zero emission by 2045. But I would urge us to be even more ambitious and specific.
Except for firewood, all our fossil fuels – petrol, diesel, LP gas are all imported. Why can’t we switch from fossil fuels to electric vehicles, electric cooking stoves, electric heating, and cooling systems in a more aggressive and determined manner?
I commend our Minister of Energy who is encouraging us to do so. But here again, I would urge a whole of the government’s commitment for an accelerated electrification of our transport, industry, and domestic fuel consumption. And let us do so fast and furiously before Nepal’s notorious cartels and syndicates conspire to thwart such a plan.
On combating inequality, there again are numerous proposals by organizations ranging from the UN to OECD, and scholars like Thomas Picketty, Joseph Stiglitz and many others. Among the most compelling reports with specific recommendations to drastically reduce inequality, I particularly commend the ones from OXFAM.
Every year for the past 10 years, OXFAM has presented at the World Economic Forum in Davos, shocking statistics of growing and grotesque inequality in the world – along with very specific recommendations to tackle it. Its latest report on the “Inequality Virus” contains a roadmap for tackling the pandemic by ending extreme inequality and providing essential services for all. OXFAM has also produced a report on “Fighting Inequality in Nepal…”. It recommends several steps to tackle inequality and put Nepal on track for a more prosperous future. But given our culture of cartels and syndicates, patronized by political parties in virtually every sector in Nepal, I do not see the gap between the rich and the poor narrowing in the foreseeable future.
On the contrary, I see the gap growing.
The most we can hope for in the short-term is to protect the poor from further impoverishment through investment in better-quality universal health care and education, gainful employment at home and abroad, and some measure of social protection. In the long-term, ensuring good governance remains the essential foundation for reducing inequality through targeted macroeconomic and social policies, more progressive taxation, and pro-poor economic growth.
For far too long in Nepal, we have sought ideological solutions to our development challenges through multiple political revolutions. In the past seven decades, we have tried all forms of governments and ideologies. And nothing seems to work.
Perhaps the time has come for us to forget ideologies – and follow common sense. And learn from the pragmatic experience and lessons from some of our more successful Southeast Asian neighbours.
To do that, we need to turn to our younger generation – the digital generation – not mesmerized by ideological slogans of their elders but increasingly connected to the rest of the world. They will show us how to harness the positive power of globalization for their own growth and that of our nation.
Let me conclude by referring to Sujeev Shakya’s excellent book “Unleashing the Vajra” in which you hit the nail on the head when you speak about the need for social transformation – not through political revolutions, but by inculcating more ethical and egalitarian values in the hearts and minds of our children from their tender young age.
Indeed, the practice of good governance must start from our own homes by inculcating a sense of social responsibility and ethical behaviour in our daily lives that our children can emulate.
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