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Democracy First Responders: Nepal, Narayan Adhikari

COVID-19 threatens not only lives and livelihoods, but also governments and democratic institutions. The International Republican Institute (IRI) is profiling our partners and other leaders who have been the “first responders” in our global fight to protect and strengthen democracy. In this new series, #DemocracyFirstResponders, we spoke with an anti-corruption activist in Nepal, a journalist in Zimbabwe, a former government official in Georgia and others to discuss their efforts to prevent democratic backsliding in the time of COVID-19.

For the second episode of this series, our host Samuel Johannes spoke with Narayan Adhikari, Nepal’s Director of the Accountability Lab, an organization committed to countering disinformation, keeping citizens informed and providing governments with the information needed to make better decisions in the time of COVID-19.

You can listen to this conversation and others by subscribing to the Global Podcast on Soundcloud, Apple Podcasts, Google Play or wherever you get your podcasts. A transcript, edited for length and clarity, follows.

Samuel: So, Narayan, for members of our audience who are not aware of the situation in Nepal, could you just start off giving a broad overview of what the impact of coronavirus has been like for the average Nepalese citizen? What has the government response been like in Kathmandu and throughout the country?

Narayan: Thank you. I think this is a very bad situation, I would say. The whole country is locked down since [the] last two weeks. Though Nepal is a small country, however, the impact seems big. You may be hearing a sound from there, like the policeman [coming] in a van, informing [citizens] of how to take [precautions] [with] the virus and etc. So, the whole country is locked down. There’s a shortage of supplies, there’s a fear of being infected and there’s a lack of the appropriate information that people need. So, everything’s shut down, the schools shut down, the businesses shut down, the movement obviously shut down. The life is very, very quiet though. We don’t have [many] cases. Until now, it’s only nine confirmed positive cases, and one of the reasons is because we don’t have enough testing kits. So overall, the life is really, really in a pandemic situation.

Samuel: Is there a sense of like a lack of confidence in the healthcare infrastructure in Nepal?

Narayan: Absolutely. Our healthcare infrastructure has been very, very poor. [The] public health system in Nepal is not really well-managed, well-established. Though we have hospitals in every district, and the different parts of the country’s public health system is in a wide network, [the facilities] and the quality of the services is really, really low, with [a] lack of [infrastructure], [equipment] and [healthcare workers]. So as a result, the people are very, very afraid of … and even people just having flus and seasonal flus are afraid of going to [the] hospital. Many hospitals in different parts of the country, including the private hospitals, are refusing [to take people] with the fear of [corona], as these hospital[s] lack proper protective gear [for] the health workers and different frontline staff.

We don’t really have enough ventilators. We don’t really have enough ICU [intensive care unit] beds and so many other things that [are] needed, we don’t really have. So, I would say we have zero infrastructure investment [in] COVID. However, [the] government recently established several quarantine facilities in different parts of the countries where people coming from other countries, especially from India and [the] Gulf and Malaysia, [people] coming [from] there are putting [themselves] into quarantine and isolation.

Samuel: What are some of the other steps that the government has taken thus far in response to the outbreaks?

Narayan: I think for the government, for now, the priority is to [promote] the social distancing, the physical distancing. As a result, this lockdown has been very, very effective. However, only in the urban cities. Still in the rural areas, people seem to [be] moving from here and there, and people are still working on farms and so forth. [The other] response from the government side is to really make sure that there’s enough testing, labs are set up and there’s enough PPE [personal protective equipment] and other protective gear available for the healthcare workers. And also the [other] response [is to provide] supplies to the poor and wage workers who otherwise would not make their livelihoods. And at the same time, the government is also trying to work with companies and the [Nepalese] army to procure, buy stuff from other countries, mainly from China.

Samuel: Has there been much outreach to India as well, or is it primarily just China?

Narayan: Primarily from China because India has already said that they are not exporting any health-related supplies. So, the only option is China.

Note: Prior to our interview with Narayan, the Indian government had announced a ban on the export of certain medical equipment. However, since our interview, the Indian and Nepalese governments jointly announced efforts to cooperate on medical supplies related to COVID-19.

Samuel: So, sort of pivoting a little bit. Situations like coronavirus, although it is a bit of a novel situation, can become a catalyst for social conflicts. It’s ripe for misinformation. It’s ripe for sort of these deeply entrenched power dynamics to come to the head and be a point of friction again. How are you seeing these sort of things play out in Nepal now? And how are you looking to combat?

Narayan: I think this is a very, very important question and often when there is a situation like this, even right after the earthquake we had, we had issues [with] how people cope [with] each other and how one society [perceives] other societies. As there is a shortage of basic supplies, there’s a lack of mobility and if [the] government is not [more] efficient in supporting people when they are in need ... And also a lot of people, they’re stranded in the borders between India and Nepal. So they want to come [to] Nepal in this difficult period of time. However, [the] government has completely locked the borders, and they are not allowing [people] to come in. And on one hand, they are saying we want to come to Nepal, and we will be happy to be in the quarantine, but on the other hand, [the] government is saying that, “No, you cannot come in.”

The situations like those are creating much more tension and frustration on the citizens. And there’s another issue, in remote areas where [it’s difficult to provide] supplies to the people, people [have] already [begun] to demand their basic needs like food and medicines and water and [that] stuff. My guess is that when people are hungry or people are not getting enough support, there might be a time [when] people [defy] the government’s rules — that situation is difficult for the government to handle.

And in many [communities], they already ... The coronavirus, it’s also become a stigma if somebody is coming from outside, let’s say from India or from [the] Gulf countries where we have a lot of migrant workers. They are not [being treated] well and people are looking at them as a sort of carrier, a vehicle for transmitting [the] disease. They begin to discriminate [against] those people, and people coming from outside the [country] are feeling bad. It’s creating more psychological trauma on them.

Samuel: What are some of the things that citizens are doing to break down these barriers, to bridge connections between people and sort of reduce this friction.

Narayan: I think in various parts of the country, different people are trying different things. First, the active civil society on the ground and youth groups and media including [the] radio and all, first is they are trying to debunk rumors and fake news and misinformation. And second, they are also trying to support people [by] supplying basic needs like food and water and those kinds of things. But in some places, people are also working with the local governments hand in hand, providing more support in information disseminations and also providing [for] other healthcare facilities, etc.

Samuel: My colleague who connected me with you told me a little bit about the Coronavirus CivActs Campaign. Could you tell me a little bit about this?

Narayan: Oh, sure. Thank you. The Civic Acts is what we call a feedback model that’s supporting local governance and government to make decisions based on evidence. We’ve been doing this for five years, right after the earthquake. We quickly mobilize our networks in different parts of the countries to gather rumors, concerns and questions from the communities and eliminate information gaps between [the] government, media, CSOs [civil society organizations] and the citizens. We know that during [a] pandemic or any kind of disaster, rumors can spread anytime, and these rumors create confusion and chaos. It might also create some kind of social violence, etc. So through the Civic Acts Campaign, we are debunking rumors, but at the same time mobilizing our networks and the communities, including [radio], local civil society leaders, the entrepreneurs, the filmmakers and theater artists, so that they help in providing the right information.

We are also connecting the suppliers, the service providers, with the people who need support. For example, we are working with a lot of migrant related organizations who can help in providing [the] right information to the migrant workers. But at the same time, other facilities like what services that are available, what are their rights and entitlements and how to get those services and et cetera. So, we’re basically connecting people, citizens and CSOs and the media, so that everyone can get connected and get help from each other.

Samuel: And this is a model that developed out of the experience following the earthquake in 2015?

Narayan: Absolutely, yeah. In 2015, there was a sudden accident, so we didn’t know how to operate ourselves. So, we quickly mobilized our network. We went to the affected areas and listened to the people and supplied this information to the humanitarian organizations and government. We found that worked really, really well in terms of accessing the needs of the people. So here, I think it’s again, it’s quite a similar situation. However, this one is affecting the whole country. The earthquake was affecting only certain part[s] of the [country], but now in this case, the whole country is shut down. We are still mobilizing our network to really mobilize efforts collectively so that at least people, wherever they are, [are] well-informed, empowered and engaged with the people they are concerned with.

Samuel: A well-informed population is essential for an effective response. Looking ahead, I think us in the democracy and governance world, we’re looking at this as sort of ... This is a paradigm shift. This is both something on a shorter timeline that, how do we respond to people’s immediate needs as democracies. But then this is also a broader question of how do democracies respond in the longer term. I think we’re going to see a pendulum shift towards stronger executives. There’s going to be an appetite for stronger, centralized government in the wake of all this. There’s always sort of been that tendency. Are you concerned about that sort of trend in Nepal as well?

Narayan: No, I think every disaster or situation like this, every [chaotic] situation could become an opportunity for people who want to manipulate [it for] their [own] interests. We already have seen some symptoms of corruption  [around] the purchasing [of] medical equipment and other supplies from China. As a result, there was a delay in [the] purchase of the supplies so the doctors and [healthcare] workers could have already [gotten] the protective gear and [to motivate] them so they could go and work in the hospitals.

We could already have [gotten] very high-quality equipment. So the protective equipment that we got from China, a lot of them have already [been] disqualified and [were] not [up to] WHO [World Health Organization] standard. So as a result, the government has to scrap the contract, the agreement, with the private companies. And now, they have given this task to the [Nepalese] army, which I think as a democratic country, if we begin to give more responsibility to [the] army to purchase things — it’s not a good sign. It shows that the government is not really able to handle this situation.

[The other thing] is that though we have a very strong government, [a] very stable, strong government [led] by [the] Nepal Communist Party, the government is not really willing to incorporate ideas from civil society, incorporate ideas from the opposition parties. So, they are working in silos. It’s okay — they are strong, they’re able, they are doing what they’re doing best, we are okay. People are locked in, so people will [in] any way support the efforts of the government, but the government is not really doing things effectively.

And there’s another thing that I would also like to mention. [Many] countries like [the] USA and the European countries, and I would say the democratic countries, are facing their own challenges and they’re now busy in managing their own crisis. China, [on the] other hand, seems more relaxed and [is] expanding their wings, and Nepal obviously [has] no choice at the moment — to get support from China [or not], including whatever support or grants or loans or free equipment. There is no choice, so we need to get the materials from there.

However, we also need to be careful in terms of what we want to compromise. We need to be cautious, we need to be careful [that] the process will promote our democracy. So, I think at this time, as [the] government is trying to do stuff on their own, people on the other hand are demanding more transparency and accountability and information around this process. Hiding information is one of the [biggest] issues at the moment. One month [ago], when [the] government started [its] response, [it] was not clear enough and was not fully transparent, and everything was chaos.

Even until today, we don’t know how much money they are spending on [PPE] and whether those materials are going to come here and how they’re going to distribute and what quality [they will be] and which company China is going to provide [them to]. I think we need supplies, we need materials at this difficult period of time. We cannot really compromise the [lives] of the people. However, we cannot have the luxury of [an] ongoing pandemic. People are obviously giving [the] benefit of [the] doubt to the government, but at the same time they are demanding very high transparency and accountability.

Samuel: The purchase of PPE, is this something that the Civic Acts Campaign focuses on? This sort of information as well?

Narayan: Yeah, we try. We try, however it’s getting [that] information [that] is very difficult. So what we do is, we track rumors and confusion and questions. For example, there was one big rumor or confusion around the quality of the materials that were brought from China. And [there are] people who are saying that all [the] PPE brought from China will be sent back to China. And then we couldn’t find the real facts around that. We don’t even know how many kits or how many PPE [are] being disqualified. So yeah, we are trying to get [that] information, but it is [very], very difficult. So, we do something called follow the money. We are also tracking the funding from the government and funding from other international organizations. This purchasing just started [last] week, so we are hoping that we are going to get more information and we’ll be able to communicate to the communities for more discussion and dialogue.

Samuel: So I have to ask, there is sort of a perception that the youth are sort of disengaged and they’re not interested in politics and they would rather play video games all the time. What sort of response have you seen from the youth in Nepal? Have you seen them involved perhaps in the work that you’re doing with Civic Acts? Have you seen them volunteering to deliver groceries to people, this sort of thing? What sort of work have the youth done?

Narayan: You can see there’s a good amount of engagement from the young people. However, the young people and also the youth organizers are still awaiting the government[’s] response. So, a lot of independent organizations like us and the people who want to support [the] government [are] demanding [involvement] in the response process. So, people are sending appeal[s] to the prime minister and different ministries. “We want to support you,” and the government needs to call for volunteers. These organization[s], including the political youth [organizations], are being very active in their communities [by] providing information, supplying foods and other stuff.

Compared to [the] last earthquake, we don’t see much [involvement] on the ground. It’s maybe because of the lockdown. And now, I think more than ever, I think this online community is being very, very active. So, it’s maybe [that] there [aren’t any] other options at the moment, [so] people cannot do much physically. So, the online campaigns are [doing] really, really well. People are using videos, and they’re doing a lot of online conferencing and sharing ideas and providing suggestions and feedback [in] the comments, trying to track information around [the] purchase of the PPE.

You can see on Twitter and WhatsApp, people are talking a lot about the government's inability to purchase materials on time, distributing it to the districts and other villages, etc. So, we have active youth communities. However, they are also [limited] in certain areas and not being [very] effective. And at this point, everybody’s hoping that [the] government will come, will invite... And like in [the] UK and New York, the governor is inviting [people all the] time, “Please come and help us. Please volunteer,” and “We need you.” We don’t have the government doing such things yet.

Samuel: I think you do raise a good point, that really these large tech platforms is where we're seeing the majority of the activity — not just youth, but everybody really, and so that is encouraging in a way.

Narayan: Yeah.

Samuel: Last sort of question to wrap it up. In this situation, we’re all learning from each other. This is a novel experience where we’re all sort of figuring out the situations or the way forward together. And I always like to direct these conversations by asking, if there’s one thing that you could teach us, our audience is primarily in the United States for this conversation, what would that be?

Narayan: I think one of the things that we all need to learn is, we need to listen much [more to what’s happening on] the ground — getting that real voice, the real pictures. What’s going on [on] the ground is really, really important while we’re thinking of a response. More than ever, I think this is the time to really also collaborate and share your experience[s], the knowledge and the resource[s] you have, and also be flexible on your operations and the way that you’ve been doing your operation[s]. You really need to be adaptive and be really, really flexible and be ready to take action[s] that are very useful and relevant to the community at this stage.

The second thing that I would also urge to everyone is [that] though we have a lot of complaints and grievances towards our government, at the end of the day when there is a pandemic like this, the only agency or organization we need to trust, we need to work and we need to support is the government. So, we need to listen [to] our government. We need to listen and support, but at the same time, as aware and conscious citizens, [as] critical citizens, we need to also keep raising [our] voices or providing feedback.

Samuel: I think that’s a great note to end on. Narayan, thank you so much for speaking with me today.

Narayan: Thank you.