Society’s handling of the pandemic reflects on the government’s performance.
When I was younger, my cousins with high-income, high-worth parents found it much easier to ask me, who was working, for money rather than talk to their parents. The thought never crossed them that the gold and cash being locked up could actually be used when there was a crisis. We have also witnessed family members with good assets and income reach out to others when there is money needed for a major illness.
This sort of thought process also emerged during the pandemic, wherein Nepalis, myself included, found it easier to sign petitions and make pleas to foreign governments, institutions and friends rather than to pressure our own government to fight the pandemic with our own funds. These introspections bring in interesting facets of society that find it very difficult to manage crises. There are four key learnings.
We trust citizen groups more than the government
We have very little trust in our government; especially at this time when the people leading the government have been engaged in political parleys. We accept a leader not because he is a great manager but because there are no alternatives to support. Therefore, we rely on volunteer groups. With 70 percent of the population being under 35—a constituency hardly represented in political leadership—such groups emerge.
Even after the Gorkha earthquakes, there was little hope from the government; it was the youth volunteer groups that emerged as the people providing relief and reaching places where governments never could reach. Blair Glencorse, the founder of Accountability Lab, and I penned an opinion essay in The New York Times about how the youth groups questioned the status quo and provided much-needed solutions. This time, when the pandemic started consuming people as we have never seen in our lifetime in Nepal, a new set of groups emerged. The politicians see these groups as potentials that can be influenced by the opposition members and benefit, therefore create red tape measures to make volunteering difficult. During the earthquakes, it was about not allowing Nepali organisations to receive money but to channel donations to the PM Relief Fund. This time, it was about creating difficulties the import of oxygen or other necessities. I keep wondering why the government can’t ride on these volunteer efforts.
Philanthropy is complicated
I have written a lot on people who find it easier to engage in donations or philanthropy without accountability rather than work with organisations that want to be transparent and are purely voluntary. People do not mind giving money for a cause, especially religious ones, without knowing where the money will lead to. But, at the same time, they find it difficult to even contribute anonymously to people who are doing good work. Support usually entails the provisioning of photo-ops.
So, philanthropy without PR opportunities in the time of social media and the internet does not make sense for many. The mindset of the Nepali investors and business people have also not changed.As Krishna Acharya posed in Kantipur: How can Nepal have over 550 businesses that make over Rs1 billion a year but find very few organisations willing to help? Nepal has many Rupee billionaires, but then how many do really believe in philanthropy with accountability?
Where are the social organisations with networks?
When the oxygen distribution situation was getting desperate, a friend from the US was suggesting that we use the Nepal Red Cross network. There was one message on the website on Covid-19 on May 12, after the Happy New Year message of April 13. It reminded us of the Nepal Society for Earthquake Technology going into hiding after the earthquake to emerge much later. Similarly, social organisations like Rotary and Lions Club that have a network of influential people across Nepal seem to also not be able to rise up to the occasion.
I received a call from a person in dire need from Butwal, and she asked me where my Rotary club was in this hour of emergency. He questioned me about how these clubs and societies can get elected officials and bureaucrats at their installation programmes and social events, but cannot get them together when we need them the most. There are no answers to these questions; our social organisations are designed to move from one election to the other without much thought put to social and humanitarian causes.
Management is not an inherent skill
Management skills will not just emerge in a crisis. When we cannot even manage well functioning homes and communities, with due consideration to choice and well being, it is too much to expect everything to fit into place automatically. Perhaps, the biggest lesson for me during this pandemic—observing countries and communities that have kept mass transmission and deaths at bay—is that we need to learn how to manage our daily lives better. Only then will we be prepared to tackle the next emergency as a unit that works for the individual as well as the whole.