OPINION: Political facemask

KATHMANDU (The Kathmandu Post/ANN) – There is a section of society that is dangerously evoking a strange sense of nationalism amidst the Covid-19 pandemic.

Facemasks in Nepal have acquired a political meaning long before the emergence of the scary Covid-19. As someone who is allergic to dust and smoke, I have become a compulsive user of the facemask. I have no idea if for that reason, and for publishing views on it, I am at all considered an anti-establishmentarian who ‘exaggerates the pollution problem’. The facemask is thus a subject of burlesque and more importantly, a metaphor of policymakers' indifference to the hazards of pollution and its effect on health in Nepal.

Here, I want to recall one moment of revelation to me that happened way back in 1997 in Japan when I was researching to write a book on the Japanese monk Ekai Kawaguchi, which has since been published. For that, I visited places, climatic zones and worked in smelly old collections. As a result, I developed a severe asthma problem. I was intrigued when I met a doctor for treatment at the Tokyo University hospital. He advised me to use a facemask not only when I was handling books and documents, but surprisingly also even when I travelled in the city because he said 'the city is polluted'. When I disputed his theory saying 'how can such a blue and clean sky be considered polluted'? he said, ‘the smoke that a million cigarette smokers of Tokyo puff out daily keeps wafting in the air’. He added that he was reminding me of my responsibility towards my own health. One stark reminder that he gave still reverberates in my mind. He said, ‘health is a matter of tacit understanding between the government and the citizenry'. I deeply understand the message of the medico today when we are painfully struggling with the trust deficit between the government and the public in Nepal.

What alarms me more than anything else is the selfsame trust deficit. We have examples of government leaders for some reason interpreting comments about health hazards and pollution as personal criticisms. The mess the capital valley is in has become invisible to the administration. Most alarmingly, political cadres and party activists do not see the mess as a problem. A historical time of the Nepali state is being wasted in perennially creating political dust but not in settling it. This subject becomes more alarming when we have to brace for coronavirus.

The new coronavirus epidemic has pushed the world towards some kind of uncannily realised globalisation—that means sharing a common fate, perils and prosperity, as well as bearing its brunt. Economists have already warned that the world is heading towards recession. The very fabric of capitalism made with demand and supply nexus will stand disrupted. In such an eventuality, the national economic mechanism of Nepal that has already become weak due to, as Nepali economists say, mismanagement, the recovery process will be very difficult.

For want of a remedy, the world is relying on props that are often ignored and considered trifles like a facemask materially, and developing common sense and habits in addition to the changing methods of life. This brings us closer to the question of ethics that acquires new meaning as the challenges grow. Adventurers, heroes and heroines have been emerging here and there. A number of medical doctors and nurses have been tested positive for the coronavirus; some have become martyrs.

Politics as always has been relying on conspiracy theories keeping intact discussions about populism, human rights and so on. What has emerged out of the storm is wisdom—this battle is not only of science but also of conscience. How we approach this problem in Nepal has not yet become clear. A young medico named Navin Bhatta who has gone to Doti, his native place, to serve those people, who do not get a chance to see medical doctors, writes to me, ‘If coronavirus really comes to Nepal, the gravity it would create would not be bearable’.

We have not quite sorted out what it is that we have to do in the face of this challenge. That our response to this calamity has not taken any shape can be heard in conversations and jokes about it. At one recent gathering of writers, academics and even some media representatives, I met people who were hugging, shaking hands and pronouncing that no deadly virus can affect a Gorkhali, which was a little bizarre evocation of nationalism. But one other very human aspect of tackling the situation comes from people who want to see the results by evoking natural response to it. I was moved to read Dr Aruna Upreti's naturopathy savvy tips about it on Kantipur on March 7, 2020. Similarly, the notice issued by Dhangadhi advises people to use turmeric and garlic daily to acquire immunity. The approach may not be scientific, but the call has symbolic significance. It calls for people to be alert, maintain community spirit, and learn how to remain comfortable in isolation. It seems nothing has yet happened, and we hope will not happen.

An alert should be issued to the political parties, their government, the legislatures, the bureaucracy and the medical structures and fraternities. That may come in the form of questions: How are you prepared to tackle the coronavirus problem if it erupts? Will your political and leadership contestations stand in the way of your emergency works? Will you substitute your allegorical political masks with the preventive masks? Do you have any ideas about making up the trust deficits that you have created with the people? We cannot afford to repeat here the refrain in a Bob Dylan song—'the answer my friend is blowing in the wind’—which means you must prepare yourself in a manner that you never prepared yourself before.

But we all have responsibilities, too. They come through self-discipline, cooperation, and understanding, and also through a combination of awareness and compassion. This calamity has to be tackled locally, individually—even though it is a shared fate of humanity. For that reason, we should see what humanity can share. Because the sharing part paradoxically will be played prominently even though the pandemic requires everybody to move to smaller zones and spaces. That precisely measures our movement at the moment.

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