Without having modern storage facilities in place, it is not possible to administer vaccines in all the regions

Nepal will have immunised its eligible population aged 12 and above by mid-April next year if everything goes according to the government's plan.

Nepal was the first country in South Asia to start the vaccination campaign that began in the third week of January with 1 million doses of AstraZeneca vaccine donated by India. So far, as per the Ministry of Health and Population, 44 per cent of the country's adults has received at least one dose and 37.5 per cent have received the double dose of the anti-COVID-19 vaccine in the 10-month period. So far, only people above 18 years of age have received the vaccines. But the government has a plan to immunise people between 12 and 17 years once enough doses of vaccines are available. Around 50 per cent of the total population would have already received double doses of the vaccines against COVID-19 had India not abruptly stopped supplies for which payment had already been made to the manufacturing firm, citing a devastating surge of the coronavirus there in April. Health Minister Birodh Khatiwada has said his ministry has already administered about 22 million doses and another 30 million doses of vaccines would arrive in the next few months. The ministry is planning to hire more workers and set up additional vaccination centres even in remote areas.

As the vaccine producing countries have been supplying enough vaccines all over the world, there is no problem in procuring the vaccines. A cabinet meeting approved a proposal to purchase 6 million doses of Pfizer vaccine and 4 million doses of Moderna vaccine from the USA. Another 6 million vaccines are also being procured from China under a non-disclosure purchase deal reached earlier. The main problem the ministry is facing right now is the proper distribution of procured and donated vaccines to every nook and corner of the country, including the remote mountain areas. Currently, Nepal is receiving or procuring anti-COVID vaccines from VeroCell, AstraZeneca, Pfizer and Moderna.

Even as the government has accorded top priority to controlling the spread of COVID-19, it has failed to make necessary preparations, including building modern storage facilities, in all the seven provinces, for the distribution of the vaccines. Without having sophisticated storage facilities in place, it is not possible to administer vaccines in all the regions. The government, for example, had awarded a contract to build a sophisticated storage facility at Teku two years ago. But the concerned contractor has not even laid the foundation stone till date. Although the physical infrastructures have been built outside Kathmandu, no cold chain has been installed yet. All the vaccine producing companies are ready to provide vaccines to Nepal, but the vaccination campaign has not taken the desired momentum due to lack of storage facilities, which are essential to maintain the required temperature for the procured vaccines.

The government should swing into prompt action to build modern storage centres and also take legal action against those contractors and government employees, who kept the files pending for several months without giving approval for the construction of these facilities.

Viable solution

The government's decision to halt projects and programmes carried out by the user committees is welcome. Although, theoretically, a project implemented by a user committee would seem ideal, in practice this has not happened, resulting in a lot of anomalies. The 57th and 58th reports of the Auditor General had suggested in good faith that the government allow the user committees to engage in construction, operation and maintenance of development activities through the provision of social audit and hearing to ensure their quality and timely completion.

However, the works carried out by the user committees were not found effective. Instead they had resulted in a lot of irregularities due to collusion between the user groups and contractors.

The government must come up with a mechanism that would involve the user committee in the development projects while ensuring quality work with enough provisions to see that there is little room for embezzling funds during the procurement process and actual construction. We might see better results if political cadres were kept out of the consumer committees, one reason behind the growing irregularities in projects carried out at the local level.

A version of this article appears in the print on November 12, 2021, of The Himalayan Times.