Diplomatic efforts must be stepped up to acquire the vaccines at the lowest cost possible at the G2G level

When Nepal launched its vaccination drive in January, becoming one of the first nations in the world to do so, the government was optimistic about immunising 72 per cent of the population aged 14 years and above within three months, or April end. Come June, and less than 2.5 per cent of the targeted population has been fully vaccinated.

Vaccine stocks have run out, with more than a million people who received the first shot of the India-made Covishield unable to get their booster dose. The government has been running from pillar to post to secure the needed amount of vaccines, while President Bidhya Devi Bhandari has taken the initiative to directly request the heads of states for vaccine support. Her diplomatic efforts have paid off, with her Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, announcing a gift of 1 million China-made vaccines last week, on top of the 800,000 doses Beijing provided in March. Her Indian counterpart apart, President Bhandari has also written to UK's Queen Elizabeth, US President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin for the supply of COVID-19 vaccines.

Time is running out to vaccinate the maximum number of eligible population at the earliest. Although the number of fresh infections is starting to climb down, it is largely due to the prohibitory orders that have been clamped in nearly all the districts of the country. Once the orders are lifted, we could again see a surge in cases.

So to achieve herd immunity, it is necessary to vaccinate the targeted 22 million people. However, so far, only 687,000 people have received their second booster shot. At least another 500,000 people can expect to be fully immunised in the next one month with the 1 million vaccine doses arriving from China on Wednesday. Frustration runs high among those who are unable to receive the Covishield second dose, as the vaccines for which Nepal had already paid for have failed to arrive with Indian putting a ban on all exports following a surge in coronavirus cases there. The government must, therefore, allay the fears of the people by telling them exactly what they could do or if there are alternatives should the Covishield vaccines fail to arrive anytime soon.

Since January, Nepal has received free vaccines from India and China and under the COVAX Facility of the UN. However, vaccine grants from other sources are unlikely to be forthcoming as is evident from the aid consignments sent by different governments in response to Nepal's appeal for help to cope with the recent surge in COVID cases. What was conspicuously missing in the aid packages were vaccines that the government has been desperately trying to secure.

Thus, diplomatic efforts must be stepped up to procure the vaccines from the manufacturing countries at the lowest cost possible, preferably through a government-to-government deal without the involvement of middle men. In the budget for Fiscal Year 2021-22 unveiled on Saturday, the government has set aside Rs 26.75 billion for the ongoing vaccination programme, which is no paltry sum. Since resource is not a problem, the real test of the government's diplomatic skills will now be on how soon it can acquire all its vaccine needs at the earliest.

Wrong decision

With Finance Minister Bishnu Poudel allowing the export of river-based products – stones, pebbles and sand – through the budget speech on May 29, illegal mining of such products is likely to grow in the future. Under the guise of reducing the budget deficit, the government has lifted the ban on their export. The government had imposed a ban on exporting river-based products seven years ago to control their over extraction from the Chure-Bhavar region, which is a very fragile mountain range. Studies have shown that over exploitation of these products from the Chure-Bhavar range will pose a serious threat to the Tarai plains, the food basket of the country.

Flash floods in the Tarai region and landslides in the fragile mountain region can result in desertification of the plain region.

It was a wrong decision of the government to lift the ban on exports of river-based products. We cannot protect our mountains if we allow the export of stones and sands, which are in high demand in India and Bangladesh. At a time when we have not been able to stop the illegal mining of these materials, it would be even more disastrous should the government allow their export to neighbouring countries.

A version of this article appears in the print on June 2, 2021, of The Himalayan Times.