The most important task for the government right now is to distribute the available vaccines to the rural areas

The government seems to be totally unprepared to deal with the new variant of the coronavirus – Omicron – even as it affects many states in India. A surge in infections in India can have a direct impact on Nepal as well because of the open border and poor surveillance system at the entry points. Since Nepal started inoculating its people with anti-COV- ID-19 vaccines, purchased or donated by various countries and donor agencies, in January, less than half of the total population – 131,75,597 – has received a single dose of the vaccines while only 99,96, 380 people have received double doses so far. The government's target of immunising all the population, including children between 12 and 18 years of age, by mid-April will not be met should the present inoculation drive continue unchanged. As of now, the government has received 40 million doses of vaccines from various sources. Health officials at the Ministry of Health and Population estimate that it would require at least 75 million doses of vaccines if the entire population were to be fully inoculated by mid-April, the deadline set by the government. The health ministry officials are also circulating conflicting data about the stocks of the vaccines.

The most worrisome part is that the government has not been able to despatch vaccines to the hilly and mountainous regions, which have already been covered with snow, a situation that will pose serious problems to the vaccination campaign. While these regions are facing a short supply of vaccines, the stores in the federal capital and provinces are being overwhelmed by vaccine stocks. Some independent health experts have also raised questions about the effectiveness of the VeroCell vaccine brought or purchased from China. But the common people have been administered with it as they do not have another option. The government needs to find another option if the VeroCell seems to be ineffective. The health ministry has also not come up with a well-thoughtout plan of inoculating children with anti-COVID vaccines though it announced to do so last week.

The government should also come up with a plan to give a third vaccine dose to all its people to keep the Omicron variant at bay. It is not clear when the government will start immunising the elderly, frontline health workers, doctors and nurses who provide health services to the COVID infected people with the third dose. Public health experts believe that the booster shots should be given to those people after three or five years, only after giving them the third dose. The most important task for the government right now is to distribute the available vaccines to the rural areas, where vaccine distribution is still slow. At the same time, the government should immediately start vaccinating children aged 12-18 so that they can be saved from other variants of the coronavirus, which have already gripped other countries, including India. The children should be vaccinated by setting up camps in all schools to see to it that nobody is left behind. It should also be borne in mind that no vaccine in the stores should go to waste as has recently happened in Nigeria, where authorities said they had to destroy one million doses of vaccines for want of proper distribution.

Fertiliser shortage

Fertiliser shortage is a perennial problem, one that the country's farmers have been facing for decades.

Efforts to build a fertiliser industry in the country have been shelved time and again, forcing it to import all of its needs. With paddy harvesting over, it is now the season for wheat, but there is an acute shortage of fertiliser, and if it is available, it is being sold at exorbitant prices. Sarlahi farmers are up in arms because the local dealers are selling the government-subsidised urea for Rs 1,200 and DAP (Diammonium phosphate) at Rs 3,500 per sack, while they were provided the fertilisers at Rs 815 and Rs 2,265 per sack respectively.

How do you expect agriculture to get a boost when farm inputs are not available in time or they have to be bought in the black market? Worse still, what guarantee is there that the farmers will be paid for what they produce, as has been the case with sugarcane in Sarlahi and the adjoining districts? Unless the government gears up to solve the farmers' problem, we will again be seeing a shortage of fertilisers when the paddy plantation time arrives in June. No wonder Nepal must import large quantities of food, including rice, annually.

A version of this article appears in the print on December 28, 2021, of The Himalayan Times.