Allow me to declare an interest: Bimala, my late wife and the mother of my daughter, was Nepalese. My son-in-law and therefore my grandchildren are Nepalese. I had the privilege of serving in the 7th Gurkha Rifles, and Nepal is the love of my life.
So you will see that I have a thousand compelling reasons to go to bat for Nepal.
What drives me at this moment in time is the parlous situation that the magnificent people of this stunningly beautiful country find themselves in as they face the ravages of Covid-19.
A succession of dysfunctional governments over past decades has deprived Nepal of a working health-care system.
The principal centers, such as the Kathmandu and Pokhara Valleys, and Biratnagar have public hospitals of distinctly variable quality, but there is no viable, functioning countrywide health system.
A polyglot patchwork of non-governmental organizations and missionary-funded hospitals are as adequate as the efforts of the Dutch boy with his finger in the dike.
The British Brigade of Gurkhas network does provide a comprehensive system of first-point-of-call health centers, and the Kadoorie Charitable Foundation also funds outlying medical posts.
But all these facilities are no more than band-aids in the face of the virus that is ravaging the country, especially in the Himalayan foothills.
Consider, for a moment, the failings of an advanced economy such as the UK to meet the demands of the virus and its struggle to provide sufficient personal protective equipment (PPE) for frontline staff, intensive-care (IC) beds and oxygen lines for a population that enjoys a universal health-care system.
Now imagine the same struggle in a country without such a system.
Then add in the complexity of a scattered population, a handful of urban centers and vast tracts of Himalayan mountains housing small communities, access to which often involves many days of trekking.
As if that were not enough of a problem, factor in systemic governmental corruption and incompetence, nepotism and a ruling political class that considers itself superior by reason of the caste into which its members were born.
For as long as I remember, Nepal has had an asymmetric relationship with India. The overwhelming majority of its doctors were trained in India. Whereas there are countless excellent Indian doctors of the highest skill and proficiency, all too often the arrogance that so many doctors have toward their patients bedevils the doctor-patient relationship.
Allied to caste superiority, it is a classic recipe for a dysfunctional response to the pandemic. And that is even before we talk about the shortage of PPE, oxygen, IC beds and the drugs essential to treat patients diagnosed with Covid-19 in any of its iterations.
None of this is news to those either involved in or concerned with the exigencies of Nepal as it faces the virus with little but a handful of offerings and prayers to stem the tsunami of infection.
Considered against its historical connection with Nepal, its second-oldest ally after Portugal, the United Kingdom’s response to the call for help is pusillanimity in spades.
Gurkhas constitute today, as they have done since 1815, a bedrock of committed loyalty, professionalism and fortitude to the British Army. They are blood brothers in every sense of that word.
The towns and villages of Nepal have been the recruiting bases for the British Gurkha regiments and it is these very towns and villages that are hardest hit in this pandemic.
Against this historical background, one would expect that the British government would adopt a Nelsonian “England expects” priority to the provision of the materials and services that Nepal needs, but such expectations would be sorely dashed.
I quote from the UK’s latest situation report:
“The Foreign and Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) continue to be engaged in identifying Nepal’s medical needs. Talks between the FCDO, Ministry of Health Nepal and Ambassador of Nepal UK continue. 2. Army Medical and Advisory Team (MAT) had a successful meeting with Nepal Army 2 Star Crisis Management Coordination Centre.”
Four words sum it up: “engaged,” “identifying,” “talks” and “meeting.” Talk, as the saying goes, is cheap and the current British government does not come any cheaper.
Cheapskate-in-chief Boris Johnson is a striking personification of the depths to which Britain has sunk.
Of the 1.92 million Covax vaccines to be supplied to Nepal, only 348,000 have been received. China has donated 800,000 doses.
A consignment of “essential medical supplies” from the UK was flown to Kathmandu and the beleaguered British ambassador is certainly talking the talk – she has my sympathy – but as with so much else, Johnson’s misfits do not give her the support she deserves, when it counts.
I fully concede that dealing with the Nepalese government is like being a balloon playing pass-the-parcel with a bunch of porcupines. They know the country needs aid desperately but are sensitive to the impression that overseas aid shows them up for their own inadequacy.
I fear that Johnson and his inept bunch of self-perpetuating sad sacks cannot be shamed into action, but that will not prevent me from trying.
Neville Sarony QC is a noted Hong Kong lawyer with more than 50 years at the Bar.