Nepal has not witnessed a case of poliomyelitis, commonly known as polio or infantile paralysis, for the past six years. In most acute cases, polio can cause permanent muscle weakness, which might then result in premature death. This viral disease, which has been in existence for thousands of years, used to cripple and kill thousands of people, even as late as the 1980s.
In 1988, there were 350,000 polio cases reported from around the world. Nearly three decades later, in 2016, just 42 new cases were discovered. This drastic reduction in polio cases is the result of a concerted effort by UN agencies like the WHO and the UNICEF, in which they were amply supported by thousands of local health workers and volunteers, to vaccinate all children of high-risk areas.
The anti-polio campaign has been a resounding success in Nepal as well. But if health workers affiliated to six trade unions, including the unions of CPN-UML and Maoist (Unity Center), have their way, this dangerous disease could make a potent comeback in Nepal. On Saturday, they disrupted government vaccination drives in 15 most-risk districts. Some union members even took to Facebook to boast of their disruptive exploits.
Reportedly, the vaccination campaign was severely affected in 11 districts, as the government could not vaccinate even half of the target children population of 1.6 million.
Many of those left behind are being vaccinated as we go to press. Hopefully, all the targeted children will now be covered. But this incident also raises a troubling question: is the Nepali state so weak that it cannot punish even those who deliberately harm public health, the health of children at that? The new constitution guarantees the right to health of each and every Nepali citizen. And yet government health officials can openly blackmail the state by threatening to impinge on this sovereign right of the people. Who in their right mind obstructs immunization of children?
The only folks who have done so in places like Pakistan and Afghanistan were terrorists. The disgruntled Nepali health workers were apparently unhappy with some legal provisions regarding their promotions and deployments. But that in no way justifies what they did on Saturday. In a civilized society, all its members follow basic social decorum and there are limits they cannot cross, under any circumstances.
The health workers who obstructed the vaccination drive on Saturday crossed that Rubicon. If we are a functioning state, the only place these shamelessly self-serving health workers deserve to be in is a jail. For there can be no compromises with criminals, which they most certainly are for playing with the health and wellbeing of children. It is disheartening that major parties like UML and Maoists are sheltering and even encouraging these criminals. We expect better of our democratic parties. If they are true servants of the people, these parties should at once expel the errant health workers. The government must then file criminal cases against them. This is not a small issue and no one should try to trivialize it. A strong precedent must rather be set through harsh punishment for the offenders.