ARE we ready for coronavirus?
Inevitability carries its own burden. Today there are six known and officially identified patients of coronavirus. There will be more, of that there can be no doubt. But how many more? And how quickly? We have, it seems, returned to an age when there are more questions than answers.
This is scary.
And yet, for once, there is less of a scare in Pakistan than the rest of the world. For now at least, we seem to be patting ourselves on the back for a job well done in containing the spread of coronavirus. The logic peddled by the government — wrapped of course inside a boast — is that despite sharing borders with China and Iran, we still only have six patients. So that’s good. Right?
Perhaps. On the face of it our society is putting up a brave face. Sure, there is a run on masks and hand sanitisers, and yes an odd wedding here and there is being cancelled, but overall, collectively, we are still swaying to the beat of normalcy. There is a reason. The government is not preparing us for what could possibly lie ahead, and it is not communicating how it plans to deal with the crisis if it amplifies in the coming weeks and months. Some may call this bravado, others may term it denial while yet some others may describe it as realistic fatalism, but the fact remains that the government’s response is not matching the magnitude of the expected challenge.
The prime minister must provide leadership when it is needed most. It is needed most now.
Consider the following: global infections are over 100,000. In the US, the death toll from coronavirus has reached 12, South Korea reported 518 fresh cases just on Friday, Netherlands reported its first fatality while a senior Iranian diplomat died after being infected, with the death toll in Iran now 124. Stock markets are getting a battering and the aviation industry faces one of its worst crisis in recent history. The global GDP is predicted to take a hit and growth will start slowing down. In Japan, the prime minister is getting a drubbing by public opinion for not being proactive on coronavirus while American president Donald Trump is accused of mishandling the issue by giving inaccurate statements and assessments. Governments are allocating whopping budgets for efforts to manage the crisis and bracing for tougher days ahead.
Meetings and more meetings followed by consultations leading to deliberations that ultimately shape up into some activity that is showcased as the government’s course of action. But we have only six confirmed cases, you might say. True. The situation could have been worse — far worse. China being the epicenter of coronavirus and Iran being one of the worst hit, and both being our neighbours with large number of Pakistanis travelling to and from both these countries — yes of course Pakistan was expected to have been hit real hard by the virus. The government did take some swift measures. Travellers checked at points of entry, hospitals dedicated for infected patients, borders sealed and people quarantined, all these measures certainly helped to curtail the spread of the infection. And that’s where we stand today.
But there is a problem. Today in Pakistan, coronavirus is being dealt as an administrative issue and not what it really has become: a political issue.
For the citizens of this country, this is slowly and belatedly becoming the number one issue in every sense. This should make it the number one focus of the government in every sense. No, this does not mean — as some in the federal cabinet have opined — that a proactive and strategic handling of the issue will sow panic among the public. Wrong. The public wants to be reassured that this issue is being given the utmost priority at the highest level of the government that it really needs.
If that be so, where is our prime minister?
He has not spoken even once on camera on coronavirus. He should. He has not fired off a single tweet on coronavirus. He should. He has not visited one hospital to inspect preparations. He should.
Only when the prime minister takes ownership of this issue will it become priority number one for the country. Only then will the entire state machinery move towards preparing what needs to be prepared. Only then will budgets be allocated that need to be spent on gearing up for an escalation in infections. And only then will we know that the government is on the same page in terms of concern about coronavirus as the citizens are.
Perhaps equally important is the symbolism of leadership. Yes, it matters that the federal health minister and the provincial ones are engaging with the public; yes, it matters that the chief ministers and chief secretaries are on board and, as are the armed forces; and yes, it absolutely matters that administrative decisions are being taken and implemented — but…
But nothing — absolutely nothing — matters as much as the prime minister taking charge of the issue and telling the nation: “Don’t worry, I’ve got a grip on things.” Citizens need, more than anything else, a confidence that their leader is in the thick of things, that he has rolled up his sleeves and taken charge of the situation, that he will do whatever is required — bulldoze bureaucratic obstacles, knock heads together and overrule needless objections — to take the coronavirus bull by the horns.
To generate this confidence, the prime minister must be seen chairing meetings, visiting places, speaking to people, answering questions and assuring everyone that he will leave no stone unturned to manage this crisis. He must provide leadership when it is needed most. It is needed most now.
It is at moments like these that leaders are tested. The Japanese prime minister is failing this test. So are many other leaders across the world who are accused of either being complacent or ill-informed or deliberately underplaying the challenge. Let our prime minister rise to the occasion and lead from the front.
Is he ready for coronavirus?
The writer is Dawn’s resident editor in Islamabad.
Published in Dawn, March 7th, 2020