Crisis of leadership

18 Mar 2020


The writer is an author and journalist.
The writer is an author and journalist.

THE crisis of leadership in the country has once again been exposed — this time on account of the coronavirus pandemic. More needs to be done to reassure the nation in times of crises than just tweeting messages of comfort and calling for prayers. The decision to hold cabinet meetings through video link only serves to trivialise an extremely serious situation that requires a far more prudent approach.

The captain has yet again failed the leadership-in-a-crisis test. Instead of leading from the front, the prime minister has so far taken a back seat as the country faces one of its worst crises in recent years. One is not sure whether it is incompetence or apathy or a combination of both.

Read: PM Imran tells nation to prepare for a coronavirus epidemic, rules out lockdown

Most countries facing a similar situation have their leaders directly dealing with the problem, but this has not been the case here. Now we are told that he is personally monitoring the situation and getting daily briefings on it. Last night, he finally addressed the nation. In a recent interview to the Associated Press the prime minister said that he spends most of his time consulting experts on how to deal with the coronavirus. But is it enough? Has even a meeting of all provincial chief ministers, who are left to deal with the situation on their own, been called?

Primarily, it is the responsibility of the federal government to take the lead and formulate a national response to the crisis. Despite the sharp increase in the number of cases, there is still no effective coordination between the federal and provincial governments. Surely, this has contributed to the failure to contain the problem. Nothing could be more pitiable at this stage than the lack of consensus between the federal and provincial governments over the severity of the crisis. Even the figures are disputed.

Understating the numbers and downplaying the severity of the pandemic is not going to help.

Despite the fact that the warning signs were there for a long time, the federal government responded very slowly. It was only last week that the National Security Council finally met to discuss the crisis. And still there is no coherent policy to deal with the enormous challenges that lie ahead. It is not just about stopping the spread of the virus, but also the long-term economic and social impact of the crisis, one that has global dimensions.

In an interview with AP, the prime minister said the country did not have the capacity and resources to deal with the situation if the coronavirus becomes uncontrollable. He may be right; but then there is an even greater need to stop the spread of the virus before it is too late. Dealing with the coronavirus must be the main priority of the state at this point and resources must be diverted to deal with the pandemic.

The first coronavirus case in Pakistan was detected a month ago and now the number of cases is in the hundreds. But the federal government lived in a state of denial. There was no sense of urgency until some days ago when WHO declared a pandemic. It took time to close our borders and flights coming from areas most affected by the virus.

Most of the cases so far are among pilgrims and other travellers returning from Iran and other countries. Initially, the pilgrims from Iran were kept under observation at the Taftan border crossing in Balochistan. Their number was in the thousands but there were not enough resources available for the provincial government to test all.

A large number of those who were allowed to leave the Taftan border camps later tested positive for the coronavirus. One must give credit to the Sindh government for setting up facilities where the returnees were isolated and tested for the virus. Testing is perhaps the reason why Sindh has confirmed the highest number of cases so far. The spread of the virus could have been contained had there been better coordination between the federal and provincial governments. The federal government failed to provide any help despite calls from the provincial government.

There were no proper facilities provided by the federal agencies at major airports to screen passengers flying back home from affected areas until recently. It is commendable that the Sindh provincial health department made more effective arrangements at the airport in Karachi.

It took a while for Punjab and KP, both led by the PTI, to wake up to the crisis. Punjab declared a health emergency only last week. It is quite surprising that the number of cases in the province has remained low, though that is changing as the results of the tests carried out on pilgrims returning from Iran show that several may have the infection. The situation in KP is not very different.

Understating the numbers and downplaying the severity of the pandemic is not going to help. It is true that there is no need to push the panic button, but apathy is more dangerous. Transparency and reporting the facts helps in dealing with the challenge more effectively.

It is understandable that with limited facilities for screening available in the country it is not easy to get a clear picture, but there is no point in understating the facts before us. This is a global problem and needs a holistic approach. Despite the severity of the crisis, the government has not taken all the measures required to contain the spread of the virus.

A large number of Muslim countries have banned religious congregations and collective prayers in order to save the population from the virus, but we are still hesitant to enforce the restrictions. Giving in to pressure, the Punjab government has assured the clerics that mosques will not be closed.

In order to deal with the enormous challenges, the government needs to take all stakeholders on board and make some tough decisions. The government must declare a state of emergency and also mobilise the armed forces. More importantly, the prime minister needs to show statesmanship in this time of national crisis and take all political forces along with him. A national crisis requires a collective response. Will the prime minister transcend political differences and provide leadership at this critical time?

The writer is an author and journalist.

Twitter: @hidhussain

Published in Dawn, March 18th, 2020