RED ZONE FILES: Who’s fighting the Corona war?

Published March 19, 2020
A man wears a protective mask following an outbreak of the coronavirus as he walks in front of buildings, declared by the government as quarantine for the suspected pilgrims, who crossed Taftan border post with Iran, in Sukkur on Mrach 18. — Reuters
A man wears a protective mask following an outbreak of the coronavirus as he walks in front of buildings, declared by the government as quarantine for the suspected pilgrims, who crossed Taftan border post with Iran, in Sukkur on Mrach 18. — Reuters

A few days ago Punjab Chief Minister Usman Buzdar received a detailed briefing on coronavirus from relevant experts and officials. The purpose was to provide him all the information he required as the chief executive of the largest province, so he could make the right decisions. At the end of the briefing, the chief minister asked a question innocently: “Yeh corona kaat-ta kaisay hai? (how does this corona bite)?”

Nothing could better illustrate the state of affairs in Punjab today than this simple question asked by the head of the province about a crisis that has nothing simple about it. The gap between the magnitude of the challenge that COVID-19 has thrown and the scale of the response so far is wider than anyone would like to imagine. The reasons are far more numerous than the capacity issues of one provincial chief minister.

The brief history of our COVID-19 failures is now part of recent folklore. By January of this year the world had started to get concerned about the situation in China. By February, Iran was plunging into a crisis and by the 26th of February Pakistan had had its first patient.

The first important national level meeting by the Pakistani leadership, chaired by the prime minister, was held on March 13. We were caught napping.

Where do we stand today? The crisis is ballooning by the hour and yet there is a strange ‘business as usual’ environment inside Islamabad’s Red Zone. The National Security Committee meeting has indeed generated some activity within the lethargic governmental machinery, but the inability of the leadership to grasp the urgency of action is allowing inertia to set in.

For instance, the federal government has realised — finally — that the three most important things Pakistan needs are: ventilators, diagnostic testing kits, and Personal Protection Equipment (PPE — the space suit-type clothing that medical personnel wear). Now at this late stage, officials are desperately trying to procure these items. Such procurement requires two things: first, money and second, availability of the items. Here’s the interesting thing: we have the money but we cannot find the items.

The total estimated cost for all the equipment we need to combat COVID-19, as of today, is said to be $325 million. So far, the federal government has already allocated Rs5 billion ($31m approx). In addition, the World Bank has directly given the provinces $38m which has been moved from some other head to be now used for coronavirus expenses. On top of that, the National Disaster Risk Management Fund (NDRMF) has allocated $50m of its funds for COVID-19. All this adds up to a tidy sum that is ready and available for immediate procurements of ventilators, testing kits and protective suits.

Here’s where we run into a problem. Since we are late and since the entire world is searching for this equipment, it’s hard to get one’s hands on them. Pakistani officials reached out to various sellers in the international market and most say they are out of stock. One country has this equipment available, but the UAE beat us to it by advance booking all available stuff for many weeks (perhaps a few months). Most countries are desperate like us but most countries are not late like us.

Then someone got a brainwave: why don’t we task our embassies to reach out to prospective vendors and hunt for the ventilators, testing kits and protective suits every which way we can. This way our ambassadors could become “chief procurement officers” and fast-track the purchase of the equipment. The idea found some traction within the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA). On Wednesday (March 18) NDMA fired off an official letter to the Foreign Office attached with a list of 29 items (based on national and provincial demands). NDMA requested the Foreign Office that the list “may kindly be shared with our missions abroad for possible support from Pakistani community, donors, philanthropist etc. Our Missions Abroad may also facilitate in identifying manufacturers, stocks and suppliers of these items for possible purchase/procurement by NDMA.”

Officials here say Pakistan currently has 1,500 ventilators. We need another 1,500 and about 100,000 testing kits.

But wait. A graver problem stands in the way: no one wants to procure or purchase anything for fear of NAB. The government’s ability to buy anything right now — when every hour can be measured in human lives — is constrained by the fear of being hauled up at some point by NAB.

What to do? There is only one way out as far as senior officials are concerned: the federal government must, without any delay, issue a presidential ordinance that declares unequivocally that all procurements for COVID-19 will be outside the purview of NAB. Minus this legal protection, in essence, coronavirus can wait.

But Sindh hasn’t waited. The provincial leadership, led by the surprisingly energised Chief Minister Murad Ali Shah, has already purchased 10,000 testing kits. “These should be enough for now,” says a senior official. In addition, the Sindh government is ramping up the capacity of its lab (which processes the tests to determine if the patient is positive or negative) from the current 200 per day to nearly 20,000 tests within a short period of time.

Do they have enough funds to do all this? “Yes,” comes the answer. Good for them.

Money can buy equipment, but can it buy focus? Why is the much-touted ‘media awareness plan’ missing? Sure, various organisations are doing their bit by producing Public Service Messages and producing informational content for onward distributions to TV channels; and a National Command and Control Centre is churning out relevant informational data regularly, but what is missing is the big picture 360-degree plan that should constitute the foundation of critically-needed strategic communication on COVID-19.

Big picture is in fact the problem. Shorn of this, all activity on display is not adding up to a single-point agenda: declaring war against coronavirus. Asked what Islamabad needed the most today to fight this war, an experienced politician said: “Leadership.”

Published in Dawn, March 19th, 2020

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