Two glaring deficits

23 Mar 2020

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The writer teaches politics and sociology at Lums.
The writer teaches politics and sociology at Lums.

AS the experience of a number of states across the world demonstrates, dealing with a new pandemic is just shy of an impossible task. It becomes even more so for governments in resource-poor developing countries that are burdened by the legacy of inefficient bureaucracies and weak administrators. This reality should preface and contextualise all conversations on the response to the crisis shown by Pakistan’s federal and provincial governments. They’ve been dealt a bad hand, and, for the sake of sanity, one would prefer to assume they’re doing all they can, given significant capacity limitations.

At the time of writing, the prime minister had reiterated a policy preference to manage the crisis without enforcing a lockdown. This appears to go against best practices configured in other country contexts, but it’s a decision anchored in a difficult choice. Put simply, locking down the country might flatten the curve and slow the spread of the virus, but will also cause untold disruptions to economic life, triggering a subsistence crisis for daily wage labourers, contract employees, self-employed vendors, and other vulnerable groups.

Hence the federal government’s signal so far has been non-coercive behavioural regulation, over and above the closure of educational institutions and various social and commercial gatherings (parks, weddings, cinemas etc). This essentially means that it is advising people what they should do — self-isolate, avoid crowds — without imposing any serious cost for non-adherence.

There is no large-scale welfare mechanism that can reach adversely impacted populations.

Given the policy conversation so far, there are two points worth analysing in detail here. Firstly, relying on people changing their behaviour has as its assumption the notion that people trust the state enough to listen to it. Secondly, regardless of the success of this or any other strategy, the country is still facing significant economic disruption. This means that beyond the daunting task of upgrading emergency healthcare provision, the government is still looking at a relief and welfare responsibility of an unprecedented scale.

On both of these two points, the existing situation is grim. Even if we assume that every citizen trusts the current federal government in some amorphous way, does that trust carry a normative/moral dimension powerful enough to get them to change their behaviour? For example, the state hasn’t banned religious congregations, it’s just requested people to avoid ‘all large gatherings’. If images from Faisal Mosque this past Friday are anything to go by, this doesn’t seem to have had any meaningful impact. Does the distant federal government — speaking through televised addresses — have the moral authority in people’s life to make them rethink their ingrained habits?

Past experiences on this front are unconvincing. We’re still unsure what institutions and factors of socialisation influence citizen behaviour in Pakistan, but we can safely say the state ranks pretty low on that list. Voluntary compliance with the rhetoric of the state doesn’t work in other domains (taxation, immunisation, family planning, sectarianism), why would it here? In other words, the state in its current incarnation does not have the moral importance, ie ‘convincing power’, nor the right channels of communication to get people to change their habits.

Alongside this challenge, is the concurrent one of providing welfare to those materially impacted by the pandemic. On this front too, the situation is bleak. Other than the Benazir Income Support Programme, there is no large-scale welfare mechanism that can reach adversely impacted populations. Even BISP, given its design and current spatial spread, may not be able to cater to previously subsisting urban populations experiencing significant economic shocks. The Pakistani equivalent of a public distribution system, the Utility Stores Corporation, has suffered from years of chronic underfunding and corruption, and is unlikely to plug the gap if food supply chains are disrupted.

An inability to change behaviour non-coercively and provide welfare in times of urgent need points to two political deficits that the country needs to pay attention to when this pandemic is (hopefully) over. The first is a democratic deficit, which has laid bare once more the organisational weakness of political parties and their inability to constitute meaningful moral and ideological relations with the citizenry. People don’t trust the state sufficiently because they haven’t been socialised into trusting the state by those who do politics. A large part of this is down to the absence of contact between parties and citizens, where showing up at election time and asking for votes is what passes for mainstream democratic politics.

Contributing to the democratic deficit is the absence of workable relations between the government and CSOs, such as voluntary associations, charities, and religious groups; as well as the glaring absence of community-based mechanisms of outreach, such as elected local governments. If people won’t listen to the prime minister speaking through their television, maybe they would be more amenable to local community workers or neighbourhood elders who help them out on other issues. The crisis here is hence amplified by the persisting absence of meaningful ways of coordinating with those who may hold moral authority over citizens.

Beyond this democratic deficit, we’re also facing a welfare deficit, which all preceding regimes have helped compound. Glaring examples include seven decades of the military prioritising a national security state rather than allowing for the development of a functioning welfare system; or at a subnational level, chronic underfunding of public health and welfare provision in favour of vote-winning and rent-extracting physical infrastructure projects, such as by successive PML-N governments in Punjab.

These deficits are now coming back to haunt the country at the worst possible time. At this point, let’s hope that a response that can tackle the crisis effectively is somehow mustered. Let’s also hope that once tackled, the state is compelled to draw on this period of crisis and hold a meaningful conversation about its future priorities.

The writer teaches politics and sociology at Lums.

Twitter: @umairjav

Published in Dawn, March 23rd, 2020