Hard times ahead

25 Mar 2020

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

THE country is now effectively in a state of lockdown as the battle against the coronavirus outbreak enters a critical phase. A curfew appears imminent in parts of the country, given the exponential rise in the number of cases. The military has been deployed in aid of the civilian administration to maintain law and order. But flattening the curve of the infection requires a much greater effort and more resources.

Containing the global pandemic at home is undoubtedly one of the most serious challenges this country has ever confronted. It is not just about winning this battle, but also what lies in the aftermath. The economic and social impact of the outbreak is huge for a country that has been lurching from one crisis to another.

The fight against the pandemic has also exposed the various fault lines. A broken healthcare system is now being tested for a crisis beyond its capacity. Despite the warning, we have been caught unprepared. It was either a state of deniability or false hope that the virus would die in the hot weather that prevented timely action.

Initially brought from outside, the virus has now spread to communities largely because of our failure to take timely measures to contain its spread. Then there is the lack of awareness and certain social practices that have led to a spike in the number of cases. Religious congregations continued, despite the warnings. Such gatherings are the biggest source of spread of the infection.

The fight against the pandemic has exposed the various fault lines.

Given our limited resources, not every infected individual can be tested and thus unknowingly transmits the virus to members of his or her family and community. The number of cases being reported is just the tip of the iceberg. Not surprisingly, the number of cases is multiplying each day.

Surely one must not get panicky, but it is always good to have a clear picture in order to handle the situation better. It is going to be a long battle and one expects the government to be prepared for that and not remain in a state of denial.

There is some degree of coherence in the federal government’s strategy to deal with the problem now, but it is still not enough, given the enormity of the crisis. The lack of coordination between the federal and provincial government is pronounced and can worsen the situation. The reasons for this are political and are also linked to the existing confusion over the distribution of power. But the issue could have easily been resolved had there been a show of greater political maturity on the part of Prime Minister Imran Khan. So far, a failure of leadership has been evident in this crisis.

When a crisis arises, the first thing that people do is look towards their leader — but the response in this case has been lacking. This situation is not very reassuring in such testing times. An impromptu address to the nation on Sunday left a large section of the people confused as the idea of a lockdown to stop the spread of the virus was criticised. It appeared that this criticism was directed at the Sindh government that had already announced closing down the province.

The provincial administration took this measure after a spike in the number of victims of the virus. Sindh has the highest number of confirmed cases and there were clear danger signs that the situation would spiral out of control if restrictions on the movement of people were not enforced. But it seems that the prime minister did not recognise the emergency situation prevailing in the country’s second most populated province, leading observers to note that this was because Sindh was being ruled by his opponents.

The prime minister declared that he would not impose restrictions that carried huge economic costs, particularly for the poor. But many refused to buy his argument that if Pakistan had the kind of resources which Italy, France, the US or UK had, he would fully lock down the country.

Interestingly, hours later the Punjab government, led by the prime minister’s party, announced its decision to enforce a partial lockdown. Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan have done the same and now much of the country has practically shut down. Who then took the lockdown decision?

That makes one wonder what the prime minister’s ire was all about. Would it not have been better had a meeting of the Council of Common Interests been called to evolve a common strategy and a national narrative to fight a battle that represents the biggest threat to national security?

No battle can be won without uniting the nation and taking all stakeholders on board. One must say that both the PPP and PML-N have shown political maturity by offering the government their full cooperation. An acknowledgement from the prime minister is still awaited.

It is generally the ruling party that takes the initiative in seeking the opposition’s support on national issues, but not in the PTI’s case. The prime minister should have learnt some lessons from the Sindh chief minister who took all opposition parties on board while announcing the decision to impose the lockdown. Interestingly, the PTI, which is the main opposition party in Sindh, was also included in the deliberations. That helped in the implementation of the restriction more effectively.

This is, perhaps, the worst crisis that the country has faced. While measures like lockdowns are indeed essential to contain the infection, they come at a huge economic cost. The suspension of almost all economic activities and the transport system will have serious economic consequence.

It will affect not only the poorer sections of the population, but also the middle classes, putting greater strain on an already troubled financial situation. The resultant unemployment and displacement could have serious social implications.

Indeed, the federal government has announced a financial support package to minimise the impact of the pandemic and the lockdown, but we must be prepared for more hardship. That makes it imperative for the prime minister to create a national consensus. It is the handling of a crisis that makes or breaks a leader.

The writer is an author and journalist.

zhussain100@yahoo.com

Twitter: @hidhussain

Published in Dawn, March 25th, 2020