Locking horns over lockdown

Updated March 25, 2020


At media briefing, PM handles fair (and some unfair) criticism with patience, grace and aplomb. — AFP/File
At media briefing, PM handles fair (and some unfair) criticism with patience, grace and aplomb. — AFP/File

ISLAMABAD: The debate over lockdowns, shutdowns and slowdowns ignited the national discourse yet again on Tuesday when Prime Minister Imran Khan faced a volley of questions about his shifting stance on the matter.

The prime minister braved hostile questioning by journalists at a briefing organised to announce the government’s economic stimulus package. The package is aimed at ameliorating the harsh conditions facing the financially weaker segment of the citizenry during the Covid-19 crisis. The discourse at the briefing, however, shifted to a general critique of the federal government’s performance since the outbreak of coronavirus.

A significant portion of the prime minister’s media interaction got clogged into defining the term ‘lockdown’ and how it is different from ‘curfew’. This was a discussion that was avoidable — or could have been avoidable — had the federal government not dithered and vacillated on a decision about a lockdown. The tough questioning was rooted primarily in the fact that events had overtaken the federal government and had in fact forced it into doing what it had been arguing against.

At media briefing, PM handles fair (and some unfair) criticism with patience, grace and aplomb

This was the prime minister’s fourth public discourse on Covid-19 after his virtual silence on the issue since the first patient was identified in Pakistan on Feb 26. The prime minister delivered two addresses to the nation and this was the second briefing with media persons. The PM’s first three appearances had one clear message: he would not opt for a lockdown. In all three, he argued Pakistan could not afford a lockdown because it would hit the weaker segments of society, and the state was not resourceful enough to look after them financially if they were subjected to a lockdown.

However, according to analysts, the events of the last few days may have made these arguments redundant. First, Sindh opted for a lockdown, then the DG ISPR announced that the provinces had summoned the services of the armed forces under Article 245 of the Constitution, and the shutting down of markets, public places and transport was being instituted, and then Punjab also declared a series of restrictions, even though the chief minister insisted this was not a lockdown. The word ‘lockdown’ thus became a hot political potato. Islamabad Capital Territory currently has the most lax restrictions in the country.

This situation prompted a journalist to ask the prime minister who actually was in-charge of the country. Another said it appeared the provinces and the Centre were heading in different directions. This forced the prime minister to argue there were many different versions of a lockdown and curfew was the last resort. This lack of clarity on what exactly is a lockdown, how it is different from a curfew, and how countries across the world have resorted to lockdowns without depriving citizens of essential services, all of this should have been resolved within the federal government as events began to pick up pace. The fact that they were not, aggravated the confusion in Tuesday’s briefing.

The analysts are of the opinion that lockdown is now inevitable. The government may call it by any other name (as Punjab and KP governments are doing), but it appears Pakistan has no other choice. The only question is: have we left it too late. As the number of infected citizens nears a thousand, there are genuine fears that lack of decisiveness may now result in an exponential growth of infections that may be extremely hard to control. These fears prompted a barrage of questions at the prime minister about the ill-preparation of the government in face of this global scourge. Some journalists commented that the government seemed more concerned about the media than the virus, while others wondered what the government had done in the last two months since the virus went global. A few journalists were perturbed over the refusal of the State Bank to bring the interest rates down to single digits.

The analysts believe the belligerency of Tuesday’s media discourse reflected a general unease with the government’s overall approach in handling the Covid-19 crisis. The government’s initial complacency was replaced with indecisiveness, which was supplemented with lack of clarity in policy, which in turn was complemented by a vagueness of national direction. The resultant confusion still lurks on the streets of the federal territories, and it manifested itself in the abrasive questioning at the media briefing. However, full credit went to the prime minister who handled fair (and some unfair) criticism with patience, grace and aplomb. In this respect, he set the bar high.

We will, however, need an absolute clarity of policy without delay. Leader of the Opposition in the National Assembly Shahbaz Sharif has also proposed a series of specific measures that the government must take to battle the virus. The government’s economic stimulus plan also provides fiscal space for aggressive policy options at the federal and provincial levels. The Centre, however, needs to fall in step with the rest of the country to institute aggressive steps aimed at suppressing the spread of the infection. Tuesday’s media briefing may have left some gaps open in this respect that need to be filled without any further procrastination.

Published in Dawn, March 25th, 2020