OF 700-plus fables, closely connected to the tradition that bears Aesop’s name, one is that of a fox and a cat, discussing stratagems to dodge the hounds. While the fox brags of a hundred tricks to counter such danger, the poor cat admits that she could only think of climbing up the tree. When hunters arrive with their hounds, the cat climbs the tree, while the fox weighs his myriad options, without acting, and falls prey. Since January, the divergence in the Chinese and Italian strategies in handling the coronavirus remind one of this old fable that predates Christ by six centuries or so.
Given the nature of the disease and the state of healthcare in the country, Pakistan’s sole option is to early-detect, quickly-test, and robustly-isolate all positive cases. But can we achieve testing speed to keep us ahead of the spread frontier? Maybe in the medium run, but not now. So do we wait for the disease to run its natural course ie ala herd immunity at a mortality rate of four per cent and potentially a much higher morbidity rate? With an estimate of four million dead before the Holy Grail of herd immunity is achieved, do we even need to ponder this question? England has learnt the cost of such pondering already.
When science and technology can solve our problem without demanding us to change or adapt our fundamental ways, we have a technical solution for what is essentially a technical challenge. When science and technology do not offer us such comfort, we have an adaptive challenge, requiring an adaptive response.
There are essentially two things that can be done to slow the spread rate of Covid-19: personal hygiene and social distancing. Unfortunately, these simple actions require a profound four-fold adaptive transformation: social, political, economic and administrative. Politicians need to make quick decisions and share this huge adaptive work with the people they claim to lead. The economy has to revert back to natural locale and organisation: work from home, fairer wages, less optimisation and more slack. Society has to change the way social interaction is structured; the way children’s education is administered and the way household work is organised ie the elderly need to be saved from their own young ones.
The question is not whether to have a lockdown or not.
Finally, we need to think of an imaginative lockdown design, which, in turn, cannot be implemented without an adaptive change within the organs of the state ie administration, forces-in-uniform and medics. Given the capability traps so rampant at the work-floor level on the civilian side, the military’s cadre of junior commissioned officers is the only cadre available in the country to underwrite implementation efficiency of the endeavour. Any unimaginative lockdown design that uses current administrative or municipal units (ie UCs or dehs or tehsils) as building blocks of the ‘lockdown area’ is bound to fail.
It must use natural travel barriers (rivers, ridges, mountain ranges and canals) to create a modular territorial design with the ability to aggregate and disaggregate building blocks of the lockdown territories ie river basins (do-aabs) and canal command areas. A lockdown design has to be modular in terms of territory as well as the level of severity. If lockdown regions and sub-regions and micro-regions are demarcated carefully and aggregated intelligently, some two-thirds of the country would remain internally open at any point of time, sustaining lockdowns long enough to suppress the coronavirus’s spike clusters through robust testing and timely isolation.
So, Dear John, do not dither. The question is not whether to have a lockdown. The question is how to calibrate an effective and sustainable lockdown design. Having known the fate of Shakespeare’s dithering prince, we must remind ourselves that shilly-shallying is no virtue for men and women who hold public office. These men and women do not hold public office because they are great scholars; nor because they are the wisest of all; nor indeed because of any of their skill or craft. They essentially hold public office because of their ability to make timely decisions on the basis of incomplete information and for their appetite to take the personal and political risks that decisions based on such incomplete information necessarily entail.
Aesop’s cat knows that climbing the tree is the only option; the longer you ponder and dither, the smaller would be the margin to escape the hounds of the coronavirus. Rarely, Dear John, are we weighed on the scale of history, but whenever we are so weighed, our children’s children must be able to proudly tell their children that we were not found wanting.
The writer is a practitioner of design thinking and implementation in the public sector.
Published in Dawn, March 29th, 2020