Bridging the gap

April 03, 2020

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THE National Coordination Committee, led by Prime Minister Imran Khan, has taken the correct decision to extend by two weeks the countrywide restrictions that were put in place to slow down the spread of the coronavirus. The meeting also decided that PIA would operate special flights to bring back nearly 2,000 Pakistanis from different countries. These decisions reflect the federal government’s acknowledgement that the spread of the virus can only be slowed by aggressively pursuing social distancing and enforcing all actions that promote the latter. However, there is still much that requires greater clarity.

Certain policy pronouncements by the federal government, for instance, are sending signals that run counter to the umbrella policy of keeping people away from each other and confined to their homes as much as possible. The formation of the volunteer force named Corona Relief Tigers is one such step. At a time when speed is of the essence and when protecting people from getting infected or infecting others is a priority, one may question the wisdom of sending a large number of people out in the field to contact those in their homes. Such action — however well-intentioned — could expose the volunteers to the virus. In addition, there is the issue of how much time, effort and resources would be required to get this ‘force’ ready to go out and deliver the services, rations and information to people who need it most. The state already has in place various mechanisms through which such service delivery can be provided. The federal government has yet to provide satisfactory answers to these concerns. In the same vein, providing a financial package to boost the construction industry is a good step but will it not dilute the larger policy of keeping people away from each other during the pandemic? Construction employs dozens of industries which will all need to open up in order to kick-start the sector thereby bringing people out in the open. Here too the government has to come up with a convincing explanation.

These schemes may be diverting the government’s attention from where it really needs to be focused. There still exists a worrying gap between the centre and the provinces in terms of initiating policies that complement, and not contradict, each other. The federal government has to respect the provinces’ autonomy provided by the 18th Amendment but it cannot abdicate its role of giving national direction and providing leadership through cohesion and coordination. The federal government must act as the cement that binds the provinces in a national goal through a common outlook buttressed by vision, motivation and resources. The federal government should not be competing with the provinces but complementing their efforts and lending a hand wherever needed. It might be better for Islamabad to focus on such areas instead of policies that raise more questions than answers.

Published in Dawn, April 3rd, 2020