The pain & the gain

April 04, 2020

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ANYBODY who has travelled through London’s Heathrow Airport will know what a madhouse it can seem, with thousands of passengers clogging the immigration desks.

So imagine my surprise when we were whisked through with hardly a soul in sight. Flying in from Colombo on one of Sri Lanka’s last flights out of the island, I was expecting to be thoroughly checked for coronavirus at both ends of the flight. But nothing of the sort happened, and there was certainly no ‘social distancing’.

So here I am, in self-isolation in deepest Dorset in the village of East Lulworth (population: 41), a tiny community without any shops. Its saving grace is the presence of The Weld Arms, the local pub located literally next door. After my period of self-isolation is over, I intend to check out its offerings.

My wife has imposed a rigid set of rules about hygiene in the house, and I was told that the virus could survive for some hours on paper, so I would have to cancel our subscription. But this was something I wasn’t going to compromise over as I have been a news junkie since I started to read. To keep her happy, I agreed to read the newspaper in the afternoon. To reinforce my argument, I have quoted the WHO advice about packaging/paper being low risk.

The time has come to review defence spending critically.

The National Health Service has been sending out numerous lists of do’s and don’ts (mostly don’ts) to people at high risk due to other medical conditions. I happen to fall into this category, and so received a letter from the hospital I visit for my treatment. Dr Chacko advises me not to leave home; not to attend any gatherings; and not to go out for shopping, leisure or travel.

The government has pledged £1,200 per person who has left his/her job due to the Covid-19 crisis. A leaflet informs us: “If you are struggling financially, visit gov.uk/coronavirus for information on employment and financial support.”

In America, a massive $2.2 trillion boost has been promised by Trump. In Pakistan, we don’t have the resources to make these substantial pay-offs, so Imran Khan has been downplaying the dangers of coronavirus. Instead, Sindh has issued a notification prohibiting the firing of workers due to their absence forced by the plague.

Now obviously, no businessman wants to lose trained, productive workers, but beyond a point, he can’t pay a salary without any output. This applies especially to workers on a production line.

The fact that thousands of day workers and small businesses have been financially crippled through no fault of theirs has not been entirely lost on our prime minister. But he has nothing in the exchequer to help them.

Recently, the army chief urged the nation to unite to come out of the crisis. But unity demands sharing the pain as well as the gain in good times and bad. It seems to me that the defence establishment rides the gravy train in all kinds of weather, while the poor get the sharp end of the stick.

As I wrote recently, the time has finally come to review defence spending critically. We cannot continue living on borrowings forever, and still be unable to absorb the shock of emergencies like the coronavirus. And as we are certified paupers, the interest we would have to pay on loans from foreign banks would be backbreaking. As it is, debt servicing soaks up billions a year.

So if there’s very little tax revenue available, we have to look for savings in expenditure. And where’s the biggest savings here? Obviously in defence spending. If, as Gen Bajwa says, we are to be united, we will need to make cuts in our defence spending.

If he can find the courage to do some straight talking to the establishment, Imran Khan will find there are many to support him. Spending far more than we can afford has been the bane of our economy and society for far too long. And now, at this time of social and economic crises, we need a debate and a decision. Should the prime minister find the will to force a consensus, he will have redeemed himself.

Tough times call for tough measures. In other countries, leaders have taken draconian measure to enforce social distancing as well as other rules. They have been supported by citizens who recognise the dangers and virulence of the disease. But far too many Pakistanis are still not serious enough about the virus to self-isolate, thereby putting themselves and others at risk.

To be fair, it’s hard to demand that daily wage workers and one-man shop owners just pack up and go home to starve quietly with their families. The government must be able to offer a temporary relief package to keep them going.

In order to do this, there has to be some money to squeeze out of the biggest component of the budget. For now, this happens to be the defence allocation.

irfan.husain@gmail.com

Published in Dawn, April 4th, 2020