A divisive move

April 08, 2020


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

SAVE lives or save livelihoods? The debate rages on as the world fights the deadly Covid-19 infection. Countries are struggling to strike the right balance as they confront the coronavirus outbreak. While the rising number of cases has increased pressure on public health systems across the world, the economic costs of shutdowns have also been colossal.

Indeed, the worsening unemployment situation presents the biggest challenge for governments everywhere. The problem is much more serious in poorer nations such as Pakistan. But still the choice between the economy and public health should be clear: saving lives takes precedence over anything else. Shutdowns and other restrictions on movement may have had serious economic implications, but that is the only way to end the pandemic.

Allowing the infection to spread in order to save the economy would wreak a far greater disaster that would be hard to deal with. The government’s decision to relax restrictions and allow some industries, including construction projects, to operate raises questions about the implications for public health.

While it may help reduce unemployment and revive the economy, there is also a huge danger of workers being exposed to the infection. It is much more risky as there is no sign of the curve flattening anytime soon. The number of confirmed coronavirus cases has risen exponentially over the past few days. And according to the government’s own estimate, the count could go up to 50,000 in the next two weeks — more than a tenfold increase in the number of infected persons.

The decision to remove restrictions and reopen certain industries is not a wise one in these times.

In this situation, the decision to relax the restrictions and reopen some industries could defeat the efforts made so far to contain the disease. One can understand the massive pressure on the government to address the growing problem of unemployment. But the premature move could also exacerbate the crisis and increase the pressure on healthcare resources. The cost of the uncontrollable spread of the deadly virus would be much higher. Is the government prepared to deal with a catastrophe on this scale?

After its initial state of denial, the federal government seems to have shown greater resolve in fighting the infection in recent days. There has certainly been better coordination between the centre and the provincial administrations. The setting up of a command and control centre to tackle the coronavirus has given some coherence to the campaign. The country now seems much better prepared to meet the coronavirus challenge. Yet, there are still some shortcomings, given our capacity and resources.

For example, there has been some serious problems regarding the full implementation of lockdown orders. One of the main reasons for the lapses in this area has been attributed to the confused statements from Prime Minister Imran Khan himself. He had initially dismissed the threat by equating the infection with the ‘ordinary flu’ saying that only the elderly and those with prior medical complications were at risk from its effects.

Although his tenor now seems to have changed, apparently after being briefed by experts about the gravity of the situation, his views are still not clear. It seems that it is very hard for the top leadership to accept the seriousness of the situation, as it is not fully convinced about the tough measures required to deal with one of the most serious crises the country has ever faced. The prime minister still sees it as more of an economic issue than one of public health. The government’s latest decision to reopen some industries is a case in point.

However, one must appreciate the federal government’s financial aid plan for the poorest sections of society through the Ehsaas programme. That will benefit some 12 million people who desperately need support to survive in these hard times. Some other measures announced by the government may also help lessen the hardship faced by the poor. Given the limited resources available, the subsidies given by the government are quite significant.

A major challenge for the government, as has been repeatedly pointed by the prime minister, is to supply ration to the people, particularly daily-wage workers, who have been worst affected by the lockdown. Most of them, now unemployed, would not even be able to receive money through the Ehsaas programme. There is certainly a need to develop some kind of mechanism to reach them.

But the prime minister’s move to organise a ‘Corona Relief Tiger Force’ has raised questions. The ‘force’ comprising young volunteers is supposed to help identify those needing help and supply them with ration. The volunteers are also supposed to develop awareness among the people about the infection and safety measures.

Some half a million youth have reportedly applied for registration — a massive response indeed. It all sounds earnest. But it is not as simple as it appears to be. Surely volunteers are needed to help the administration and other government organisations involved in the campaign. It happens all over the world. In the past, we have seen how men and women came out to help in times of calamity whether it was the 2005 Kashmir earthquake or the devastating floods in the following years.

Yet there had not been any effort from past governments to formally organise them as a ‘force’. The whole purpose of volunteer work is defeated when an attempt is made to turn such an effort into a political tool. The very fact that a ‘Tiger Force’ is said to be working under the Prime Minister’s Office belies the claim of it being a politically nonpartisan welfare movement.

Such an officially controlled ‘volunteer force’ is likely to add to the confusion. There is fear of it becoming a parallel setup creating problems for local administrations. So what will happen if, emulating the prime minister’s initiative, the Sindh government decided to organise its own ‘People’s Force’?

Imran Khan’s idea to turn volunteers into a government-sponsored force is quite alarming. It is a politically divisive move that the nation does not need in these testing times. Let the volunteers do their work independently of the government as we have seen in the past.

The writer is an author and journalist.


Twitter: @hidhussain

Published in Dawn, April 8th, 2020