A risky choice

15 Apr 2020

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PRIME MINISTER Imran Khan has announced a continuation of the lockdown for another two weeks — but there will be exemptions that may see thousands of Pakistanis getting back to work. Speaking after the meeting of the National Coordination Committee, Mr Khan said that the majority of the decisions had the consensus of the federal and provincial governments while in some areas the provinces would decide the policies themselves. A list of industries and sectors that would open on the condition that they would strictly enforce standard operating procedures defined by the government was also announced. The construction sector is now also officially open for business along with its allied industries that constitute a lengthy list. For all practical purposes then, Pakistan will now be observing a partial lockdown.

This policy reflects the balance that the government is trying to achieve between social distancing and economic revival. It is a policy fraught with grave risks. The government appears to believe — as evidenced by the remarks of the prime minister’s special assistant on health, Dr Zafar Mirza — that the mortality rate is below what it was feared to be and therefore, perhaps, opening up of workplaces could be a risk worth taking. The Sindh government, on the other hand, has been very clear that lockdowns are the best way to ward off the spread of infections and contain the contagion before it spirals out of control. On this count, the policies pursued by the Sindh government may not be exactly those that the prime minister announced on Tuesday. This difference of opinion has persisted over the weeks since Covid-19 infected the first Pakistani and to date the federal and Sindh governments have not been able to come to an understanding.

We have now entered a critical stage. Governments are ramping up testing — if official figures are to be believed — and the next few weeks could see a burgeoning of infections across the country. Of course, what really defines the gravity of the situation is the death rate and if this does not increase exponentially then we may have cause for cautious optimism. We will not have to wait long to figure out which way the numbers are going. With a diluted lockdown and more tests being carried out, by next month we should have a fair idea if the decision to open up was the right one or not. The prime minister was correct when he said every choice today carried a risk. The question of course is whether the choice made is based on political considerations or solid scientific and data-based reasons. This matters because the cost of a wrong decision will be measured less in rupees lost and more in lives lost. That is a steep price to pay for any country regardless of its economic prowess.

Published in Dawn, April 15th, 2020