AFTER a month-long tentative lockdown, the government has relaxed some restrictions allowing certain industries and businesses to reopen. The move seems to have been driven by economic compulsions that appear to have taken precedence over the protection of lives.
Described as ‘lockdown paradox’, the shutdown to contain the infection has seriously affected the economy and heightened the government’s predicament as it tries to strike a balance between saving lives and saving livelihoods. There are already signs of public discontent and restlessness with growing financial insecurity increasing the pressure on the government to reopen economic activities.
But the decision to reduce pressure on the economy while Covid-19 cases continue to rise rapidly has its own perils. Many epidemiologists believe that laxity in shutdown at this stage when the infection is still spreading could be very risky. The trade-off could prove a costly proposition. The government’s plan for a so-called smart lockdown does not appear as smart as is being claimed. The lapses in policy are too obvious, making it hard to enforce even selective lockdowns.
Pakistan is not the only country facing this dilemma in these times. Most countries in the world have now started loosening restrictions and are gradually opening up economic activities though in some cases the curve is still far from flattening. They are moving very cautiously so as not to let the situation get out of control. Still, the risk of resurgence is high. The WHO has warned that rushing to ease coronavirus restrictions would likely lead to a resurgence of the illness.
The decision to reduce pressure on the economy while Covid-19 cases continue to rise has its own perils.
Pakistan’s situation remains highly precarious despite its relatively lower number of registered Covid-19 cases and the much smaller official death toll. One of the justifications given by the prime minister to ease the lockdown is that the figures have been much lower than projected for this month. This may be true but some experts dispute the assessment, contending that the lower figures are due to minimal testing facilities despite an improvement in services over the last two weeks. As one physician at a top hospital in Karachi dealing with Covid-19 cases said, the current figures are just the tip of the iceberg.
In fact, the four-week lockdown had never been effectively implemented across the country. It may be true that businesses and industries were mostly shut down, but the restrictions on movement and congregations could never be fully implemented. This was largely due to the confusion in policy and the lack of a national policy narrative on how to fight the deadly virus.
Initially, like other populist leaders, Prime Minister Imran Khan too had underplayed the deadliness of the pandemic. His public scepticism of the lockdown had largely been responsible for the chaos in policymaking. It was only in mid March that the Command & Control Centre was established to coordinate efforts, giving some semblance of coherence in the battle against the pandemic. Similarly, a national coordination committee that also included the military leadership was also set up just a few weeks ago.
These delayed moves have affected our preparedness to deal with the crisis. While the coordination among various stakeholders has improved tremendously with the functioning of these forums, there are still some political problems that are obstructing much-needed joint efforts. This is a protracted war that cannot be won if there is a lacklustre approach. The government should be taking action on a war footing.
There are certainly no two views that a blanket lockdown cannot be sustained. There is also a broad agreement on the incremental reopening of the economy so as to protect people’s livelihood. But it is equally important to take measures to prevent the spread of the deadly infection alongside reopening the economy.
We are still far from the point where the infection will peak. Any rush to lift restrictions could have serious repercussions. According to the government’s own projections, the figure of the registered could go up to 50,000 by the second week of May, as ramped-up testing could give a clearer picture of the number. Surely, our capacity to deal with the health crisis has improved significantly but a big increase in the number of cases would be hard to cope with. It is not only the number of ventilators that matters, but also the expertise to run the machines that are in low supply.
A major challenge for the government is to make sure that people observe strict social distancing during Ramazan. The situation has become more complex with the government conceding to pressure by a section of hard-line clerics and allowing congregational prayers in mosques. Although some rules have been set to maintain distancing during congregations, it would be extremely difficult for a weak-kneed administration to enforce them.
It is proven that clusters are the biggest spreaders of the virus. That is one of the reasons that Muslim countries across the world have strictly banned congregational prayers in mosques. Age restrictions for praying in mosques are not likely to help. What is most alarming is that it appears that most people who contract the virus do not show any symptoms but are silent carriers.
Then it will also be a test for the administration to prevent crowds in markets that are going to be opened during Ramazan. The risk will inevitably be heightened close to Eid. Any lapse could make the situation uncontrollable. Therefore, it is extremely important for the government to enforce strict SOPs for businesses allowed to operate. True, lockdowns cannot continue indefinitely, but if ended abruptly and without strict protocols in place they could cause a surge in cases.
That would inevitably force the administration to impose another lockdown. It will require extremely delicate balancing to simultaneously save lives and the economy. For a ‘smart lockdown’ to work, there is a need for a clear plan, coordination and strict implementation of terms of the operation. The bottom line is that we need a policy that contains the virus and also allows some basic level of economic activity.
The writer is an author and journalist.
Published in Dawn, April 22nd, 2020