IT is a settled principle of responsible governance that in times of the greatest crisis — external aggression or an epidemic — the national authority must proceed in light of the broadest possible national consensus. A visible lack of respect for this hallowed maxim is multiplying many times over the threat that Covid-19 is posing to life and property in Pakistan.

The most critical manifestation of aversion to securing a national consensus is reluctance to consult parliament on ways of dealing with the current pandemic. As parliament is the only forum to establish governance by consensus and the highest repository of the people’s will, there can be no legitimate reason for delaying its emergency session. It is difficult to disagree with Senator Raza Rabbani, the widely respected constitutionalist, that non-consultation with parliament amounts to knocking down one of the three pillars of state.

The prime minister seems to have offered an answer in his talk to the National Assembly speaker the other day when he referred to the meeting of the parliamentary committee as parliament’s role in fighting the virus. That this powerless, advisory (at best) committee can be no substitute for a sovereign parliament cannot be contested. The only valid argument against holding a Senate meeting was offered by its chairman who simultaneously suggested a way out — that the Senate could meet in the spacious hall of the National Assembly. None of the other excuses for avoiding a full-fledged parliamentary debate on the pandemic is worth any attention in view of the exemptions made in the lockdown regime for all kinds of congregations. Parliament must be summoned to fulfil its primary function.

The way medical experts’ calls for stricter lockdown are being disregarded can only be described as a Himalayan folly. A former Punjab government spokesman even accused the doctors of political mischief. But our doctors are saying what the medical authorities the world over and the World Health Organisation are saying. Has WHO’s advice on “safe Ramazan practices in the context of Covid-19” been issued only to embarrass the conmen on Pakistan’s payroll?

It is difficult to determine which brand of the hybrid systems of rule is being followed.

The doctors are merely warning of an unmanageable situation if the social-distancing rule is not enforced. That the epidemic could get out of hand has been proved by the fact that worldwide virus casualties reached the figure of 100,000 in several months while another 100,000 deaths occurred in a fortnight. The doctors are only saying, with folded hands and tears in their eyes, that Pakistan’s health system has already been stretched to its limits and it won’t be able to handle a spurt in Covid-19 cases. The authority’s stunning disregard for the medical experts’ plea for a strict lockdown is due to its misplaced faith in its own infallibility. This attitude also leads to Pakistan’s defiance of the policy about congregations in mosques during the fasting season adopted by almost all other Muslim states.

Another feature of governance today is a tendency to ignore reality. Take two headlines in one of Sunday’s newspapers; one reports the president’s satisfaction at the compliance with the 20-point SOPs for taraweeh congregations; while the other story says the SOPs were violated in 80 per cent of mosques in one province and the capital.

In view of the vagaries of the authority it is difficult to determine which brand of the hybrid systems of rule is being followed. Its apparent plans to tamper with the 18th Amendment and the NFC award will divide the people. The Punjab chief minister can throw out four chief secretaries in 20 months, each discarded in a matter of minutes and without the hassle another chief minister had faced for weeks to get the provincial police chief replaced, and each time the chief secretary is at fault.

The debate on a proper response to the epidemic has brought out the danger in equating policy imperatives with problems in their enforcement. No socioeconomic step forward has been vetoed on the ground that it will adversely affect an entrenched interest. The use of tractors in agriculture was not rejected on the ground that some farmlands were going to lose jobs; only the need to provide the latter with alternative work was stressed. The same was the case when electronic machines replaced calligraphists in the publishing industry, and the whole milk industry will be adversely affected when the sale of only packaged milk is allowed.

The stark reality today is that our need for an effective and as complete a lockdown as medical authorities consider necessary to fight the epidemic cannot be ignored because it will adversely impact a large number of people. Concern for the interests of the population likely to be affected by the epidemic-control strategy is legitimate but it is the state’s foremost function to mitigate the hardship of those affected by any steps that have to be taken in the larger interest of the whole population, including those who think things should continue as before. What needs to be done to defeat the epidemic cannot be left undone because the state has rendered itself incapable of dealing with the fallout.

Tailpiece: Please do not blame Maulana Tariq Jameel for his observations during last Thursday’s telethon. He said about women and the media what his followers in authority believe, and who adore him for telling them how incorrigibly wicked they are. The maulana has expressed his regrets over scandalising the media, and the reason is obvious, but he will not take back his slander against women in specific terms because they don’t matter, and Shireen Mazari can be told to stop defending women and concentrate only on human rights, preferably, the rights of men. Surprisingly little notice has been taken of the maulana’s disclosure that Imran Khan alone is honest and wonders ‘how much can he by himself achieve’. Is this not an edict against all those who are associated with the government minus the prime minister? But they will not protest and the reason is no secret.

Published in Dawn, April 30th, 2020

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