LAST week, the spectacle of the prime minister blaming an unidentified ‘elite’ for imposing a lockdown was bewildering. By doing so, not only was he disowning the actions taken by his own government but also contradicting his earlier statements. That leaves us wondering if there is anyone in charge in these times of an existential crisis. The confusion is alarming.
The remarks amplify the disarray in the federal government’s policy on fighting the Covid-19 pandemic. Clearly, the country’s top leadership sees the lockdown in the light of a ‘cowardly’ action that has only brought misery to the common people. Such scepticism over the shutdown may not be new, but irresponsible public statements make it harder for the administration to contain the spread of the disease.
Nothing could be more bizarre than the sight of federal ministers encouraging people to break the restrictions imposed by the Sindh government and that were among the decisions taken by the National Coordination Committee on Covid-19. Interestingly, the committee, which is chaired by the prime minister, had extended the nationwide lockdown until May 9.
Then there is also the National Command and Operations Centre comprising senior civil and military officials coordinating the strategy. So do these government bodies represent the ‘elite’ that has been blamed for its ‘anti-people action’? Ironically, the leadership is acting more like the opposition.
The leadership’s whimsical approach is the biggest impediment.
By blaming some imaginary force for a policy that has the approval of all stakeholders, the prime minister can only undermine his own authority, for many people will see it as an admission of things slipping out of his control. It’s true that the prime minister has never been convinced about the necessity for a lockdown. But his recent remarks were disturbing.
In fact, the federal leadership was caught by surprise when Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhawa followed Sindh in enforcing a lockdown in the provinces in mid-March. The provinces have also called in the army in aid of civil authority. The announcement had come despite the prime minister’s public disapproval of a shutdown.
He had said that the Constitution allowed the provinces to take their own decisions regarding the lockdown, but later also appeared to take credit for containing the spread of infection. This contradictory stance from the nation’s top executive authority had added to the confusion in policy. Consequently, the lockdown was never fully enforced. Arguably, the half-hearted action has caused greater damage.
While business was closed down, the restriction on movement remained tentative. So the main objective of the lockdown to contain the disease was not fully served. Even before putting a mechanism in place, the federal government has started relaxing the restrictions on business and certain industries.
There is no smartness in the government’s oft-repeated claim of moving towards a ‘smart lockdown’. It is as chaotic as was the earlier so-called lockdown. Markets are open and some industries are back at work with precautions having been swept aside. With the ongoing battle between the federal government and Sindh, there is not even a semblance of a national strategy in fighting one of the worst crises this country has faced.
The leadership’s whimsical approach is the biggest impediment in the way of formulating a more rational and holistic strategy that is required to deal with public health and economic challenges simultaneously. In fact, those in charge have never seriously considered the crisis primarily as a public health issue.
What has not been understood is that the economy cannot be restored without containing the infection. That is the reason why almost all countries facing the pandemic have given priority to public health rather than the economy. Many of them have started opening their economies incrementally after the infection reached its peak and the curve began to decline.
While the lockdown is often blamed for causing economic hardship, there is seldom any talk at the federal level about the adverse impact of the disease. It is true that the shutdown has caused massive losses to the economy and has worsened the plight of the masses. But the unchecked spread of the deadly virus could wreak much greater havoc, as has been witnessed in many parts of the world. It is evident that countries which took timely action and enforced strict restrictions on movement have been able to contain the effects of the pandemic and have come out of the crisis faster.
Our muddled policy may cause greater damage. The failure to enforce strict restrictions on social distancing and congregations may lead to a greater public health and economic disaster. The government has also warned of reimposing the lockdown if the spread of infection worsens, but it would have been more prudent to take strict measures in the first place rather than risk a resurgence.
What we are witnessing now is the abrupt and unplanned opening of all kinds of businesses. The spectacle of people thronging the markets is alarming. It’s all happening as the number of coronavirus cases in the country has crossed the 20,000 mark. The death toll has shot up. According to the government’s own estimates, the pandemic will hit its peak in the next two weeks.
Most worrisome is the fact that a large number of Pakistani expatriates brought back especially from the Gulf countries have been diagnosed with Covid-19. The situation could worsen with the unravelling of the restrictions in many parts of the country. The theory that Pakistan with its large youth population and warmer climate may not be as badly hit as other countries has yet to be substantiated. Trivialising the danger could be disastrous. In the absence of credible data, all projections are questionable.
In the midst of the pandemic, the leadership’s remarks do not help boost public confidence in its ability to lead the nation out of the crisis. Instead of uniting the country to deal with the challenge, the federal government’s policy has widened divisions. It’s for the prime minister to show statesmanship and refrain from any move that could cause confusion.
The writer is an author and journalist.
Published in Dawn, May 6th, 2020