Fault lines in focus

May 11, 2020

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The writer is a former ambassador to the US, UK and UN.
The writer is a former ambassador to the US, UK and UN.

A CRISIS is a crucial moment in the life of a nation that often denotes much deeper phenomena by laying bare long-standing flaws. The calamity wreaked by Covid-19 has exposed political, economic and social weaknesses in many countries as well as fatal gaps in medical care. The coronavirus challenge stretched the capacity of governments around the world and made unprecedented demands on healthcare systems, but it also exposed underlying frailties that existed well before the outbreak.

In Pakistan, too, the pandemic has shone a spotlight on a number of fault lines. Four are important and should be addressed when the crisis is over. They are: the huge deficit in public healthcare in an otherwise expansive state apparatus; strained centre-province relations; the federal government’s inability to withstand pressure from a few clergy members on the Covid-19 response; and unstructured governance at the centre. Each has been consequential for handling the health emergency, but all have long been characteristics of the country’s political landscape.

The first fault line is the consequence of the lack of attention shown by successive governments to the social sector in general and the country’s grossly inadequate healthcare system in particular. Although most leaders paid lip service to increasing social sector spending, this never received the priority — and budget — needed to keep pace with the continual rise in the country’s population.

Human security — the security of people — often featured in official power point presentations, and still does. But it was never operationalised by framing policy and allocating resources. Nor were efforts ever made to strike a balance between human and state security. Pakistan’s geopolitical location in a hostile neighbourhood imposed a heavy burden over the years, obliging the country to focus on and adequately resource defence to ensure state security. This was necessary. But it did not mean that commensurate attention should not have been given to peoples’ security — from disease, from illiteracy, from hunger. In education, for example, the private sector has sought to fill some of the yawning gap left by the state. To a lesser extent this has also been witnessed in the health sector with the growth of private medical facilities. But in the case of both, it is privileged sections of society who can access this, with the rest of the population excluded.

The pandemic highlights the need to address longstanding flaws.

When the coronavirus disaster struck, it was no surprise that the country’s public healthcare facilities were found wanting. The subsequent effort mounted to deal with the calamity was nothing short of heroic by doctors and medical workers, with NDMA also acting efficiently in the critical area of medical equipment and logistics. But crisis management is fundamentally different from creating a sustainable basis to provide basic healthcare to citizens. This should prompt a reordering of priorities once the country has negotiated the ongoing crisis.

The second weakness the pandemic brought to the fore is the lack of a smooth working relationship between the centre and the Sindh government, despite protestations to the contrary by federal government spokesmen. Much has already been said about how this impeded implementation of a national response to Covid-19 and continues to hamper execution of a uniform policy to mitigate the spread of the virus. The 18th constitutional amendment has been held responsible for this by federal government ministers. This is misleading and little more than an effort to deflect attention from the centre’s disinclination to closely coordinate policy with the opposition-controlled Sindh government.

Centre-province harmony has been rare in Pakistan’s history when rival parties have headed the federal government and provinces. Indeed, weak political will to work a federal system, inter-provincial tensions as well as lack of tolerance of the opposition are overlapping fault lines, which have hobbled the evolution of Pakistan’s democracy to one oriented to serving citizens rather than being preoccupied by political rivalries and power struggles.

Troubled centre-province relations have had deleterious consequences for the country’s unity in the past. This needs no recall but the lesson it holds out should be remembered and, more importantly, acted on. Federalism involves reciprocal obligations between the centre and provinces and have to be practised not just held up as a constitutional precept. In the unfolding crisis, the likely price paid by sparring between the centre and Sindh government has been a rise in the number of virus cases that could well have been prevented.

The third fault line is the way the federal government succumbed to pressure from a few clerics on Ramazan congregations at places of worship. This, when almost all Muslim countries have closed mosques to save lives. Inviting some clergymen to the presidency and then conceding ground by accepting their demands signified a telling lack of will to ensure that they too abided by a lockdown imposed on everyone else. Entreaties from the medical community in this regard were ignored by Islamabad. The federal government didn’t just tread a well-worn path of the state caving in to a few clerics. It also ended up thwarting its own mitigation strategy. News reports testify that the voluntary guidelines agreed between the government and clerics are being widely violated. This is a reminder that when fear drives policy the government denudes itself of authority.

Last but not least the pandemic has exposed the unstructured and personalised nature of decision-making at the federal level. The primacy of personality in policymaking has a long pedigree in Pakistan’s history but in the present crisis it exposes policy to a greater risk of erring. When personal predilection overrides decisions informed by expert advice and facts on the ground the risks are obvious. In this style of governance, new structures can be set up — as they have — to deal with the present crisis, but the policy approach they recommend is usually predetermined or shaped by the leader. This has contributed to a haphazard response to the crisis as strongly held personal views often seem to take precedence over well-considered, science-based assessments.

No fault line is ever cast in stone. They can be fixed or overcome. By exposing the more important ones in our country, the pandemic has highlighted the importance of dealing with them.

The writer is a former ambassador to the US, UK and UN.

Published in Dawn, May 11th, 2020