Role reversal

18 May 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.

TWO developments last week exposed the state of play in the country even as it reels from the pandemic and rising coronavirus cases. The first was the spectacular lack of unity displayed in the specially requisitioned meetings of the National Assembly and Senate. And second was the lack of social discipline evidenced by crowded scenes in markets and bazaars across the country following an easing of the lockdown announced by the federal government.

Neither came as a surprise but both are consequential to the management of the evolving health crisis. Far from peaking, this is now witnessing an alarming surge in numbers.

Expectations that the first parliamentary session since the pandemic began would urge the government and opposition to demonstrate solidarity may have been misplaced given the bitter partisan bickering that preceded these meetings. But in the face of an unprecedented crisis it was still hoped that public representatives would temporarily set aside their politics and work together to address the issue for which the sessions were called: Covid-19.

This was not to be. The proceedings saw intense sparring and unseemly rhetoric by both treasury and opposition benches. But then it is the government’s responsibility to show leadership and take the initiative to reach out to the opposition and build consensus especially at times of crisis. In all democracies, oppositions oppose and subject the actions of the government to critical scrutiny. It remains the majority party’s obligation to extend a hand across the aisle to elicit cooperation from political opponents and mobilise support for its policies.

Coming weeks will be a defining time for the government.

Most members of the patchwork PTI government are of course still new to parliamentary politics. But since the party’s assumption of power its leadership has shown little inclination to use parliament to forge consensus on key national issues, preferring to govern unilaterally. As a new political force, the PTI could have breathed new life and vigour into parliamentary proceedings. Instead parliament has principally been seen as a means to maintain the party in power rather than as an instrument of governance where opposition support is actively solicited, or as a forum used to shape or debate policy.

This attitude has carried over even at this time of crisis. As the majority party sets the tone and substance for parliamentary discussion, in last week’s proceedings it was the fierce partisan shots fired at the outset by treasury leaders which provoked a stronger response from the opposition than it may otherwise have intended. In other words, had government ministers adopted a conciliatory and less combative tone and called for political unity, unencumbered by gratuitous swipes at the Sindh government, it could have put the opposition on the defensive and injected a positive note into proceedings. But true to their party’s combative culture, front-bench leaders used provocative rhetoric which evoked an equally aggressive response.

Yet even in the midst of this fracas it was opposition leaders in Parliament, including Bilawal Bhutto, Khawaja Asif and Raja Zafarul Haq, who, notwithstanding their critique of the centre’s handling of the crisis, kept calling for unity in the face of the pandemic with offers of cooperation to fight the virus. This clarion call should have come in the first instance from government leaders. But in a role reversal it was left to the opposition to urge the need for political solidarity with front-line ruling party members later making television appearances to hurl more attacks at the opposition. This led to sharp opposition responses both in and out of parliament.

Another role reversal was evidenced when the federal government decided to soften the lockdown restrictions. The official announcement was accompanied by the declaration, subsequently reiterated, that with restrictions being eased, it was now up to people to exercise responsibility and abide by the standard operating procedures (SOPs) being laid out. This message meant that the government was not in a position to enforce its own guidelines; people and businesses had to do this themselves. In this role reversal, the buck of enforcement — the government’s responsibility — was passed to the public.

In countries where the Covid-19 crisis has been more effectively managed, easing of the lockdown has involved a combination of advice to the public by the authorities and administrative measures to ensure compliance with social distancing. But here the government seemed to virtually wash its hands off efforts to effectively implement its own SOPs.

The result could have been foreseen. Crowds flocked to bazaars and shops swarmed with people. Reading the lifting of restrictions from retail and other businesses as a signal for them to venture out too, people rushed with abandon to shops, many of which openly violated the SOPs. Most shoppers disregarded social distancing rules, hundreds of shops avoided prescribed precautions and the majority of mosques did not follow guidelines.

This is what the medical community had desperately warned the authorities about. That premature relaxation of restrictions, when the virus curve had not begun to flatten, was fraught with danger. A spike in cases would ensue from people abandoning social distancing. The Pakistan Medical Association urged the government to uphold the writ of the state and institute a proper lockdown, pointing out that restrictions were being eased in other countries only when virus cases were declining, which in Pakistan had yet to happen. That these warnings were warranted is now indicated by the continuing SOP breaches in public places and rising virus cases. It remains an open question whether the centre would be compelled to eventually impose stricter restrictions if this situation persists.

The consequences of the federal government’s policy have yet to fully unfold. What seems certain is that the coming weeks will be a defining time for the government. Having made light of the need for national unity in these testing times, the government has overlooked a key lesson from how other countries are addressing the pandemic. Leaders who have united their nation and adopted an inclusive approach have been the best performers, rather than those pursuing divisive policies. The government’s credibility now rests critically on how it deals with the crisis. Will its management be able to protect citizens’ lives or will it leave the country with the worst of both worlds — endangering both lives and livelihoods?

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

Published in Dawn, May 18th, 2020