Covid & governance


The writer is the author of Pakistan: In Between Extremism and Peace.
The writer is the author of Pakistan: In Between Extremism and Peace.

COVID-19 is testing the efficacy and response of governance systems, besides intensifying the debate on the effectiveness of authoritarian and democratic regimes. A lockdown focuses mainly on curtailing the right to movement; hence authoritarian regimes have the edge in imposing restrictions. In Western democracies, a sense of responsibility has resulted in little effort to impose such restrictions.

So far, Singapore, Vietnam, Taiwan, Germany, New Zealand and South Korea have tackled the threats posed by Covid-19 effectively while the US and Italy have failed. China, too, did better than Western democracies. However, it’s too early to say which political system will effectively deal with the crisis.

In developing societies, governments face multiple challenges. Besides relief work, they deal with a rigid clergy, pressure groups, a sensational media and conspiracy theories.

Globally, during the crisis, governments have expanded their executive powers, restricted individual rights and delayed parliamentary proceedings. Although ‘lockdown’ is not a legal term it is being universally interpreted as closing non-essential businesses, restraining public gatherings, limiting human movement and monitoring streets to ensure the public remains inside.

Several weaknesses have been exposed.

Over 50 countries (and almost all US states) have declared a state of emergency. Article 15 of the European Convention on Human Rights empowers the countries to do so. Whilst Europe has been hit hardest, voices there are protesting the emergency measures. In Hungary, 100,000 people signed a petition against the emergency. Under emergency powers Spain nationalised its hospitals. The pandemic has also disrupted electoral process in at least 47 countries. While the crisis may be an opportunity to introduce online voting, this may be vulnerable to hacking.

New surveillance methods are in use. South Korea and Israel are using smartphone location data. In Hong Kong, newly arrived persons must wear tracking wristbands. This may affect privacy; implementation without transparency may be detrimental to human rights. China, South Korea and Taiwan used location tracking while Germany and Italy are using anonymised location data to identify public spaces where people violate lockdowns.

China used robots in quarantine facilities; in Singapore robots clean hospitals. In China, police used drones with loudspeakers and cameras to disperse crowds and AI-powered thermal cameras to separate individuals with higher temperatures.

The crisis has exposed weaknesses at different tiers of governance. Many countries have opted for more centralisation as opposed to devolution, intensifying the debate on the subject. Disease outbreaks have given space to non-state actors (NSAs). In Sierra Leone, during Ebola’s spread, local chiefs played an important role in its prevention. The Afghan Taliban through their health commission assured foreign health organisations they would cooperate in tackling Covid-19. To fight the virus in Lebanon, Hezbollah organised 25,000 volunteers. Initially, NSAs extend help and earn sympathies. NSAs opt for a simple narrative and talk of such events as God’s wrath because of prevailing social evils. This is followed by NSAs inducting people into their ranks to ‘implement the will of God’. Monitoring such influence is inevitable.

Corruption often increases during disease outbreaks. Crisis procurement of medical equipment and medicines is an area of corruption. According to UNODC, globally 10 per cent to 25pc of all funds spent on procurement is lost to corruption while chances of misappropriation increase.

To help the poor, gov­ernments have started disbursing funds. To discourage corruption, they should introduce autonomous oversight of the process. Emergencies warrant more transparency; employment of technology may deter irregularities.

Meanwhile, because of governments’ protectionist measures, the FAO has warned of food shortages globally. We need to review our food export policy, and KP and Balochistan must curb the smuggling of food grains.

Unemployment is an instant result of pandemics. In the US alone about 30 million people have lost their jobs. Countries without records of the unemployed are unable to make correct assessments (this is, therefore, an opportunity to document the unemployed). In Pakistan, 12.3m to 18.5m people will lose their jobs. The economy is projected to sustain losses of Rs2 trillion to Rs2.5tr in only three months.

Though the Public Procurement Rules, 2004, define ‘emergency’, the gravity of the crisis warrants rules to be relaxed for the purchase of special equipment and monitoring measures installed for greater transparency. More transparency and widespread publicity of beneficiaries of the relief package will discourage corruption and improve the governments’ image. Technology can help the governments track the flow of resources.

The writer is the author of Pakistan: In Between Extremism and Peace.

Twitter: @alibabakhel

Published in Dawn, May 21st, 2020