Losing without a fight

Updated 04 Jun 2020

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The writer is a member of staff.
The writer is a member of staff.

I HAVE not seen a government abdicate all responsibility to safeguard its citizens from clear and present danger so comprehensively as this government has just done. It was a moment of disbelief watching the prime minister announce that people should take care, try to stay indoors — and then announce a reopening of tourism so people in large numbers start going to areas like Murree, Swat, Kaghan and Naran and the northern areas, where healthcare facilities are already in very short supply.

Expecting that these tourists will ‘observe SOPs’ or otherwise not be carrying the virus with them is a weak and distant hope. More likely, this step will open the floodgates of the Covid-19 infection for areas that are already too ill-equipped to handle the situation.

Those who keep invoking the plight of the poor and the daily wagers to make the point that this is a fight the country cannot afford are missing the point entirely. This was a moment to bring far-reaching changes in the country, to turn the focus of the government away from rentier elites and the security establishment and towards the people. This was the perfect opportunity to start crafting the architecture of what Imran Khan envisioned. In fact, campaigned on: to build a welfare state.

‘We gave you the SOPs, we told you to be careful’ they will say as they blame the people.

The elements with which to build this state are there, as are the resources. What is lacking is the will. This moment presented the perfect opportunity to forge that will, because for a while, back in mid-March, everybody was on the same page ie the fight against the virus was the top priority. The means with which to deliver social protection, for example, are there. As are the resources with which to ramp up the capacity of the country’s healthcare system. Contact tracing, widespread testing and all other elements with which the fight against the virus could be waged are all possible to undertake, given the will.

Take one example. One of the fastest-growing segments in Pakistan’s payments system is mobile phone banking. There are currently 27 providers for this service (I’m talking about mobile phone banking provided by the banks, not by the telecoms, which is a different story). Consider the numbers. In the first quarter of FY2017, there were 1.2 million transactions through this channel, totalling Rs21 billion. Two years later — quarter two of FY2019 — that figure rose to 8.5m and Rs159.9bn as the total amount transacted through this channel.

In the quarter two of FY2020, these figures have now risen to 17.8m transactions and Rs382.5bn transacted in total. The numbers are more than doubling every year, faster than any other channel in our payments system, whether ATM or point of sale or internet banking or any other. If you include mobile banking services provided by the telecom companies, these figures skyrocket. The number of merchants servicing clients for these channels is also growing rapidly.

It is disingenuous when those who know better argue that we cannot reach the poor because they do not have bank accounts, to take one example. Everybody who uses a mobile phone has a bank account because all mobile numbers now come with a mobile bank account attached with them. If the will to use these channels, coupled with all the ways in which databases of the poor can be built, was present, there were any number of ways in which a vast social protection scheme could be built.

Instead, what we had was what the prime minister disingenuously called a ‘construction package’. The reason I say it was disingenuous is because it was, in fact, never a ‘construction package’. Study its details and you will realise it was not designed to restart work at construction sites. It was designed to restart the buying and selling of plot files and flats.

In short, it was designed to restart speculation in the property market, and that’s not surprising given who all were providing input in crafting the package. Latest figures released by the cement industry show that there was a 37 per cent plunge in cement sales in the country in the month of May. The construction package was announced in early April, and the prime minister said work should begin by April 14.

There is no way to tell if any work has indeed begun in the buying and selling of plot files because this is a totally undocumented area and the package contained an amnesty scheme to plough black money — whether illicit or just tax-evaded — to acquire assets in the property market without any questions being asked as to the source.

With these kinds of reflexes, to turn to the billionaires and speculator elite for advice in the middle of a public health emergency, it is not surprising that the government has been directed towards laying down its arms in this critical fight with the argument that ‘the cure is worse than the disease’. What is grievous and downright pathetic to note is that this surrender has been done in the name of the poor, whereas it is actually at the behest of the rich, who do not want to see their businesses closed any longer.

So if you’re poor in Naya Pakistan, and you want to feed your family, you have no choice but to go and face the infection and consider it one more occupational hazard. They have built their SOPs and thrown the gates open, and now that the infection is spreading like wildfire, it is the people themselves who will be blamed. ‘We gave you the SOPs, we told you to be careful’ they will say down the road.

Perhaps it was a futile hope to harbour in the first place, that the rulers of this country will rise to a challenge, seize the opportunity, and undertake a far-reaching renegotiation of the compact between the ruler and the ruled. Instead, they decided to listen to traders and speculators, and throw the country to the mercy of the virus.

The writer is a member of staff.

khurram.husain@gmail.com

Twitter: @khurramhusain

Published in Dawn, June 4th, 2020