SO we are back to a ‘smart lockdown’ after a month of mayhem that has seen a relentless rise in the number of confirmed coronavirus cases in the country. There may be some signs of panic in the corridors of power with the latest projection crossing one million cases in the next few weeks, and yet there is no coherent strategy to deal with the crisis.
While the pandemic stares us in the face, the leadership continues to sow confusion with its flip-flops. There is still no sense of seriousness though the daily death toll is now over 100. Pakistan is now among the top 10 countries reporting the highest number of new daily cases of Covid-19. At this rate, the death toll could be in the thousands by the time the disease reaches its peak in mid-August.
With large numbers of medical staff down with the virus, the country’s health system has already collapsed with hospitals turning away an ever-increasing number of patients. The federal government’s reckless decision to reopen during the month of Ramazan, ignoring the warning by local and international health experts, has created a catastrophic situation.
While no section of society is safe from the rampaging virus, it is the poor and working classes that have been most affected by the infection. In a rare move, the World Health Organisation has urged Pakistan to return to lockdown. But the federal government has dismissed the warning saying the country could not afford a total shutdown. The prime minister continues to harp on his old anti-lockdown mantra.
Mixed messaging and downplaying the problem have confused the public.
Intriguingly, two days after he had rejected any move to reimpose the lockdown the National Coordination and Operation Centre (NCOC) ordered what it describes as a ‘smart lockdown’, sealing areas in 20 major cities and towns across the country. One wonders who made the decision.
It seems to be a repeat of the unilateral decisions taken by the provincial governments to shut down all business, ignoring the prime minister’s advice against it in March. He has repeatedly denounced the move and even tried to undermine the efforts of the Sindh government to restrict movement and congregations. He was finally able to prevail and ordered the removal of all restrictions and reopened the economy prematurely. That wiped out success in mitigating the spread of the disease during the brief lockdown.
We are now in a much worse situation than we were a month ago as provincial administrations now move to impose restrictions in major hotspots. It may not be as effective as a complete lockdown for some period of time that health experts and the WHO has been asking for. But it’s still better than the free-for-all approach witnessed for the past one month.
Given Imran Khan’s scepticism regarding the issue of lockdown, one is not sure how effective even the few restrictions will be. The problem is that he and his followers genuinely believe that his government’s handling of the pandemic was an example for the world to emulate. Sadly, the government’s chaotic policy could neither save lives nor the economy.
Such a Trumpian style of self-glorification gives little hope for rectifying mistakes. The prime minister has his own ingenious idea of fighting the disease with his ‘Tiger Force’. The elusive million-strong volunteer force is yet to be seen in action though there has been a claim of its being very effective in parts of the country. Such gimmickry cannot be a substitute for a comprehensive policy to deal with a serious public health and economic crisis.
Dealing with the global pandemic has produced stories of international success as well failures. Leaders who have taken timely and tough decisions have been able to mitigate the damage and have pulled out their countries from the crisis much faster. It is nothing to do with the size, population, and wealth of a nation; it is leadership and one’s capability to think clearly in times of crisis that matter.
Surely decisions are not easy to make but that is what leadership is all about. Women have proved to be tougher and more decisive leaders. Most of the success stories are of countries ruled by leaders who have been able to unite the country and mobilise the masses.
Unfortunately, our leadership has failed on all counts. Mixed messaging and downplaying the problem have confused the public. As a result, people have never taken the infection seriously. The government was completely absent when it came to the enforcement of restrictions. It is unfair now to put all the blame for the spread of the infection on the people for not observing SOPs, which have never been properly defined. No state can leave the enforcement of the law to the discretion of the general public.
Instead of uniting the country in such challenging times, the PTI government has done everything to divide and polarise it. The selective application of anti-corruption laws has exposed the government to the allegation of a political witch-hunt. The government’s so-called drive against graft is, in fact, a cover for its incompetence.
The pandemic is also being used by the PTI to cover up its failure to improve governance. The economy is in a shambles, and for the first time in 68 years, it has shown negative growth. It’s convenient for the government to entirely blame the pandemic and the less than two-month-long partial lockdown for the contraction, but it is not based on facts.
There is still time for the government to salvage the situation and take the battle against the pandemic more seriously. The prime minister has to change his flawed approach and show some leadership and clarity in policy. The government has to impose a strict lockdown for at least several weeks in order to reduce the number of infected people to a small fraction of the current numbers.
Saving lives is more important; that would also help a faster revival of the economy. The prime minister must not make it a matter of ego. He needs to follow the examples of leaders with success stories to tell rather than live in a state of self-deception.
The writer is an author and journalist.
Published in Dawn, June 17th, 2020