Rudderless in the Covid storm

Published April 25, 2021
The writer is a former editor of Dawn.
The writer is a former editor of Dawn.

WITH the tragic Covid nightmare unfolding across the border in India bringing closer to home the horror millions in Brazil have been facing for over a year, there still seems little awareness of the consequences of actions or, more appropriately, inaction here.

Early last year when the US and Europe were hit by Covid-19, it could be argued that the huge initial ravages of the virus were largely due to the ‘shock and awe’ element, that is, Western governments and societies were caught mostly unawares.

The virus travelled from its birthplace in Wuhan to shores across the seas, thousands of miles away, at blinding speed and, on landing, spread like wildfire, devastating particularly chunks of the elderly population in the West which, compared to us, has a far higher proportion of over-65s.

The shock of the staggering death toll in those initial months of the virus attacking humanity saw two kinds of leadership responses. The first was governments and societies agreeing to extraordinary curtailment of physical movement, regardless of the impact on the economy.

The lockdowns of that period that I witnessed myself in Spain, and friends in Italy and Portugal spoke of, just to mention a few, were very tough. For many, many months people were more or less confined to their homes, with children being e-schooled. It took a while but infections and deaths tapered off.

Any talk of restricting movement of people, of limiting huge congregations, which are called superspreader events, is taboo.

The second response was to keep the economy open at all costs, including the loss of human life, such as was evident in the UK to start with and the US, under Trump, and witnessed to this day in Bolsonaro’s Brazil to disastrous consequences.

However, unlike India and Pakistan, even the US under Trump invested huge resources in vaccine development and so did Johnson’s UK which also eventually opted for curtailing physical movement to stop the spread of the virus and allowed the economy to take a hit to halt the runaway death toll.

Big business’s say in decision-making in the BJP government meant that after a brief initial lockdown, it was clear that the economy was always going to be the topmost priority. Even then, it was awfully myopic not to accelerate vaccine development.

Neither was the health infrastructure upgraded nor oxygen production capacity increased to ensure supply at critical stages. India took its eye off the ball and lost sight of statistical evidence presented in research studies that spells out that economies don’t grow as the workforce is falling ill/dying.

The millions-strong Kumbh Mela which the UP’s BJP chief minister seemed to suggest enjoyed divine protective umbrella and the BJP-led rallies in the West Bengal State election, showed the criminal disregard of government responsibility to further the party’s Hindu credentials and political ambitions.

Read: Poll rallies to Kumbh Mela — Modi-Shah’s conscience must take a look at latest Covid surge in India

The resultant tragedy is now devouring Indians irrespective of cast and creed or political affiliation. Prime Minister Modi has had to cancel his state election-related activities to finally discuss with oxygen producers and pharmaceutical bosses how to meet the country’s rising emergency needs.

I am aware that I will be accused of comparing chalk and cheese as the US and UK are among the most developed nations and South Asia is near the bottom. But that is not the point being made here. Even with meagre resources a more coherent policy response could have been formulated.

As a Pakistani, I am well within my rights to ask for details of how the $250 million allocated last year for the purchase of vaccines have been spent; and what orders are in the pipeline. I say this because for now the main emphasis seems to be on listing what Pakistan will receive as charity from Gavi-Covax, the vaccine alliance.

It is equally relevant to ask what the government has spent to upgrade and enhance the health infrastructure to address increasing demand as fresh waves of Covid-19 hit us, and the elderly and the vulnerable among us with greater ferocity.

I have scoured the newspapers and government sites in the quest for answers and failed. All I have to hang on to are messages by Asad Umar who is tweeting images of the Indian tragedy, asking people to exercise care. Mr Umar heads the NCOC, the mostly military-staffed apex Covid response body.

Finally on Saturday, I saw newspaper headlines which said the prime minister has asked the army to help enforce the SOPs to limit the spread of Covid. As many hospitals are reporting their HDUs (high dependency units) are full to capacity, Mr Umar has painted an uncomfortable oxygen situation.

He was quoted by papers as having said the country is at 90 per cent of its oxygen production capacity. Coupled with rising infections requiring hospitalisation, this represents an alarming scenario. A few hundred more patients needing critical care could tip us over the edge.

But any talk of restricting movement of people, of limiting huge congregations, which are called superspreader events, is taboo. One only heard that argument when, during low infection rates’ period, the opposition was out, rallying support in the streets.

The rationale for ushering in this hybrid regime was open, clean and efficient government and harmony among state institutions. So, far the hybrid regime has failed that rationale test and represented a dithering wreck in economic management, law and order, foreign and trade policy, among others.

Now a similar malaise is spreading to other institutions and the recent open verbal clashes between eminent justices of the Lahore High Court and the Supreme Court appeared to speak of divisions, rather than harmony, not just among state institutions but within them as well.

Surely, the people of Pakistan deserve better. The nuclear-armed state with ballistic missile capability does have the resources to feed the neediest of its citizens, while a lockdown takes the edge off the virus impact, particularly on the dwindling health infrastructure, followed by mass vaccination.

It is not resources that are missing, it is leadership. The need for truly representative leadership, sure-footed decision-making is spotlighted even more during crises.

The writer is a former editor of Dawn.

abbas.nasir@hotmail.com

Published in Dawn, April 25th, 2021

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