FeaturedInternationalVOLUME 15 ISSUE # 17

Coronavirus: Fighting an invisible enemy

We are in the midst of an unprecedented crisis. A tiny virus has locked down the whole world. The mighty superpowers are helpless, on their knees. Thousands have died in China, Europe and America. But the casualties are comparatively low in other countries in Asia and Africa.

We in Pakistan are also struggling to control the damage. Thank Allah, the number of the dead and infected are still very low. With limited resources, the government is doing its best to restrict the spread of the virus. All Pakistanis returning from abroad have been identified and quarantined. Entire cities have been locked down and social distancing has been enforced. Testing kits, ventilators and other medical equipment are being imported to upgrade the health sector’s capacity to fight the invisible enemy.

It is unfortunate that at this juncture a section of the media is playing a negative role, spreading needless fear and scare among the public and mounting uncalled for attacks and picking holes in various government measures to tackle the menace. It is nothing but sensation-mongering to capture the audience’s attention. This is undermining the sense of national and social cohesion badly needed in this hour of crisis. Not surprisingly, the WHO director general has underlined the need for combating the “infodemic” alongside the epidemic. The social media is flooded with fake news while newspapers run stories with sensational headlines to attract reader traffic.

As pointed out by some experts, the worldwide media hype is out of all proportion to the threat posed by the virus and the number of fatalities caused by it. The dead count is still in thousands, but over the past few weeks the world economy has lost trillions of dollars due to the collapse of export industries and vital services like air travel. Conspiracy theories apart, the real story and players behind the coronavirus will be told someday in the future.

Truth to speak, Pakistan was among the countries least prepared to face the pandemic. We reacted a little late and imposed a countrywide lockdown in the third week of March. We are confronted with a wide range of problems, including the shortage of doctors and paramedical staff, lack of a sufficient number of ventilators and hospital beds.

The coronavirus crisis has exposed the inadequacy of Pakistan’s healthcare system. The crass neglect displayed by successive governments to the health sector has left the country vulnerable to a situation like the one we are facing today. Aside from the shortage of hospital beds, medical personnel, testing facilities etc, there are in the entire country no more than 2,500 ventilators — equipment that could mean the difference between life and death in severe cases of respiratory illness caused by Covid-19. Our budgetary allocation for the health sector is about 2 percent of GDP, far below 6 percent recommended by the WHO.

Since the infection curve has to be flattened, it’s not possible to return to normal life too soon. The lockdown period may be extended further. The situation will hardly improve in the weeks ahead. Ramazan is around the corner and the apprehension is that many sectors may remain shut till Eid.

The economy is in a lockdown situation. Industrial production has come to a halt but the worst hit is said to be the retail and wholesale markets. Automobile, textile, electronics, light engineering are next in line. Exports are not moving, while imports are also stalled. Public transport is at a standstill and taxi and rickshaw drivers are out of job.

The informal sector is also hard hit, especially small manufacturing and services units. There is widespread loss of employment and small business owners are facing the shortage of liquidity. According to an estimate, not even 10 percent of SMEs are bankable. April is a wheat harvesting season during which seasonal labour is deployed. Thereafter, preparations for the new crop will be made. For this essential task, local authorities will have to ease restrictions on the movement of labourers from one place to another.

The government has done well to announce a multi-billion package involving relief for labour and underprivileged classes, the business community, industries and farmers. There is a separate package for people who have lost their sources of livelihood due to the lockdown. A sum of Rs200 billion has been approved for daily wagers, while Rs100 billion has been fixed for industries. Over Rs50 billion have been allocated for Utility Stores. Likewise, Rs70b relief has been announced for petroleum products. Moreover, Rs 110 billion will be provided for relief in electricity and gas bills, and Rs 100 billion for emergency relief funds.

In times of crisis, the mettle of a nation is tested. We must marshal all our resources to ward off the threat to our society and economy by the coronavirus. We are fighting an invisible enemy. It is time to show grit and determination and maintain discipline in our ranks. China has shown the way. We have to act likewise.