FeaturedNationalVOLUME 16 ISSUE # 11

PAKISTAN 2020 – A YEAR OF COVID-19 and POLITICAL CRISIS

Year 2019 began with reports of a possible outbreak of the coronavirus in Pakistan. The first case of the deadly virus was reported in Karachi in late February, and the epidemic soon turned into a frightful reality. By the end of the winter, Covid-19 had gripped the entire country and resulted in massive lockdowns and dislocation of daily life. The situation slightly eased during the summer but the virus re-emerged with renewed virulence at the start of winter 2020.

The second wave of Covid-19 coincided with an upswing in opposition politics in the length and breadth of the country. The political debate has revolved round the carelessness — or callousness — demonstrated by the opposition political parties. For each side, the other is at fault – for campaigning in Gilgit-Baltistan, holding big PDM jalsas or the government-organised events.

Our own experienced and mixed reports from around the world were among the reasons why there was not so much pressure for another bout of lockdown in Pakistan, even though the numbers began to rise again. In Pakistan not everyone, who had willingly imprisoned themselves at the beginning of the year, has returned to a similar level of isolation. This is also due to a sense that the virus is now simply a part of life rather than a life-threatening risk that would disappear if we suspended our daily activities.

The early days of lockdown spelled doom and gloom for the economy. But a light shone when the government took some ameliorative measures and the State Bank of Pakistan forecast that the country’s economy would turn around and grow 1.5-2.5 per cent during the current fiscal year. In its annual report, the State Bank of Pakistan said the nation’s economy was well on its way to recovery on the back of improved export earnings and higher foreign remittances.

“With the pre-Covid-19 improvement in macroeconomic fundamentals remaining intact and the strong policy response helping to cushion the shock, the economy seems poised to pick up from where it was before the Covid-19 shock,” the SBP said.

In September, the central bank had projected Gross Domestic Product (GDP) growth of 2 per cent for the current fiscal year. But the government has set the GDP growth target at 2.1 per cent compared to a contraction of 0.4 per cent in the previous fiscal year, which ended on June 30, 2020. By all indications, the economy seems poised to take off with support from the government-backed housing and construction sector, which has the potential to activate at least 40 allied industries.

However, politics has gone on as usual despite the second wave of Covid-19.

The PDM, which geared up in October, has dragged on its final assault till February, 2021. After holding a series of jalsas, the PDM has decided to submit its resignations. It is not yet clear when the promised resignations in the National Assembly will materialise, but the government cannot afford to sit pretty.

It will have to do far more than count the number of people at the opposition’s jalsas or hold forth about the ulterior motives of the main players in the political game. Lately, the government has mellowed down and realised the need for a little more accommodation and rightly so. But far more needs to be done if the government is willing to recognise that it bears a greater responsibility to douse the fires and defuse the situation.

The prime minister has said that he is willing to talk to the opposition and that the parliament is the best place for national dialogue. But this is really not enough. He needs to reach out to the opposition quickly and more pro-actively At the same time, direct attacks — such as calling the opposition leaders thieves and dacoits — needs to be stopped in order to create a congenial atmosphere for a dialogue.

As suggested by some analysts, Prime Minister Imran Khan can reach out to the opposition by convening an all-parties conference on how best to meet the challenge of Covid-19. If the opposition refuses, it will be exposed as a bunch of self-seekers who looted national wealth and are now raising false slogans of democracy in danger.

Too many of us are too busy predicting an Armageddon to realise that sometimes the worst outcome is not a showdown but the constant threat of one. And similarly, the prime minister should not assume that because the government is secure in its seat of power, he doesn’t need to fear the PDM. Now that the jalsa phase of the PDM is over, they are planning for a “long march” on the capital in the coming weeks to paralyse the government. So, a way out of the present impasse has to be found. As things stand, the overall political prospects for the country remain uncertain – and grim.

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