NationalVOLUME 15 ISSUE # 20

Political management of coronavirus

Like anything else in Pakistan, there seems to be no proper policy and cohesive plan to deal with the coronavirus pandemic. One wishes there was a proper system in place with enough medical facilities so that suspects and diagnosed patients could be isolated in a right manner and the spread of the virus was controlled.

The system must have population data with addresses and profession of individuals. It would have helped lockdown easy to manage and provide ration to people. It took almost two months to determine how to lock down and which areas. We in Pakistan lack testing kits, thus a very low number of testing is being done which has resulted in very few patients. It has given a false presumption that Pakistanis are at a very low risk of the virus. It further gave birth to theories that it is because we subject our population to tuberculosis injections. All the theories and assumptions are wrong. The one and simple thing to understand is that our number of the testing of people is insufficient. As per the World Health Organization (WHO), we must test at least 1,000 per million of the population.

If we continue with the current practice, we might inadvertently spread the coronavirus to an extent that we could have a great deal of difficulty to control it in Pakistan. The issue is the overlapping government structure, with no proper data and set-up to help the public in such cases. Provincial sizes are too big to manage. There is hardly any coordination between the federal government and provinces. Worse yet, the governments are fighting it out instead of working together. At the stage there is complex decision making between saving lives from the coronavirus or opening up so people can earn their livelihood. The government and the public must keep in mind that no one has died of hunger but over 1,000 lives have already been lost because of the coronavirus. People continue to die and the death rate is increasing day by day. The government can save lives from the coronavirus by enforcing smart lockdown, having properly equipped medical facilities and ensuring the public follows social distancing rule, wash hands and use masks and sanitizer.

On the lockdown issue, the government must bring the public into confidence that even if daily wagers or shop owners do not work they will be taken care of. The government should work in coordination with reputable non-government organizations to bring food to the deserving population. The organizations have the data and workforce to implement the plan. There seems the governments are not applying quarantine procedures in a right manner, thus a person who has caught Covid-19 is not properly isolated. People are being asked to isolate themselves in their houses in case of being tested positive. The houses are of one or two rooms. They are sure to transmit the coronavirus to their family members as well.

Now that lockdown has been eased, there is a big danger of spreading the coronavirus further unless the government sets stringent rules and ensures their enforcement. Even an agreement has been reached to open mosques, but 80pc of mosque-goers are not following the rules.

One can understand the importance of people working, the economy moving and the government collecting taxes. But we need to weigh it out; the tax collection is important or lives? The only way to check the virus spread is to educate people and provide them with right isolation places. Under the 18th Amendment, medicine and education are provincial responsibilities. Given that the provinces have failed to improve both under previous regimes, but two years have passed under the present government, a question arises, how much the system has been rectified in two years?

Helping the poor with the provision of cheap ration is not working at all. Utility Stores are there by name only to carry inexpensive items. For example, flour in the market is being sold at Rs805 a 20kg bag and in Utility Store at Rs800. Consumers question the value of subsidy of only Rs5. Most of Utility Stores are not even open or have enough items. There is no stability in prices in the market. Prices are still going up. Food inflation is still high. The job market is still bad and getting worse.

People say ID card copies are being taken and promised to deliver ration but they have yet to receive anything. Both federal and each of the provincial governments are working hard to control the coronavirus and also to distribute ration, but the public is not satisfied. There are reports that the ration is finding its way to houses of waderas and bureaucrats. Whatever good has been done is by philanthropists. There is no strategic set-up with proper coordination. The railway ministry is distributing ration on its own which causes chaos and no rules of social distance are being followed. Everyone is concerned about their own politics rather than being part of a main distribution plan in a strategic manner. Even the Supreme Court had to take suo motu action on the so-called management of the coronavirus.

On the other hand, the government needs to adopt a concrete economic policy so that have-nots or people who are daily wagers can earn their daily earning to live. The government had unnecessarily set discount interest rates at a high level of 13.5%. The government reduced it but it was not enough. On top of it, the financial adviser to the prime minister announced that there would be a further reduction in the interest rates. You do not do that! Investors and industrialists keep a close watch on what is being said by the managers of the economy. The announcement by the finance adviser was counterproductive because the reduction in interest rates hardly rendered any positive result. This is because investors would wait until a further cut is made.

Unfortunately, there is a political side to the coronavirus management as well. A continuous political in-fighting goes on between the federal and provincial governments. When test kits were received from China, the Sindh government kept the majority of them for itself and shared a very small portion with the rest of the country. From the second imported shipment of the kits, what the federal government sent to Sindh, the Sindh government claimed they were defective. Purportedly, in the beginning of the pandemic the federal government said “it will not beg for help for medical equipment from outside because this is a provincial issue under the 18th Amendment when asked by a provincial Chief Minister to request help from outside.” The National Coordination Committee (NCC) holds meetings to make mutual decisions and then the provinces do whatever they want. So what is the point of NCC meetings and mutual decision making?

Politics is being played by both Centre and provinces. Everything is being politicized. The Tiger Force put together by the federal government to help distribute ration has been refused by Sindh, Azad Kashmir and Gilgit-Baltistan along political lines. By adopting a proper political structure of the government, the issues could have been resolved.