The ongoing controversy in the country over when and how to relax the lockdown restrictions has at last been resolved through an order of the Apex Court.
Last week, a Supreme Court bench, hearing a suo motu case pertaining to the authorities’ handling of the coronavirus pandemic, set aside the federal government’s decision to close shops, markets and businesses on Saturdays and Sundays, saying that people of Pakistan are poor and they need to earn their bread and butter on a daily basis. The court also ordered the provincial governments to reopen all malls but to ensure the SOPs are strictly observed. At the same time, the bench expressed concern that the amount being spent on fighting the pandemic could not be justified because Pakistan is not “seriously affected” by it.
The truth is that from the beginning the Sindh government took an adversarial position vis-a-vis the federal government on the lockdown which created a lot of confusion in the public mind in the province. It stood in the way of a coherent administrative response based on the best practices in corona control. Given the gravity of the situation, there was need for a consensus on priorities but a unified approach was missing.
There was ample logic in Prime Minister Imran Khan’s repeated declaration that while saving lives, the government could not ignore the economic needs of millions of people confined to their homes by the corona lockdown. He floated the idea of a smart or selective lockdown in order to allow people to engage in limited, controlled economic activities. But the Sindh government kept playing the game of political point scoring and stoking fears of spread of the virus in order to prevent the federal government from developing a balanced strategy to deal with the corona threat. The SC verdict in a way endorsed the stand of the federal government.
All across the world, lockdown restrictions are gradually being loosened. The feeling is growing that the damage done to the global economy by the corona shutdown is way out of proportion to the actual number of infections and fatalities caused by the virus. Analysts and commentators have rightly questioned the logic behind putting the livelihoods of seven billion people at risk to control a virus which in virulence is comparable to the seasonal influenza which kills around four hundred thousand people each year.
It is the reason why many countries from the start cast aside the warnings of the epidemiologists who came out with doomsday scenarios which, fortunately for the world, turned out to be false. For example, the government in Sweden did not lock down the country and, instead, employed the technique of herd immunity. Despite no lockdown, the infection and fatality rate in Sweden was no higher than in neighbouring countries which imposed complete lockdown on their people. Korea started with a strict lockdown but soon opened up. The same goes for Germany and some East European countries. Italy and the UK, which were the worst affected countries in the initial phase, also reopened their economies as soon as possible.
The situation in Pakistan is much different from that in the advanced countries where people are economically better off and can sustain themselves through prolonged lockdown periods. Here over 40 percent of the people live below the poverty line and have to earn their bread daily. For them no work means no food. That explains PM Imran Khan’s oft-repeated concern over keeping people locked down for an indefinite period.
As things stand, Pakistan is in step with most of the world in dealing with the pandemic. Over the last couple of months, the realization has grown all across the globe that even the strictest of lockdowns, such as in China and Italy, did not prevent local clusters of Covid-19 from re-emerging later when routine life was allowed to resume. Thus, when Prime Minister Imran Khan recently said that the country would have to “learn to live” with the virus, he was merely echoing the words of David Nabarro, WHO’s special envoy for Covid-19.
However, while reopening of the economy, rigorous efforts for disease control must continue with active testing, contact tracing and isolating patients. At the same time, the government should ensure that the people at large follow SOPs to check the uncontrolled transmission of the virus. It is good that the government has made it mandatory for everyone to use hand sanitisers, wear a mask in public and observe social distancing.
No doubt, public awareness about the coronavirus has grown but it has been observed that some people are still careless and throng markets and stores throwing caution to the wind. It must be checked with a strong hand. Heavy fines should be imposed on both owners of businesses and customers who are found to be violating the SOPs. Since it is a question of life and death, there is no room for leniency in the matter.