FeaturedNationalVOLUME 15 ISSUE # 19

The lockdown controversy

Unlike other parts of the world, the issue of coronavirus lockdown has become a matter of controversy in our country.

From day one Prime Minister (PM) Imran Khan has taken the stand that in view of the problems faced by the poor daily-wage earners and other deprived sections of society without the means to sustain themselves during the kind of an economic shutdown we are currently experiencing, we cannot impose a total or overly strict lockdown. The argument makes a lot of sense.

Our situation is different from other countries where the economy is formal and properly organised. Here, a large section of our labour force works in the informal sectors of the economy. There are daily-wage earners as well as contract workers, vegetable sellers, pushcart vendors and a host of others who have to earn their bread daily. Pakistan has no social security system to help citizens in times of an economic crisis. There is also no reliable database to identify those in need of food and other essential supplies in times like this.

So, in the PM’s view, instead of a total lockdown we should go for a smart lockdown, allowing for controlled movement of people and goods. Working on the concept the government, in the first phase of almost a complete lockdown, drew up a detailed plan for cash disbursement among the poor and deprived sections of society, who were identified through the NADRA database.

By contrast, the Sindh government adopted a different approach and slapped a total lockdown, saying that it was necessary to avoid the kind of an exponential increase in the number of coronavirus cases seen in some European countries. But the policy also created serious hardships for the general public. The matter of a complete or partial lockdown thus became a bone of contention between Islamabad and Karachi, both defending their policies and blaming each other for the confusion in the public mind.

But as things played out, it became clear that the policy of a complete lockdown was neither affordable nor possible and acceptable to the public. People poured out into the streets and visited bazaars to fulfil their everyday needs, rendering the strict lockdown infructuous. Yet the Sindh government refused to toe the line of the Centre and continued to issue politically motivated statements designed to paint the federal government as incompetent and incoherent.

On April 30, 2020, while addressing a ceremony in Islamabad regarding the production of ventilators, sanitizers, safety kits, testing kits and masks, PM Imran Khan again articulated his government’s policy, holding the elite responsible for the decision to impose the lockdown without a thought for the poor. It drew a lot of flak from the opposition parties which failed to appreciate the point that he made: the insensitivity of the rich to the needs of the poor.

An interesting aspect is that the results of conflicting policies – a strict lockdown in Sindh and a partial lockdown in the Punjab and other parts of the country – have not turned out differently. Both in Sindh and the Punjab the number of infections and fatalities has grown by almost the same ratio. The position as of now is that with the locked down people becoming increasingly restive, the government has to find ways to ease the restrictions on the movement of people and goods, while fighting the coronavirus menace. The objective should be to save both lives and livelihoods.

The federal cabinet has now approved a multi-layer policy to ease lockdown restrictions in the country gradually in order to provide earning facilities to workers and daily-wage earners on the condition of the strict implementation of the coronavirus-related preventive measures suggested by the government. In the coming days, the Centre and provinces will also decide which businesses and industries are to be reopened in phases during the easing of restrictions.

However, it must be kept in mind that the threat from the coronavirus is not over and the epidemic could strike again if people do not take proper care. To this end it is important that the standard operating procedures (SOPs) regarding leaving home only for essential chores, keeping social distancing, wearing facemasks, etc., are strictly followed. Any violation of the rules must be dealt with sternly.

The battle against the coronavirus is not over. Experts in Western countries have been warning that although the threat has been receding, yet there is a distinct danger of the epidemic hitting us again in the coming days. This emphasizes the need for us to be on constant guard both at individual and collective levels. The government too needs to increase budgetary allocations for the health sector, with special focus on areas where we were found lacking during the coronavirus attack.