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Premature lockdown easing

Since the advent of the Covid-19 pandemic, the debate about the correct course to follow to meet the challenges thrown up by the crisis has been bogged down in uncertainty, confusion, contradictory policies, political point scoring and an absence of a coh

Updated May 16 2020

Since the advent of the Covid-19 pandemic, the debate about the correct course to follow to meet the challenges thrown up by the crisis has been bogged down in uncertainty, confusion, contradictory policies, political point scoring and an absence of a coherent national policy. If proof were required for the above statement, the easing of the lockdown provided it in ample measure. As soon as smaller bazaars and shops opened countrywide, people and the traders threw all caution to the winds and crowded public places with no facemasks, social distancing or any of the government's prescribed Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) anywhere in sight. This outcome was not unpredictable. First and foremost, from day one, Prime Minister (PM) Imran Khan and his Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaaf (PTI) government have been guilty of putting out mixed messages, underlying which was their lack of conviction that a strict lockdown could be sustained in a poor country like ours. This 'lives versus livelihoods' debate has bogged down the country in mass confusion and the risk of an exponential explosion of Covid-19 infections. The obvious corollary of any such development is that our wholly inadequate healthcare infrastructure could collapse under such pressure. The PTI government has been arguing all along that the poor and daily wagers cannot sustain a lockdown for long. Agreed. But other than closing down businesses that employ such communities and disbursing appreciable but starkly insufficient cash dollops to the deserving, the government appeared clueless and rudderless in its approach. At a time of such national crisis that cuts across class, gender, ethnic identity and religious affiliation, it was expected that the otherwise combative approach of the PTI government would be toned down to reach out to the opposition, thereby providing the climate for a national coming together to tackle the common affliction. Unfortunately, this has been far from the case. The reason why the Sindh government appears to have been singled out and lambasted by PTI government spokesmen morning, noon and night is because it is a Pakistan People's Party (PPP) government. All the other provincial governments are either headed by the PTI or its allies.
Imagine if the PTI federal government, particularly the PM, had kept their political likes and dislikes aside in the interests of a consistent, coordinated national effort to combat the pandemic, things may have turned out differently. As it is, and given the mixed messaging, confusion and adversarial attitude to the Sindh government, the PTI federal government and PM Imran Khan in particular missed the opportunity the crisis presented of truly leading the country on a common, agreed path. The actual manner in which the crisis has unfolded shows a steady (but not yet explosive) rise in the number of confirmed cases and fatalities. The lockdowns imposed so far have been somewhat loose, with Sindh perhaps standing out in degree rather than any qualitative difference. However, when the easing of the lockdown was announced despite the contrary advice of medical experts, a people not educated about the pandemic and the necessary restrictions to combat it poured out into the streets and bazaars as though things had returned to normal. Had the government/s carried out an imaginative campaign from day one to educate the public on this score, a partnership against the pandemic amongst the authorities and citizens could have been envisaged, with its concomitant benefit of adherence to the agreed SOPs. As it is, however, the 'easing' has wrought such chaos on the very first day that the federal as well as the provincial governments have all declared in a chorus within one day that if the SOPs are not adhered to by the people and businesses, the lockdown would have to be tightened up again. This has been followed up by the Punjab and Sindh governments by sealing quite a few markets and shopping centres in their provinces where the SOPs were not being followed. Whereas the government and its ministers are fond of quoting the experience of western developed countries, perhaps they would be better served by the example and advice of our friend China from where the pandemic is said to have started. China shut down epicentre Wuhan and the country as a whole until the curve not only flattened out, new cases began to dwindle to virtually zero. Now Wuhan has seen a few cases re-emerge and the Chinese authorities have announced their intent to test the entire Wuhan populace over again. We may not be able to emulate China one hundred percent in this regard, but can certainly learn valuable lessons from China's success in quelling the pandemic.

Copyright Business Recorder, 2020