The Thin Red Line

Spearhead Analysis-17.04.2020

COVID-19 in Pakistan

In some quarters of the Arab world there have been muted murmurs of a Shia virus because of the large number of pilgrims at Iran’s pilgrimage sites for Shia Muslims and their dispersal in the wake of the Corona (COVID-19) pandemic. In India there has been an attempt to blame Muslims for the spread of the virus and an investigation is being carried out over a Muslim organizations’ gathering in a crowded quarter of Delhi in March. There are also media reports of segregation of Corona patients on the basis of religion– and all this follows the poisonous interview by a BJP leader to a journalist in which he endorsed discriminatory policies against Muslims. No such trend has surfaced in Pakistan and the entire nation stands behind the government in the fight against the virus without hate speeches and sort of blame on others or any discrimination. This is as it should be because in a crisis the people look to the government for policies and responses against the threat. So the focus is on the Prime Minister and his team as they battle on the social, economic, medical and security facets of the threat that the people face.

There is acceptance and appreciation of the structures created at the national level to evolve, review, implement policies and oversee the situation. There is also appreciation of the efforts being made by the Federal government to forge consensus between the Center and the Provinces over policy responses by respecting their autonomy and their own situations. The government asked for WB and IMF support and debt relief and has got a commitment. The response to the Prime Minister’s Relief Fund is ongoing and the Prime Minister has made a personal appeal to overseas Pakistanis to step up remittances. In the absence of a registered labor force round the clock work was done to evolve a system using existing and newly created online systems to disperse funds to those most in need for their survival. This process of dispersing support has begun. The problem of sustaining this support beyond the immediate disbursement is enormous considering the fact that the economy was in dire straits even before the epidemic with manufacturing and export oriented industries and the construction and real estate sectors in a low phase over the last two years. A daily wage laborer earned anything between Rupees 800 to 1000 per day and with this he supported a family of eight or nine on the average. There was a sizeable segment living in dire poverty in slums and cramped quarters without proper sanitation and water supply. Above all the health sector was woefully inadequate for the size of the population. The problem now is that the health sector needs massive resources to cope with the virus and ramp up its capacity for the future and the unemployed and poor need sustained support. The government is mustering resources but the Prime Minister is right when he says that there has to be a ‘nuanced lockdown’ to permit a bare minimum level of economic activity so that some people start working for their living to reduce the enormous burden on the state. There has to be consensus on this to the extent possible and the media must play its role in influencing opinion. Over time the policy can be fine-tuned based on the response.

Over time there will be a compulsion to permit inter-city transport, domestic flights and most of the industrial sector to start functioning. It is for that situation that protocols and guide lines have to be evolved because there can be no going back to the care free days of the past. Now is the time to work on this issue. The other urgent problem is forging religious consensus over the steps that need to be taken to combat the virus. There is world- wide acceptance that social distancing has to be enforced and that people who do not need to go out must stay at home and of course the use of face masks and hand washing habits. This requires cooperation by all segments of the population without exception. The ban on marriage halls, social congregations, public gatherings, cinemas and restaurants has to stay. The government has to carefully convince the religious leaders to support the steps being taken so that they do not use this situation to gain leverage or other benefits. It is encouraging that the religious leaders have agreed to interact with the government on this issue because they will have to convince the population otherwise there could be a catastrophic situation.

Finally, it must be noted that in a society segmented on the basis of inequality a thin red line separates the environment from chaos. A misstep could be catastrophic

(Spearhead Analyses are collaborative efforts and not attributable to an individual)

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