Two days ago, Pakistan started easing the countrywide lockdown.Prime Minister Imran Khan announced the decision along with his top aides after chairing the National Coordination Committee, the highest decision-making forum with regard to COVID-19 issue.
What has been announced was the minimum consensus reached by all four provinces and other stakeholders.
The small markets will stay open from dawn to 5pm for five days a week, educational institutions would remain closed until July 15 and further decision would be taken after reviewing the situation while public transport would remain shut until further orders.
The businesses relating to construction industry would be opened throughout the country.
The easing to lockdown is a big gamble taken by the government but in the words of the prime minister this risk must be taken to save people from dying of hunger.
“We have to save people both from coronavirus as well as hunger,” he said in his televised talk after the meeting.
Pakistan is the not the only and the first country, which softened the lockdown after imposing strict restrictions on the movement of people to contain the spread of pandemic but most of the countries, particularly those in Europe, are doing so after flattening the curve.
Pakistan is lucky that death toll as well as number of infections are way less than in many countries including neighbors too.
However, the number of cases as well as death toll has steadily started rising but authorities are confident that the situation is unlikely to turn worse as in many other countries.
The number of cases showed a spike as number of tests were increased, particularly in Sindh.
So, a dramatic rise in the infections as well as the death toll cannot be ruled out particularly if social distancing and other standard operating procedures (SOPs) like wearing of face masks and use of hand sanitisers were not strictly observed.
Prime Minister has ruled out the possibility of use of force to ensure implementation of SOPs and have urged masses to follow the instructions for their own good.
Though a massive media campaign throughout the world, including Pakistan, has been launched to create awareness among the people against the dangers of the pandemic but this drive needs to be intensified if the government wants the general public to abide by the guidelines voluntarily.
In the absence of development of any medical cure to or vaccine for the COVID-19, social distancing and widely publicised SOPs are the only tangible measure worldwide to control this pandemic which has claimed over 250,000 lives and infected over 3 million people across the planet.
The economic impact of the coronavirus across the globe would be enormous but it is feared to be a very grave for struggling economies like Pakistan.
The world economy has virtually come to a grinding halt for months and no one can say with surety that when the full economic activity is resumed.
However, Pakistan has got some relief on the economic front amidst this crisis too. The government has been given a debt relief under which its debt liabilities are deferred for a year while it has also approved nearly $1.4 billion in emergency financing to help Pakistan meet balance of payments difficulties emanating from the pandemic. This assistance would also help the country to mitigate the economic impact of the pandemic.
The sharp decline in the international oil prices mainly caused by the worldwide lockdown also led to a drastic cut in Pakistan’s oil import bill which ultimately brought down inflation.
Moreover, the rupee saw a significant recovery in its value against dollar in recent weeks which also has helped stem inflation.
The government faces the big test of designing a strategy to make the most of the concessions/relief received and use them to curtail the pandemic’s negative impact on the economy. Moreover, the country is also all set to miss most, if not all, of its budgetary targets for the year, particularly the revenue target, while the global financial institutions as well as the finance ministry have predicted a negative growth in the current fiscal year.
The finance ministry last month announced Pakistan would post a negative growth of 1.6 percent, the first-ever contraction of its economy in almost five decades. The ministry projections confirmed the forecasts already made by the global financial institutions.
Interestingly, the ministry has warned the government against any move to relax the lockdown, fearing it would put unbearable burden country’s already wobbly health system, which would ultimately deepen negative impact on the economy.
The World Health Organization has even warned the countries, which have flattened the curve and have registered a decline in the novel coronavirus deaths and infections, to think twice before relaxing the restrictions as in some countries the disease has resurged after an initial decline.
Now that a consensus has evolved on the need for gradual easing of the lockdown, it is advisable for all stakeholders particularly the federal and provincial governments to enforce these decisions in positive spirit.
Any public sparring by the federal and provincial government leaders on the merits or demerits of these decisions, as done previously on the issue needs to be avoided, will only create confusion among the masses.
The debate “saving lives versus livelihoods” should now be put to rest and all energies should be concentrated to enforce these decisions.
Prime Minister himself should now personally avoid indulging himself into such debate and even if his low-cadre government leaders or party officials get locked into this debate he should discourage them from doing so and instead try to generate a harmony for the successful implementation of these decisions.
Coming weeks and months are very crucial for the country. Since no definite trajectory of the pandemic could be predicted with surety, therefore, everyone on a position of responsibility needs to act responsibly.
The consequences of these decisions should be borne by all of us as a nation.
The writer is a senior journalist based in Islamabad