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April 2, 2020

Criminal negligence

Opinion

April 2, 2020

The official numbers of corona cases are increasing with each passing day while the official response doesn’t seem to be catching up.

No well-thought-out national plan has been announced and the provincial and local governments also seem to be on their own. The federal government seems confused, the provincial governments seem isolated and the local governments have been kept in quarantine for years. The weak popular legitimacy of the government and the highly polarized political situation in the country are the biggest obstacles in launching a national action plan to cope with the corona epidemic.

To make matters worse, the country is being led by a government whose majority cabinet members muddled through their previous political camps.

The electoral legitimacy of governments has always remained a thorny issue in Pakistan’s history. Governments in Pakistan have mostly suffered a crisis of popular legitimacy because of pre- and post-poll manipulations. Khan’s government also suffers deeply with the same crisis. Legitimacy counts a lot in times of national crises. At the moment, the situation is quite perplexing: who really is on the driving seat?

In addition to that, Khan’s government has failed to stave off political restlessness in the country during its first two years in office. Even in such a potentially dangerous situation, the witch-hunt against the opposition continues and control over the media is being tightened – all this further polarizing national unity. In this state of political instability, a national action plan to cope with the coronavirus seems far away. Prime Minister Imran Khan is not sensing the potential national mayhem. Despite the pleas of doctors and epidemic experts for individual distancing, the federal government is not announcing a national lockdown.

Experts are imploring for national lockdown in order to stop interprovincial travel and implement physical distancing. The mentally of social mobility can only be controlled through a drastic lockdown. If you give people an inch of leniency, they will take a mile. Why is a national lockdown a possible way to reduce the corona threat? There are many logical reasons.

Look at the population living in and around big metropolises and medium-sized cities of Pakistan. Our populations, generally with a low literacy rate, are largely ill-informed. They live in shanty towns, and urban slums and squatter settlements in and around the cities. Their bare minimum is their daily income. If Covid-19 enters these slums, the situation would turn out of control. If symptoms appear, very few of them would prefer or be able to go for a test. In this situation, the government would not be able to count the confirmed cases. Covid-19 infects princes and paupers alike. This is how the virus would definitely spread to organized urban settlements.

Covid-19’s probability of exponential increase can be seen in the dismal state of the healthcare system in the country. Pakistan, a proudly proclaimed nuclear state, is seen defenseless against Covid-19. What to speak of biodefense preparedness, in this country even a dog-bite vaccine is not easily available in big hospitals. Our hospitals are not ready to deal with such a lethal outbreak. How many safety kits, ventilators, support medicines and qualified virologists, doctors and paramedics are available in our hospitals? How many machines are in working conditions? How many are exclusively reserved for VVIPs? Nobody answers these questions.

Isolation wards and quarantine facilities are far behind the expected need. Health workers usually play a crucial role as front-line warriors in such a situation. But in Pakistan, governments treat health workers as third class citizens. Their training and salaries are pathetic. Their self-esteems are washed out by water cannons during their protests for salaries and job confirmations. The situation indeed needs true national leadership that can see the situation beyond party politics. The Ehsaas program, formation of A Tiger force, the Corona fund – these are nothing more than political gimmicks; people have already drowned their money in the dam fund. There is a widening trust deficit towards the government. So such platitudes would hardly contribute to the war against corona.

Time is running short for drastic actions. The month of Ramadan is going to start from April 23, 2020. The government has only twenty days before the commencement of fasting. The situation at present and in the days ahead provides enough justification for the following actions.

First and foremost impose a national lockdown; only a supply chain for edible products should be allowed under strict surveillance. Announce a bailout package for daily wagers and the working class. The government must halt immediately it’s non-development recurring expenditure and shift that money into the war against corona.

The federal government must take all the provincial governments and local governments on board for taking sound and integrated actions and long-term plans against the epidemic. Set up temporary isolation facilities at most possible sites. Instead of forming a tiger force, give confidence, training and self respect to the existing force of health workers and confirm their jobs in different tiers of governments. It is better to be safe than sorry.

The writer is professor of history at the University of Karachi.

Email: [email protected]