Saturday September 30, 2023

Wartime leadership

April 05, 2020

One set of leaders employs populist rhetoric to consolidate their support base by provoking fear, anger or hate. Another has the charisma and vision to inspire people with hope.

It is easier to provoke fear and anger as opposed to kindling trust and optimism. Purveyors of hate do fine in a first-past-the-post electoral system that requires support from less than half the populace to win. But divisive partisan politics can be a problem in times of a national crisis that requires a truly national response and the entire population to rally behind you.

Imran Khan’s politics so far has been polarizing. If Pakistan were in business-as-usual mode, divisive politics energizing a cultish support base could possibly continue to work. But Covid-19 has thrown the world into uncharted territory. No matter what path leaders choose, it will require us to endure considerable pain. Everyone will suffer, be it due to loss of a loved one or economic or mental distress. No one will remain unscathed. But nations that stand and fight together will have a better chance of landing on their feet once the storm blows over.

It isn’t fair to expect a leader to transform his politics midstream. But Covid-19 requires a whole-of-the-nation approach more wholesome than one requires even in times of war. During a war, leaders have a unifying foreign enemy to help drum up patriotism and a spirit of national pride and sacrifice. But our enemy today is an invisible virus indiscriminately attacking the entire world. There is no one to blame really. In the absence of a good villain, to employ the whole-of-the-nation approach, we need leadership that inspires hope and forges unity.

Given that science has no definitive answers as yet and the information required for foolproof decisions doesn’t exist, decision-making will need to be dynamic with frequent adjustments as facts evolve. In such an environment, it’ll be unfair to judge leaders for earnest decisions that prove wrong once relevant facts (causes of spread, best treatment etc) become available. But leaders will be judged for failing to put in place diligent decision-making processes capable of evaluating available facts in real time and making decisions based on foreseeable outcomes.

What can be the constituent parts of such decision-making processes? The first critical element is a non-partisan non-blame ascribing tone aimed at bringing everyone on board. Post-Covid-19 we’ll have all the time to settle scores. Whole-of-the-nation cannot be mobilized if our top leadership is speaking down to half the nation. This is a time for cooperative federalism and not competing units. The challenge has a spiraling effect that can’t be addressed by the federal government or a single province. We are in this together. So might as well act like we’re a team.

The twin concerns that must inform policy are health and economy. So far these have been presented as either-or choices. Our narrative has been that we can either lockdown to slow the virus’s spread and save lives or save the economy and people’s ability to subsist. But we can’t do both. Presented as such, one can make a case either way: when you see damage caused by the virus and fear it, you want its spread to stop. But when you think of your kids and your inability to put food on the table for them, you want to be able to earn a living unhindered.

Our decision-making process must be able to value both the right to subsistence and the right to protection against disease and strike a balance to the extent that they don’t seem as competing rights in this moment. Pakistan can’t afford an extended lockdown. But Pakistan also can’t continue business-as-usual with hundreds of thousands getting infected by the virus or dying. Neither can we swing from one extreme of severe lockdown to the other of opening things up completely based on public opinion and whether more folks dread Covid-19 or financial misery.

To be able to strike the right balance and avoid disjointed and arbitrary policy choices, our decision-making process must be guided by a conversation between virologists, epidemiologists, public health specialists, public policy specialists, economists and administrators. Decision-makers will need to align the minimum response time required to put together a public health response (system to mitigate, manage and treat the virus in view of projected graph of escalation) and the maximum period that our economy and people can sustain a lockdown.

Such a conversation must happen within a nerve center set up to manage the Covid-19 crisis that is informed by projections based on facts. Where is this conversation happening in Pakistan? For example, projects US-wide and state specific projections for growth of infection and death numbers due to Covid-19, together with available hospital and ICU capacity against projected need. This identifies shortages to be met along with informing people of the growth curve and the need to strictly implement containment measures.

Where are the projections for Pakistan? Without projections regarding need and capacity, how will decision-makers plan? If there are no projections regarding when the virus spread might peak, how do we know what the total resource shortfall is? And what quantity of Personal Protection Equipment is needed today and what will be needed in two weeks? What about masks? If masks are to be worn by health workers and those infected the demand will be different from if it is to be worn as a precautionary measure by everyone – as is now being advised by experts.

The same logic applies to testing kits, quarantine capacity, quarantine guidelines (at supervised facilities versus homes), hospital beds and vents, health workers (doctors, nurses etc) required. Does containment require prohibiting gatherings of more than five people or more than 10? Expert advice on this will have different implications for which business can be kept open and which to be shut down. If the risk of spread is reduced with masks and distancing, that can help plan for reopening parts of the economy that can function while meeting the conditions.

We must also not confuse helping daily wagers who are immediate casualties of Covid-19 lockdown and need cash transfers to keep afloat with the need to help millions of other employees who are losing livelihood and will also struggle to put food on the table in the coming days and weeks. Ours is this mindless refrain that employers must not let go of employees during this crisis. How will restaurants continue to pay employees when they are shut down and have no cash flow? How long can schools pay employees without receiving fees?

The obvious point is that the economy has interlinked parts that don’t function in isolation. You can direct that no one will be evicted for rent default. But what of those seniors who rely on rent for subsistence? Possessing assets means nothing at this time. You can’t sell anything because there are no buyers. The only real asset of value is cash. Our economy and policy gurus need to formulate a Covid-19 plan that will keep the cash wheel moving. If small and medium businesses shut down, millions will be jobless. And how will they be resurrected post-crisis?

The government's construction stimulus package might be a good initial step. But is it the first in a range of steps to help the entire economy stay afloat? Are sectors of the economy going to be opened one after another according to some plan? If so, what is it? The Economic Policy Institute says that 20 million Americans will be out of jobs by July. Where are the estimates for Pakistan? Is the stimulus package part of a plan to manage supply chain in face of an impending meltdown, or an ad-hoc measure? Given how vulnerable we are, we can’t afford ad hoc right now.

Pakistan has established a National Command and Operation Center under the army's auspices to coordinate the Covid-19 response. Let's hope it turns out to be the much-needed empirically-guided nerve center that brings together our best minds from the public and private sectors to guide state policy at this uncertain time. Ultimately, it will be the credibility of our decision-making process and the public confidence it inspires that will determine the enforceability of the health and economic plans it formulates. Let's hope we aren’t relying on prayer alone.

The writer is a lawyer based in Islamabad.