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April 5, 2020

Curbing coronavirus – Beyond the Tigers


April 5, 2020

ISLAMABAD: Prime minister Imran Khan’s race against time to curb the Coronavirus epidemic across Pakistan appears dangerously set to fall short of meeting the challenge.

Beyond his refusal to order a lockdown in spite of the same practiced across the world, prime minister Khan appears determined to tackle the challenge without forging a wider national political consensus. This marks more of a gamble than a well thought out strategy where failure would only bring dismal consequences for the country.

Pakistan is no stranger to adversity such as the global sanctions following the 1998 nuclear tests, the consequences of being forced to join a US-led attack on Afghanistan after the 2001 New York attacks, the devastating earthquake of 2005 or the 2014 terrorist attack on the Army Public School in Peshawar. Together, these historical milestones and other events have repeatedly tested Pakistan’s resilience and the country’s ability to respond to crises.

Pakistan’s leaders following each of these events successfully oversaw a renewed national resolve built upon a clear sense of unity for a national cause.

The past response in Pakistan’s history saw unity from the top tiers of the ruling structure and their opponents, to the ordinary rank and file of the public.

In sharp contrast today prime minister Khan has failed to bring Pakistan together in a tightly knit national mainstream.

His refusal to open an urgently needed dialogue with leaders of the opposition parties smacks of a very disturbing failure to unify the country at a critical moment in its history. Given the scale of the prevailing challenge, a complete national unity is essential to beat the odds.

In the past following the 2005 earthquake, there was an outpouring of grief from across the country plus a quick and a very popular push to join the relief activities. But it was then left to Pakistan’s president General Pervez Musharraf to unify the nation.

In one of the many telling reminders of his response president Musharraf ignored calls from the global community to block proscribed organizations from joining relief work in Kashmir, as he focused on the bigger cause of saving lives.

In doing so, president Musharraf not only rose above his own decision of banning those groups just three years earlier.

More significantly, he ordered the facilitation of a diverse set of groups with distinctly different political views including those against his own regime, all for a higher cause to respond to an exceptionally distressful situation.

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Khan’s novel idea to create a new relief force in the name of Corona Relief Tigers is neither well timed nor orderly conceived. With a large network of civil society organisations and non profit groups already in existence across Pakistan, a so-called tiger force is a novel idea but not necessarily the right one. Instead, a push to harness the combined energy of the non-profit sector can be far more beneficial than a new beginning from scratch.

Civil society organisations or CSOs as known in common parlance are already armed with the necessary manpower and experience to tackle what looks like the biggest challenge in Pakistan’s history. With the right backing from the ruling structure and institutions of the state, CSOs can make swift progress than the official plan laid out by the Khan government to aid people in need. Given the severity of the challenge and the likely enlargement of Pakistan’s already impoverished population, urgent and timely action is of the absolute essence.

At the same time other aspects of the official response are badly in need of closer scrutiny. As Pakistan battles the coronavirus and its fallout, the refusal of the state bank in Karachi to further cut the prevailing interest rates is obviously baffling. Apparently, the central banks’ refusal to lower interest rates at a faster pace is fuelled by anxieties over the so-called ‘Hot money’-a large chunk of which has already left Pakistan, leaving the country altogether. These were deposits of more than U$3billion pulled towards Pakistan in the past year attracted by one of the world’s highest interest rates. But as interest rates have recently declined across the world, Pakistan’s interest rates even after a further two per cent cut as sought by opposition leader Shehbaz Sharif would still provide the fiscal incentive to attract investors.

And while the Rupee has recently declined further against the US dollar in the wake of the partial departure of ‘hot money’, questions must be raised over the state bank’s commitment to defend the currency. At a time of obvious global uncertainty which also surrounds Pakistan, was it not essential for the state bank to intervene further in blocking the rupee’s fall well beyond its reported role on this front?

Indeed, the role of the state bank at this deeply troubling time in Pakistan’s history is just one element of an overall challenging environment. As the global economy heads for a likely recession in the wake of the coronavirus turmoil, Pakistan’s modest exports are set to sink and unemployment within the country’s industrial sector will grow. With the apparent lack of focus by the prime minister on critical choices and questions over Pakistan’s economic direction, the coronavirus poses more than just a terrible threat to public health. What lies ahead tragically is the potential for devastating consequences with no room for stepping back, as the prime minister refuses to reach out to a much wider segment of Pakistan’s political and societal landscape to meet the challenge.