Wednesday July 06, 2022

The shield of devolution

April 22, 2020

Covid-19 is a war the beginning date of which each nation might know but no one knows when it will all end. Amidst all this chaos, trauma and uncertainty, the tiny beam of hope that the citizens of Pakistan see can only be attributed to a well-fought for and timely decision made a decade ago – the 18th amendment to the constitution of Pakistan.

Exactly a decade after its enactment, the 18th Amendment has quite literally saved numerous lives already. The devolution of power has strengthened provincial administrations in an unprecedented way – equipping them to deal with crises like the spread of Covid-19. Every province has the power to act, react and respond to the ongoing war in a way they deem fit for their particular province in regards to their individualistic challenges.

While it is reasonable to expect a federal roadmap to deal with the current crisis, the provincial governments have an obligation and a duty to protect their citizens. Their loyalty and priority is the protection of their constituents as they are responsible for their wellbeing. This is exactly what we saw since the beginning of this war.

Each country that has gone through the Covid-19 crisis has taught us numerous distinct lessons with one mutual warning: early stage social distancing was the only key to counter this pandemic. Reacting in a timely manner, and eliminating all possibilities of the wide spread of this virus was the only possible way to have a chance of survival.

In the case of Pakistan, the federal government displayed uncertainty and hesitated in times where stern action could quite literally save lives. They failed at understanding that once the virus spreads to more people than our drastically limited healthcare system could cater to, even for a reason as basic as food and utilities, there is no going back from it.

In these dire times, the government of Sindh exercised its provincial autonomy and took extraordinary measures to fight this war. They stood up to protect their citizens and the rest of the provinces followed; while the central government focused on a strategy to avoid a lockdown, the provinces made the timely call utilizing the autonomy they gained a decade ago.

The provinces requested the army, imposed an effective lockdown, toughened up against social gatherings in all regards including the toughest one for the center – congregational gatherings – and responded proactively. Devolution achieves effectiveness as well as efficiency.

While we are all praise for these timely steps, one can definitely not ignore matters like the inaccessibility of personal protective equipment (PPE) for the forefront soldiers of this war. The negligence in acquiring and providing the protective gear by each province is appalling. No life is less important than another but if you send your soldiers into the battlefield with absolutely no chance of survival, you will soon run out of soldiers to protect you. Similarly, sending doctors with no protective gear to save a life only to lose their own life is not just inhumane but impractical.

While every province is responsible for their own healthcare infrastructure and protecting their doctors, they have failed to protect their doctors to date. Some provinces particularly went a step further to utilize their autonomy to arrest the young doctors protesting lack of equipment in their province and snatching away their constitution right to peaceful protest. While the central governance faltered in many aspects, it rightfully closed airspace, the land borders and very recently announced to go above and beyond to provide the personal protective equipment (PPE) to 400 provincial hospitals directly – even though health is a devolved matter.

The transparency gifted by the 18th Amendment in these tough times contributes to waking the citizens up from the deep sleep of ignorance and monotonous blind faith in political parties and forcefully making them realize the importance of the person they vote for and how drastically the choices that each person makes have an impact on every individual.

With just 45 days into this global pandemic and all the strict measures taken by the autonomous provinces, Pakistan today stands at nearly 10,000 confirmed Covid-19 cases and almost 200 confirmed deaths with the realization that the number of untested active cases will be far more. One can only reasonably expect this number to rise. One cannot help but ponder over the thought: had the lockdown been delayed the way the prime minister wanted and had the provincial governments still be incapacitated to make autonomous decisions, where would Pakistan be today?

The writer is a lawyer by profession. Twitter: @beenish003