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May 21, 2020

Lockdown vs normalcy

Opinion

May 21, 2020

As Prime Minister Imran Khan’s government begins overseeing a return to normalcy this week after a de-facto shutdown across Pakistan, the future is in danger of becoming a mirror image of the recent past.

The challenges revealed in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic have laid bare the gaps in Pakistan’s ruling structure. In part, policy missteps that led the way have already caused harm to the ability of the state to manage the fallout from the worst global challenge that has confronted the world including Pakistan. In part also, a push to latch on to ill-advised choices has aggravated what was already a grim situation.

Going forward, the main risk comes from the danger of a surge in the number of Corona virus also known as Covid-19 cases across Pakistan, amid widespread evidence of a return to normalcy also sidelining the few baby steps that had been taken to enforce badly needed safeguards.

The decision to ease the lockdown less than a week before Eidul Fitr appears to be the government’s latest attempt to cover up a series of missteps earlier. From day one, Prime Minister Khan’s government has remained ambivalent on the direction that needed to be taken.

Unlike large parts of the world including the Islamic world enforcing a tighter period of lockdown, Pakistan’s ruling structure failed to show the necessary clarity on the way forward.

It is therefore hardly surprising that the initial period of this outbreak in Pakistan where tough action was needed was needlessly squandered. A combination of gaps in controlling the inflow of Pakistani travelers from Iran and the Gulf region, subsequently meant that the ailment spread at an alarming rate in parts of Pakistan. Meanwhile, PM Khan in his public remarks took comfort from the fewer numbers of coronavirus victims across the country by comparison to some of the worst-hit countries across Europe. Yet, that comfort appeared to have eventually brought in an ill advised element of complacency, just when such complacency was completely unnecessary.

The decision to avoid a tighter lockdown has been justified as a necessity at a time when a large segment of Pakistanis needed to retain at least part of their sources of income. But the economy was already in significant trouble even before the coronavirus emerged on the horizon, forcing a record number of Pakistanis to tighten their belts.

The growing economic squeeze of more than a year now has pushed more Pakistani households to poverty or close to it than at any other time in the country’s history. The fallout from the coronavirus may have further aggravated that trend. But a reversal of fortunes to reinstate relative normalcy in Pakistan’s economic prospects will require time and effort.

Going forward key sectors of the economy namely industry and services will have to receive a proverbial shot in the arm to return to productivity. But the critical sector that deserves to receive as much support as possible remains Pakistan’s under-performing agriculture sector.

The government’s failure to tackle a succession of crop failures since last year and other crisis elements, notably a widening locus attack, have together endangered not just a key sector which remains the source of subsistence for at least half of Pakistan’s population. More importantly, a failure to address this sector has endangered Pakistan’s food security in more ways than ever before.

Managing such challenges remains a tall order especially as the future fallout from the coronavirus remains unclear. With the discovery of a potent vaccine not likely any time soon, the worst may tragically be yet to come.

Beyond policy failures, Pakistan is in need of an unprecedented national consensus to bring the country together. This is all the more vital in view of the PTI ruling the country and Punjab, the largest province, only with a coalition with smaller regional political parties.

So far, the prime minister has rejected calls from the two main opposition parties to forge a united front against the coronavirus pandemic. This is indeed a much too short-sighted approach to the far more serious business of taking Pakistan through possibly its biggest challenge ever. Given 0the formidable times, playing politics must take a back seat.

The writer is an Islamabad-based journalist who writes on political and economic affairs.

Email: [email protected]