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June 3, 2020

Crisis versus virus?


June 3, 2020

In a crisis stricken world gasped by challenges, from an unprecedented public health crisis to mounting economic turmoil, Prime Minister Imran Khan’s decision this week to partially withdraw a lockdown is nothing short of mind-boggling.

And his message to the Pakistani public urging them to ‘live with the virus’ added more confusion to an already troubled policy framework. In the three months since the coronavirus pandemic engulfed Pakistan as it raced across the world, the country has hovered between promises of tough action and selective opening to protect livelihoods.

But as the number of coronavirus patients surged robustly across Pakistan in the past fortnight, the writing on the wall was abundantly clear. In the run up to Eidul Fitr Pakistani authorities relaxed a lockdown to provide livelihoods to scores of low income Pakistanis. But many on the streets disregarded necessary safeguards as they fanned out across prominent public areas.

That experience has clearly highlighted the Pakistani public’s disregard for health safety guidelines. Though wearing masks has become mandatory, anecdotal evidence suggests many ignoring the law on this fundamental front.

Tackling this crisis would have over stretched the capacity of any government in Islamabad, let alone one stitched together with a slim majority. But there is more to just the over whelming nature of the task.

The present-day ruling structure has lagged behind in its response to the calamity, and at times has caved in when faced with critical choices. The controversial decision to allow ‘taraweeh’ prayer congregations during ‘Ramazan’ remains a case in point, when the allowance according to visual evidence on the media was subsequently disregarded.

Meanwhile, the political leadership across the Pakistani chessboard remains divided with opposition parties losing no opportunity to challenge the government’s choices. At a time when a national consensus was essential, this fragmentation has risen from the tragic reality of the ongoing polarisation across Pakistan.

Prime Minister Khan now has a unique opportunity to press ahead with findings of the sugar inquiry report, taking to task a variety of players. These range from individual mill owners who made a killing from export of sugar stocks with the aid of generous government subsidies, to policymakers who allowed sugar export in the first place. In sharp contrast, a failure to act will only further pull apart the government’s already tattered credentials on giving Pakistan a new lease of life, a new beginning.

In less than a fortnight, the budget for the next financial year will present the prime minister with no less than a daunting task in view of the challenging circumstances. Ahead of this yearly event, the choice of arming entrepreneurs in the construction industry with a ‘no questions asked’ policy has already introduced a black spot on the cause of reforming Pakistan.

In the past, such policies allowed the much dreaded ‘black economy’ to be ‘whitened’ with owners of illicit assets legalising their wealth. In brief, such policies have facilitated money laundering.

Going forward, fixing a widely ailing economy locked under conditions imposed by the IMF remains an uphill task. But fixing this muddle requires more than the modest imagination shown by the ruling structure in its tenure.

Beyond action on the political front to forge a consensus, future economic policies will seal the fate of Pakistan in the coming years. Its time the government carried out a detailed and honest survey of the construction sector to assess if the recently introduced ‘whitening’ policy has begun to re-create lost jobs or simply created an avenue for laundering of undeclared wealth.

But providing livelihoods must go hand in hand with ensuring safety for the poorest of the poor, esepcially food security. In the past year, the overnight increase in prices of sugar and flour and the subsequent near riots, presented a unique account of the disconnect between policymakers and the grassroots of Pakistan.

Unless the top decision-makers recognise the critical need to revamp Pakistan’s long neglected agriculture sector, the future of security – notably, food security – appears bleak.

This week’s raging riots across the US have come as a timely reminder for complacency stricken ruling structures across the world that it doesn’t take long for discontent to turn in to ugly turmoil.

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

Email: [email protected]