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August 10, 2020

Coronavirus threat far from over in Pakistan, claims ICG report

Top Story

August 10, 2020

ISLAMABAD: This week, Pakistan’s scoreboard on COVID-19 showed 284,424 confirmed cases, 6,092 deaths and 260,248 recovered.

Compared to many in the region, so far Pakistan appears to have the situation under control but there is no way of knowing how the massive processions and gatherings during Muharram will alter the situation.

The International Crisis Group (ICG), a think tank used by policymakers and academics, performing research and analysis on global crisis, has dire warnings for Pakistan according to its latest report, “Pakistan’s Covid-19 Crisis”.

“The dire economic situation risks playing into militants’ hands, particularly if social support measures fall short. As unemployment rises further and more citizens fall under the poverty line, such groups could exploit the ensuing social discord. If the state fails to deliver, they could have new opportunities to win recruits by tapping economic desperation and social grievances or extending assistance through existing or renamed charities, as they have in the past,” notes the ICG.

Senior government officials told The News that the ICG report does not take into cognisance efforts made by the government where the pandemic appears to be under control. “It was researched and written well before the present situation inside the country,” commented the official.

The report stresses that instead of bypassing Parliament, the federal government should work with the opposition. The Parliament should play a more active role, particularly with regard to fiscal and other assistance for the most vulnerable sections of the population.

“The federal government’s continued targeting of top opposition leaders, including through the National Accountability Bureau (NAB), is particularly unhelpful. The government itself would benefit from mending fences with its rivals. The military leadership might be an equal, if not dominant, partner in the pandemic response,” said the ICG.

Yet citizens will hold the elected leadership accountable if the pandemic response falters. Sharing responsibility with opposition leaders for what are difficult and contentious decisions would not only benefit Pakistan’s body politic but also make sense for the premier himself. The alternative is that COVID-19 leaves a weakened federal government even more reliant on the military to retain power.

The report points out that hoping to mitigate COVID-19’s economic toll, Imran Khan’s government lifted a countrywide lockdown in May, leading to a spike in cases. August could see another surge since the public, misled by the clergy and mixed messaging from the government itself, may disregard precautions during religious festivities and ceremonies.

“Climbing infection rates could overwhelm ill-equipped health systems and hinder economic recovery. If citizens are denied healthcare or adequate aid as the economy contracts, public anger is likely to mount, potentially threatening social order. Militants could take advantage, as they have in the past,” is a dire warning.?

Instead the ICG feels that the way out is for the federal government to guide provinces on pandemic policy and help reinforce their health systems, but also permit them to devise their own local strategies guided by medical experts. It should work with the parliamentary opposition on its response, particularly on providing a safety net to vulnerable parts of society.

Tracing the manner the government approached the pandemic, the ICG says that it was the government’s mixed messaging and misinformation from some religious leaders due to which many Pakistanis disregard public health advice.

“Prime Minister Imran Khan’s initial downplaying of the pandemic’s health risks led to widespread public disregard for social distancing procedures. The removal of restrictions on communal prayers in mosques also increased the risks of new virus clusters. Many clerics advocate religious practices that undercut physical distancing and other preventive measures; they tell worshippers that piety alone, and not health practices, will determine their fate,” added the report.

The federal government’s easing of lockdown measures, despite warnings by the political opposition and medical professionals that transmissions would surge, and the further lifting of the lockdown, on May 09, encouraged public complacency. Though the government now urges people to respect social distancing rules, these calls are largely ignored. Many believe that the pandemic is over. There is praise for the PPP government in Sindh, the sole opposition-led province, which has promoted rigorous restrictions, for instance, but has been unable to implement them in the face of Islamabad’s resistance.

“The federal government has also been reluctant to work with Parliament or main opposition parties to forge a united response. The acrimony is rooted in contested mid-2018 elections, though the opposition has repeatedly offered to assist the government in containing the pandemic,” noted the report.

Poor data and low testing rates have hampered efforts to “track, trace and quarantine”, which involve identifying and isolating virus carriers and their contacts and placing hot-spots under quarantine, and are essential to curbing the virus. With COVID-19 spreading in densely populated cities such as Karachi, Lahore and Peshawar, limited closures are unlikely to prevent contagion.

“While city hospitals are better prepared to deal with the pandemic than some weeks ago, they could again be overwhelmed should cases surge in August, particularly if citizens ignore precautions during Eidul Azha celebrations and the month of Muharram, when large mourning processions are held. The virus has also spread to rural regions, where the health infrastructure is even weaker,” warns the ICG. Turning to the economic situation, the ICG said that the pandemic has seriously compounded Pakistan’s already grave economic challenges.

Pakistan’s economy was in dire straits even before COVID-19. Since the Khan government assumed office, large-scale manufacturing has declined, exports have fallen, the budget deficit has widened and unemployment has increased. A former finance minister and financial expert had estimated economic growth in the Imran Khan’s government’s first year at 1.9 percent, the lowest in a decade. Now, exports to traditional markets – Europe, the US, China and the Middle East – are fast declining.

Remittances, a vital source of foreign exchange, are likely to shrink as thousands of workers in the Gulf come home. The government estimates that the gross domestic product will contract by 0.38 per cent for the fiscal year 2019-2020. The World Bank has forecast even sharper drops of 2.6 percent for 2019-2020 and 0.2 percent for 2020-2021.