Monday September 27, 2021

Pakistan in 2021

If 2020 was a nightmare, it was an unusually long one. There is still no end to it in sight. The pandemic that has made the outgoing year one of the worst times for humankind in the 21st century will, to our utter consternation, remain a major factor in what 2021 brings forth.

All the six factors that I am listing below to define ‘Pakistan in 2021’ are, therefore, linked, directly and not-so-directly, to Covid-19.

The first of these factors is the availability of a vaccine and cheap rapid tests. The Cabinet Committee on Covid Vaccine procurement has approved procurement of one million doses of vaccines from Chinese manufacturer Sinopharm. Pakistan will continue to explore other options too. How soon it gets hold of an approved Covid-19 vaccine will determine Pakistan’s course vis-a-vis the coronavirus in 2021. The availability of the vaccine, however, will not contain the virus automatically. After getting access to ample doses of it, the next challenge will be to put in place special storage and transport arrangements for it so that it does not lose its effectiveness while being shifted from one place to another.

The forthcoming Pfizer, Moderna, AstraZeneca and Sinopharm vaccines all require different storage temperatures because of the ways they are structured. The Pfizer vaccine must be kept at a frigid minus 70 degree Centigrade. Other vaccines do not require such extreme cold storage conditions but these, too, must be stored at subzero temperatures. This makes their transportation to remote parts of Pakistan an unprecedented logistical challenge.

The next big challenge concerning Covid-19 vaccination is the need to clarify and contradict all sorts of rumors and conspiracy theories being peddled on social media. A huge number of people across the globe are likely to resist being vaccinated because of these rumors and theories. In Pakistan, in particular, where dozens of polio vaccinators have been assassinated (by militants, claiming that vaccination campaigns are a facade for intelligence gathering) in the line of duty, such anti-vaccine propaganda will be a grave threat to the corona containment efforts. How effectively and quickly the government overcomes this challenge will decide what 2021 has in store for Pakistan – a better-than-2020 scenario, business as usual, or a worse-than-present situation.

Tests can be another limiting factor in Covid-19 containment. A reliable Covid-19 test in Pakistan costs more than 6000 rupees and its results become available within 15-20 hours. In many other parts of the world, cheaper and more rapid tests have already become available. It will be a major game changer for Pakistan in its fight against Covid-19 if it can get hold of these testing technologies in 2021.

The second factor is the shape and speed of a recovery – both from the pandemic and the economic stagnation. If the pandemic persists across the world, the chances of a strong and quick economic recovery are slim in 2021, mainly because of Pakistan’s limited export destinations and even more limited export basket.

It is not exports alone, though, for which we are dependent on the rest of the world. From remittances that have been the drivers of local consumption in recent months, to foreign direct investment that we aim to attract, and from imports that we need to the global supply chains that we aspire to become part of – these are all dependent on how quickly we and the rest of the world recover from the medical, social and economic pains being inflicted by the coronavirus pandemic.

No one, indeed, will be safe in 2021 until everyone is safe. Our future is inexorably entangled with that of the rest of humanity – whether we like it or not.

The third factor on my list is the effectiveness of Pakistan’s present economic policy responses to Covid-19. The government has focused on improving public healthcare infrastructure, beefing up social protection programs and keeping livelihoods intact through various incentives and financial stimuli. The success or failure of these initiatives will determine which way the country is headed in 2021 – to a more-of-the-same approach, to a radical tightening of the belt or to even more generous financial incentives to keep the economy on track.

‘Online’ is the buzzword for a ‘Covidized’ world, and that is where the fourth factor lies. If nothing else, it has jumpstarted the preparedness in developing countries for the fourth industrial revolution being fueled by digital and information and communication technologies. The better prepared we are for this revolution, the better placed we will be to tap the opportunities that it opens up.

For one, it suggests that buildings and other physical infrastructure is not always necessary to provide education and healthcare and to do business. It, therefore, goes without saying that we can make healthcare and education accessible to many million people across Pakistan by using the latest information and communication technologies.

There is one caveat here though: that this will be well-nigh impossible in a digitally divided country. How successfully and quickly we are able to bridge the digital divide between different parts of the county will determine whether Pakistan will be ready for this revolution in 2021.

Simultaneously, Covid-19 has also highlighted the importance of such conventional sectors of economy as agriculture and food security – which is the fifth factor to determine the course of 2021. Admittedly, Pakistan has averted a triple crisis of healthcare system collapse, economic meltdown and food scarcity in the wake of the pandemic in 2020. Going forward, it will need major investments to transform its food supply and marketing systems – the proverbial field to fork mechanisms – and introduce a climate smart agriculture that can adapt to changing weather patterns and increasing water scarcity.

Lastly, but perhaps most importantly, a socioeconomic turnaround in 2021 will depend upon political stability in the country. The first five factors may not be under direct control of our decision-makers but bringing political stability in the country is certainly in their hands. In the best-case scenario, the government and the opposition resolve to be a part of the solution that the economy needs, while still maintaining their political differences and disagreements. Their consensus on the need to improve the national economy will expedite reforms both at the policy and structural levels, thus plugging loopholes like the energy circular debt, loss-making public-sector enterprises and the shrinking and loosening of the tax net, thus providing a fiscal cushion against Covid-19 in 2021.

In the worst-case scenario, the two sides may collide head-on, leading to a political stalemate in which neither of them wins but the whole country loses. However, let us wish that the factors and gamechangers defining 2021 work in our favor. A happy new year to all.

The writer heads the Sustainable Development Policy Institute. Twitter: @abidsuleri