PM Khan has opposed a lockdown, arguing that Pakistan’s poor and the economy at large cannot endure its effects
The month of March began well for Prime Minister Imran Khan. His prime ministerial duties went about as usual – a meeting on the power sector, a one-on-one with Attaullah Esakhelvi, singer of a popular Imran Khan anthem, another meeting on reviving the film industry, inaugurating a youth sports tournament, and a political jalsa in Mohmand.
The opposition parties were divided, the media had moved on from bashing the government on the economy to the Aurat March. Played entirely in Pakistan for the first time, the Pakistan Super League had also taken hold of the country’s imagination.
Even as coronavirus began to infect the world’s imagination, Pakistan seemed protected. Dr Zafar Mirza, special assistant to the prime minister on health, resisted the calls for Pakistani students in China to be brought back, thus dodging the bullet on a potential source of infection.
To the West, however, the virus was multiplying and an alarming number of cases were being reported. Dr Mirza was well aware of Qom in Iran as the new epicentre of the disease after China, tweeting his concern on February 23. By then, an air passenger from Iran had already landed in Karachi. Patient One tested positive for Covid-19 on February 26.
Dr Mirza flew to Taftan in Balochistan where Iran refused to keep thousands of Pakistani pilgrims. Dr Mirza remained in Taftan for three days where under his supervision, the army and provincial government hastily put together a quarantine camp. Little did Dr Mirza know when he tweeted a heroic picture of himself, against the Hollywood-like backdrop of sandy hills and black chopper, that the Taftan quarantine facilities would become the first focus of infection in the country.
Back in Islamabad, Prime Minister Imran Khan rejected a health ministry proposal to declare a health emergency and import equipment, according to a Dawn report. Globally, ventilators and personal protective equipment for medical personnel were already in high in demand, short on supply, and increasingly expensive.
The second port of entry for Covid-19 into Pakistan was the airports. While flights from Iran were suspended on March 1, Sindh government representatives raised the red flag on inadequate screening in Karachi. Up north, the first corona-related death in Pakistan was reported on March 18 in a village in Mardan district. The KP government quickly sealed the area and began testing. Sindh decided to set up its own health desks at Pakistan’s busiest airport in Karachi.
Dr Mirza took the lead in early March, even as PM Khan was busy elsewhere. “There is no need for panic. People should avoid crowded places but schools don’t need to be closed,” he told a news channel.
By mid-March when the National Security Council meeting was called – which included the armed services chiefs and four chief ministers – there already seemed to be a disconnect between the provinces and the federal government. International flights continued landing at three major airports: Islamabad, Karachi and Peshawar. Educational institutions were shut, large public gatherings and the March 23 parade were banned but religious gatherings were left to the religious affairs minister and the Council of Islamic Ideology to sort out.
By then, the proselytising religious group, Tableeghi Jamaat, had already held its massive gathering on March 11 in the outskirts of Lahore. Nearly 250,000 men from all over Pakistan and around the world converged in Raiwind despite the Punjab government’s best efforts. Dr Yasmin Rashid, Punjab’s health minister, told me that “we tried to persuade them not to but they said they would hold a congregational prayer for the country.” The gathering disbanded the next day, but by the end of March, the Rawind ijtema was being blamed for a sharp spike in cases in Sindh, the Punjab and Islamabad. The Raiwind ijtema thus became the third petri dish of infection in the country, even as localised spread is now 28 per cent of the number of confirmed cases.
In the month and week since Pakistan’s first Covid-19 case, Prime Minister Imran Khan has addressed the nation thrice, spoken at a parliamentary leaders’ meeting, and held question and answer sessions with anchorpersons thrice. Every time he has opposed a lockdown, arguing that Pakistan’s poor and the economy cannot endure the effects.
But in the absence of alternatives, he has offered few out-of-the-box counter-strategies. The prime minister’s two big ideas – the fund and volunteer force – address the consequences of economic fallout but not the outbreak of disease. After all, if the disease is contained quickly the fallout is less severe. In one confrontational briefing I was invited to, neither the prime minister nor his advisers could explain how much Pakistan was scaling up testing or why religious gatherings were not being banned.
Nusrat Javeed, a journalist, believes the PM fears the consequences of a lockdown. “There is a lack of clarity and he comes across as a reluctant decision-maker. He is circling around, to be or not to be.” Dr Moeed Pirzada, an analyst and anchorperson, believes the Imran government got its act together soon enough and “came up with a set of increasing restrictions.”
What is clear is that the decision to lockdown was ultimately taken out of the prime minister’s hands. The provinces called in the armed forces in aid of civil power on the night of Imran Khan’s second address in which he said had Pakistan’s situation been as bad as Italy’s, he would’ve locked down the entire country. “The impression is that federal government has been side-lined,” says Nusrat Javeed.
As this piece was going to print, Asad Umar, the federal minister for planning – not the prime minister – announced an extension in the lockdown across the country until April 14.
“It appears that the PM initially bought the idea of herd immunity from medical advisers around him,” explains Dr Pirzada. In his first address to the country, Imran Khan compared the Covid-19 virus to the flu, very much like US President Donald Trump. Recently, Dr Mirza dismissed WHO’s recommendation to test aggressively, “You don’t want to overkill the problem. The world is overreacting.”
It took Pakistan 38 days for coronavirus positive cases to cross the 1,000 mark, and just six days to double that. The fear is that the social, political and economic costs will be exponential as well.
The writer is a multimedia journalist and host of the show Sawaal with Amber. She tweets at