Challenges and the way forward

Apparently many sections of the society are not convinced of the benefits of ensuring social distance despite concerted efforts made by the government and the media

Intensity of the coronavirus outbreak in Pakistan is low as compared to many other countries. It is, however, feared that the situation may get worse due to complacency in decision-making, poor institutional response and lack of community discipline.

Prompt and effective response to contain the pandemic for an overpopulated country like Pakistan is of prime importance because negligence in this regard may result in an economic meltdown, social disorder and an unaccounted-for loss of lives.

Nevertheless, reasons behind massive outbreak of Covid-19 in many developed countries are of the same nature. Countries with higher incomes and established state structures are expected to overcome the situation over the coming days or months through improving pandemic response, social protection and community discipline.

Pakistan, on the other hand, is faced with economic vulnerability and a population bulge, poor emergency response, and public health and social protection systems. The country, as a result, has remained unable to effectively deal with polio and dengue fever epidemics in recent years. It is, therefore, expected that pandemic control in Pakistan may take longer than expected on account of compromised institutional responses, which cannot be overhauled overnight.

Lacking preparedness and a prompt response against coronavirus outbreak has already started impacting people’s lives and livelihoods at large. An aggravation of the situation may result in further exposing the gulf between the rich and the poor and in increasing the vulnerabilities of the marginalised communities due to compromised access to food, health services and daily-life amenities.

The potential risk of coronavirus’s massive outbreak has brought political leadership to a crossroads. They still need to decide whether go for a complete or partial lockdown to ensure the required social distancing.

A complete lockdown is feared to risk people’s livelihoods, particularly of over 25 percent population living below the poverty line. A partial lockdown, on the other hand, may result in a massive coronavirus outbreak, making it impossible for authorities to cope with the situation.

Currently the relief package for businesses and vulnerable communities and to strengthen the pandemic response is being criticised by the opposition parties.

Pakistan’s main emergency response institution, the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA), has been unable to effectively contain the coronavirus outbreak at an early stage. This required making arrangements for all international passengers’ screening, testing and treatment at airports and border crossings.

It is essential to identify the reasons behind the NDMA’s inability to deal with the emergency. It may be a lack of capacity or confusion with regards to clarity of roles and responsibilities of various departments.

Due to the poor pandemic response, it is feared that a number of coronavirus carriers, who entered the country through airports and border crossings, have mingled with local communities across the country. They may continue to cause infections throughout the country.

Despite efforts being made by the federal and provincial governments to contain the outbreak of Covid-19, the situation can go beyond control at grassroots because of inefficacy of the local authorities due to governance challenges, capacity and resource constraints as well as lack of political support.

Absence of a local government system is being felt at this critical time to contain the outbreak, to identify suspected coronavirus carriers for carrying out tests and treatment, and to extend available social protection services at the doorsteps of the vulnerable communities.

The situation shows that dealing with the outbreak coupled with an economic meltdown would be very challenging for state structures and transitional democratic institutions. The government, therefore, needs to encourage active involvement of civil society, volunteer groups and philanthropists in dealing with the challenge(s).

The National Humanitarian Network (NHN), consisting of local civil society organisations, has a history of working with the NDMA to deal with emergencies in floods in 2010 and the earthquake in 2005.

In addition to governance challenges, social behaviours, including lack of discipline and religious motivation are key reasons behind a pandemic outbreak. Apparently many sections of the society are not convinced of the benefits of ensuring social distance despite concerted efforts made by the government and the media (including social media).

The current situation suggests that the country’s political leadership should adopt a coordinated approach to develop pandemic response policy guidelines and ensure effective policy delivery at all levels with active involvement of civil society actors, in collaboration with private sector and public institutions. A number of short and long-term initiatives are required to be taken by the government to overcome the situation. Such short-term initiatives include:

Ensure collaboration between all political stakeholders to guaranteeing effective policy design and delivery with regard to containing coronavirus outbreak and to manage aftermaths of pandemic outbreak;

Identify means to enact democratic institutions thereby to provide political support as well as ensure oversight and accountability of state institutions engaged in pandemic control and public service delivery;

Restore previously enacted local government systems and cantonment boards in all parts of the country and assign these structures with responsibilities to deal with pandemic control and associated challenges;

Mobilise local civil society actors and create opportunities for their contribution in state’s efforts to deal with the pandemic outbreak, provide social assistance to the societies in need, promote discipline and social harmony;

Seek support from religious leaders/community influencers to contain public gatherings and congressional prayers at community level;

Effectively engage with private health services providers, seeking their contribution in government’s efforts for pandemic control;

The long-term initiatives are:

Ensure political oversight and systematic accountability of all state institutions to improve efficiency and transparency in public service delivery;

Strengthen the social protection system, enabling it to cater to vulnerable communities as well as victims of emergencies such as pandemics, floods, earthquakes, droughts, etc;

Strengthen the public health system aimed at ensuring free/affordable quality health services delivery to everyone without any kind of discrimination, particularly during emergencies;

Strengthen the country’s emergency response policies and systems keeping in view challenges in the wake of climate change.

The writer is a Human Rights Expert at the Democracy Reporting International (DRI)

Coronavirus: Challenges and the way forward