Are lockdowns the new normal?

The new normal is going to demand innovation, flexibility and speed

How long should a lockdown last? The Imperial College Covid-19 Response Team, led by Neil Ferguson, has concluded that given that short term “suppression” of the public health impact of Covid-19 is possible, we are most likely to succeed in fighting Covid-19 through a series of “lockdowns”, each one lasting a short period of time, followed by a relaxation, followed by the inevitable spike in infections and critical care cases, followed by another lockdown, and so on. This makes intuitive sense too. Human nature, economics and the resulting political incentives make long-term “suppression” tactics, like “lockdowns” impossible.

A similar idea has been presented by Uri Alon and his colleagues at Tel Aviv University, with the title Adaptive Cyclic Exit Strategies. Alon’s research suggests that, “We use mathematical models to show that a cyclic schedule of 4-day work and 10-day lockdown, or similar variants, can, in certain conditions, suppress the epidemic while providing part-time employment”.

In Volume 17 of the Pakistan Institute of Development Economics (PIDE) Covid-19 Bulletin, Dr Durre Nayab and Dr Nadeem ul Haque have proposed “smart lockdowns”, explaining in great detail how the Alon et al model can be adapted for Pakistan.

Will Nayab and Haque’s smart lockdown, solve the Covid-19 crisis? No. Nothing can solve it. The war against Covid-19 is about slowing down the enemy, long enough, and “smart” enough to minimise the destruction it wreaks. So far so good. But what if you have more than one enemy, or worse, many, many enemies?

If you strip away all the grandstanding and cheap politics, there are really three concurrent governance challenges facing a Covid-19-stricken Pakistan. The first is the question of what has unhelpfully come to be known as a “lockdown” – a term that neither captures what it is nor helps achieve its objectives.

The second concurrent governance challenge in the age of Covid-19 is the question of the microeconomic survival of the poor and vulnerable of Pakistan – at least 40 percent of the country’s population – and the macroeconomic sustenance of the state and society at large.

The third is the already evolved notion of national security — can the country afford to fight the war against coronavirus whilst in a “lockdown”, with the poor struggling to eat, and the country’s already weak trade and productivity exacerbated by plunging remittances, and nosediving consumption and consumer confidence? Worse still, what happens if this so-called black swan situation meets an ugly duckling? Perhaps an extremist government and its insatiable appetite for using Pakistan as a ready excuse for crisis?

As governance systems go, the only consolation for Pakistan is that it is not alone.

Prime Minister Imran Khan has clearly indicated a very strong dislike for the idea of a lockdown. At the core of this resistance to the idea is his compassion for the poor and the vulnerable. The term lockdown is bound to evoke reactions. It is exactly this kind of design of public discourse that defeats purpose-driven debates. The PM’s resistance is perfectly legitimate. But the effects of allowing “some” movement, and not allowing others, are exactly the scenes we have seen at mosques and religious congregations across Pakistan in the last several weeks. A “lockdown” is not a lockdown and is not smart unless it is universal and unforgivingly well-prepared and well-stocked. But neither attribute can be achieved without instigating enemies other than Covid-19 – Pakistan’s Enemy Number One.

Enemy Number Two is poverty – both micro (the individual, the family, and the community) and macro (the Ministry of Finance, foreign exchange reserves, the Federal Bureau of Revenue). The harder the “suppression” measures, the more severely poverty will strike Pakistanis and Pakistan.

This sounds bad, without any qualification of time periods or frequency, but it gets much, much worse when Enemy Number Three enters the picture. The perennial weakness of public administration has not been in evidence for the past several weeks. This is in keeping with tradition: Pakistan is a crisis governance superstar whether during the exodus of Afghans into Pakistan in 1979, 1980, and throughout the early 1980s, or the 1992 floods, or the 2005 earthquake, or the 2009 citizen displacement from Malakand Division, or the 2010 floods, the 2014 and 2015 citizen displacement from the now newly-merged districts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Covid-19 is a crisis unlike any preceding it. When (and if) crisis governance adopts a more normal posture, how quickly and steeply will things worsen? The logical chain of events from point A, let’s say today, with a few hungry Pakistanis, to point B, with hundreds of thousands of hungry Pakistanis on the streets, to point C, with the May heat beating down on them, to point D, electricity outages, or other confounding factors…you get the idea. We won’t get to point X or Y or Z. We will be in a freefall anarchic state long before we get the meat of the alphabet.

What is the most likely trigger for such an anarchic state? That would be Enemy Number Four: Pakistan’s perennial weakness in the face of extreme myopic irrationality dressed up as religiosity. There are two original wellsprings of Covid-19 in Pakistan, both rooted in congregational devotion: the pilgrims returning from Ziarat in Iran, and the pilgrims returning from Ijtima in Raiwind. The country is in no position to fight this enemy, in part because of the aforementioned design flaw in the public discourse – this one pitting ordinary citizens aspiring for public safety versus religious leaders aspiring for the public to be rightly-guided.

The final enemy, and the least predictable of them, is Enemy Number Five: Yogi Adityanath’s Hindu Rashtra. The Republic of India, much like any other country, pursues its own interests. Republics can be engaged and reasoned with. But when they are taken over by religious fundamentalists like Adityanath, they become less-likely dialogue partners.

How can Pakistan engage with the white-hot rage of Hindutva that claims over a thousand years of victimhood and that seeks to demolish some of the proudest secular Indian traditions? Last week saw the most substantial increase in ceasefire violations since last March, immediately after the Balakot attack. Worryingly, India’s violations seem to have deliberately been designed to cause civilian casualties, as reported by the Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR). Let’s call this Point B, or Point C, on a separate spectrum from the poverty or governance or domestic extremism spectrum described above. How many points before we are at Balakot attack levels of hostility?

By design or by default, Pakistan has entered a cycle of what the Imperial College Covid-19 Response Team calls “Non-Pharmaceutical Interventions” (NPIs) or what we are calling “lockdowns”. Each lockdown will leave Pakistan weaker and more vulnerable to the series of enemies that lie in wait.

The most obvious are the ones PM Khan, various arms of the state (from NIH, to BISP/Ehsaas, and the State Bank of Pakistan to the Higher Education Commission), various provincial governments, and charities and non-profits have already reacted to: the coronavirus itself and the poverty. Some measures will work, others may not. But the public health and poverty dimensions are, in some ways, the easiest for cabinet and television talk shows to talk about.

Enemies Number Three, Four and Five are, each in their unique way, more insidious and tricky. The challenge before Pakistan today is to mitigate the potential toxicity and impact of each of them, so that every iteration of the lockdown allows the country enough room to try to recover some elements of the normalcy we all crave.

The truth is, the normal is dead. The new normal is going to demand innovation, flexibility and speed. As governance systems go, the only consolation for Pakistan is that it is not alone. The “government”, as we know it, is incapable of being innovative, flexible and fast – especially not as it stares down the kinds of enemies Pakistan faces. The time to develop this capacity is now. The war has already begun.

The writer is senior fellow at Tabadlab, a policy think tank in Islamabad

How long should a lockdown last?