Muddled messaging

April 19, 2020

Communication of the crisis response is the most important metric in evaluating leadership

In a super-connected world, Covid-19 has proven to be a great equaliser in terms of its horrific impact, cutting across economic, social, religious and ideological lines while globally inflicting death and devastation.

While none will emerge unscathed, the only way some countries will emerge more successful than others in fighting this once-in-a-century existential challenge is the quality of leadership at the front. Though the pandemic is still in its early stages, this does not prevent us from evaluating the initial response to Covid-19 and the quality – or lack thereof – of leadership shaping that response.

In Pakistan’s case perhaps the single most important metric in evaluating the quality of leadership responding to combating the outbreak is the communication of the crisis response.

Since the principal strategy of combating Covid-19 has been containment of the outbreak, and that too within the first several weeks, a clear and effective narrative and its communication from the state to its citizens was always going to be indispensible. There has been a clear failure in both developing and communicating the requisite narrative. In fact, it has been a royal mess.

Messing the narrative

Consider. Within the first four weeks of the pandemic outbreak in Pakistan the prime minister addressed the nation five times. Each time, he was guilty of having done so without consulting the chief executives of the six territories in Pakistan: the four provinces, Gilgit-Baltistan (GB) and Azad Kashmir. Therefore, his consistent emphasis – a confusing “neither lockdown, nor business-as-usual” – in contrast to the increasingly desperate appeals by the chief executives of Sindh and GB to simply “lock down” sent out mixed messages.

The general silence from the Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa to Imran Khan’s seemingly personal refrain of saving jobs and economy instead of prioritising saving lives at least in the first several weeks, was telling. In fact, when in the second of his five rambling addresses to the nation he announced that there would be “no lockdown”, Punjab (where his party is in power) simply ignored him and implemented a tough lockdown the very next day following the strategy of Sindh and GB – two regions his party does not govern.

Coming majorly in the way of the prime minister’s communication of what he presented as a “national response” to the crisis, which was anything but, has been his penchant to frame administrative response in religious terms rather than a necessarily secularist-administrative approach. He has been assuring citizens that God – the Islamic one, of course; the PM never addresses the several other faiths that Pakistani citizens follow – would help the faithful. This, of course, helps him evade full responsibility as prime minister of Pakistan.

He has been especially negligent in acknowledging that the spread of Covid-19 in Pakistan began – and arguably accelerated – by the faithful returning from religious pilgrimages from Islamic states, especially Iran, Syria and Saudi Arabia. Additionally, his government failed to stop the mammoth Tableeghi Jamaat congregation in Raiwind, which is now proven to have been the second largest spreader of the virus in Pakistan after the pilgrims returning from Iran.

Confounding confusion

To confuse the communication of its own crisis response narrative further, the federal government refused to even support, let alone strengthen and expand, the bold initiative of Sindh government to force the mosques to forgo collective prayers to help enforce its isolation and social distancing strategies. Instead, the Sindh governor, a representative of the PM in the province, held a meeting with representatives of various Islamic sects and parties and pursued appeasement rather than advocating enforcement of the provincial government’s stance, thereby sabotaging it.

Another way the federal government undermined its own communication of self-isolation and stay-at-home messaging, was the chaotic way in which it distributed tens of billions of rupees in subsistence assistance (itself a good measure) among the poorest. Instead of distributing cash at home even though it had their data, it brought out hundreds of thousands of people in close public spaces, where they stood shoulder to shoulder for hundreds of metres, enabling a contagious environment, if there were any.

The Supreme Court – despite failing to resist the lure of judicial activism against yet another government – is simply giving voice to a confused citizenry and frustrated provincial governments by questioning the “failure of leadership” in combating the outbreak. In its suo motu notice, the first by the incumbent chief justice, the apex court has premised its frustration on the failure of the federal government in enforcing a lockdown across the country.

Mixed signalling

The mixed signalling that passes for the federal government’s communication of its ‘national crisis response’ is showcased by two examples.

First: the prime minister – in his addresses to the nation, no less – said “fewer Pakistanis have died than might have [at the hands of corona]”, and “people should not worry [about corona too much] as only one-and-a-half persons die out of every ten testing positive”. This amounts to not only de-sanctifying life, but also trivialising the suffering of the people.

Several other times he has said the choice before him is to allow “death by hunger or death by corona”. This is a breathtaking oversimplification that allows him to simply absolve his government of the mandatory responsibility of preventing both. By implication, this stance also allows people to reject lockdown in favour of preventing hunger. This makes for a poor narrative indeed and is also destined to sabotage communication of any crisis response messaging.

Second: an announcement from the National Coordination Committee on April 14 stated that “lockdown will continue for another two weeks but the provinces can take their own steps [to ease it]”. This amounts to a lockdown in name only and that too smack in the middle of a spike in the spread of the virus, as government’s own figures show.

Making matters worse in terms of an effective crisis response narrative is the incumbent government’s continuing policy of stifling the media, clamping on freedom of expression, and closing of spaces for civil society. All this, continuing as unannounced but effectively implemented policy since Imran Khan came to power, is a recipe for lost trust in the state’s ability to care for its citizenry in its most trying times, as now.

A free media and active political and civil societies would have strengthened the government, helped it form a trustworthy and effective narrative, and aided the state to beat the pandemic better and quicker. But the government is not only itself confused but is also helping spread confusion almost as fast as the virus itself. This is no way to manage a country.


The author is a political analyst and media development specialist. He can be reached at [email protected]

Communication of the crisis response is the most important metric in evaluating leadership