The pandemic and the ways forward

Are we prepared for the second wave of coronavirus?

Much has been said about the state of preparedness in Pakistan and other regional countries for Covid-19. After the outbreak of the pandemic in Europe and other parts of the world after its initial occurrence in China, Pakistan had at least three months to prepare. The same can be said of other South Asian countries. The virus, however, caused a dire situation in many of the Gulf and Middle Eastern countries during the relative calm in South Asia.

The pandemic, soon after its arrival, completely exposed the limits of our healthcare infrastructure. With the rising number of coronavirus positive cases, our response showed confusion at every level. A lot of valuable time was wasted in debates like “lockdown or no lockdown” followed by reactionary approach to deal with the crises only to instill fear and panic in the society, instead of an organised national response.

With the start of monsoon rains we observed a significant decline in the number of new cases and overall spread of the disease. This lessened the burden on hospitals and the fragile healthcare infrastructure.

The economic activities in the country started again and there was hope for a gradual revival. However, the early impact has been quite devastating. Industrial activity, which has already been struggling, is at a standstill. The routine economic activities were halted and, therefore, a chunk of the population dependent on these activities was devastated by the sudden economic shock.

The small and medium enterprises in the country were the worst hit and many of the businesses found themselves facing a serious threat. With the closure of small businesses and halt in the overall economic activities, agricultural workers, small vendors, street hawkers and daily wagers were left with a looming threat of hunger.

Meanwhile, the government initiated several steps to revive economic activities and to provide relief to the vulnerable segments of society. Economic assistance was offered to families that were in immediate need of food and other essential necessities of life. Likewise, various packages, including waiver of electricity bills and rescheduling of financing facilities were offered to industry and small business. Several taxation-related exemptions were also offered to different segments of trade and industry.

What has been missing, however, is a scientific approach of real impact assessment. For instance, how was the impact differently felt by different sectors of the economy, gender analysis of the impact and most importantly, how has the relief and support offered been translated into real impact? What mechanisms were applied to ascertain that the support served the intended objectives?

When we talk about the region, especially the Gulf and Middle Eastern countries, the impacts are certainly felt differently but with varied degrees, the impact is widespread. From corporate giants to small ventures in trade, tourism and other sectors of regional economy everybody has suffered immensely. The most critical need of the time is to analyse these impacts with the help of segregated data.

The economic activities in the country started again with the hope of a gradual revival. However, the early impact has been quite devastating. Industrial activity, which has already been struggling, is at a standstill.

It seems now that Covid-19 is not going to go away soon. Its second wave is already there. The lessons that have been learnt during the first wave need quick application. The most important thing is that most of the cushion available during the first wave of the pandemic has already been consumed.

It is interesting to observe that the virus has been politicised. The PDM, the opposition alliance, is all set to launch the next phase of its public mobilisation against the government. The government has said it will not allow public rallies by the opposition parties, considering these activities are hazardous for public health. Except for the closure of schools and restrictions on weddings etc everything is as usual. This causes confusion about public policy of containing the spread of the virus.

The economy, however, will remain the major issue. If the government is somehow able to make some recovery on the economic front, the chances of its political survival would improve. Government officials are thus painting a rosy picture of the economy. The reduced current account deficit is there favourite indicator. Independent economists are relating this to a stagnation of the economy and reduction in essential imports. Enhancing exports would play a crucial part and steps are needed to explore new markets.

What we may deduce from the existing options, particularly for the struggling economies, is that innovative approaches are needed to deal with the new dimensions of the crises. Preparedness, such as how the SOPs could become a new normal without taking too much toll in terms of economic set back, is critical.

Regional countries could extend cooperation to one another by sharing the best practices, expertise, and data. While the entire world is waiting for a vaccine, it should not be seen as the only option.

According to various predictions, we may have an effective vaccine available in the market in about six months. Only then will we be able to respond to the crisis effectively. While that happens, cooperation at various levels needs to be enhanced. The industry-to-industry, region-to-region and government-to-government cooperation should be ensured to bring stability to the world.

The writer is a researcher based in Islamabad

The coronavirus pandemic and the ways forward