Political leadership in pandemic times

December 13, 2020

Whether in power or out of it, our political leaders’ ability to put citizens first during times of crisis has been tested and revealed in their response to Covid-19

Quetta: Hospital staff praying before their shift starts. — Photo courtesy AP

Whenever I used to read about the epidemics of the pre-modern age, I thought the people of that time did not know any better. After all, they did not know about germs or viruses so they thought everything was a punishment for their collective sins. In Europe, they generally went on a rampage killing Jews and old women who had cats as pets, blaming the former for the killing of Christ and the latter for being witches. Reactions to the Spanish influenza of 1918-19, at least in India under colonial rule, were, to say the least, chaotic and inadequate. This time, there was some knowledge but nobody seemed to bother too much about the consequences of letting loose so many soldiers returning from the Western Front into the villages of India. One blamed the failure on several things: the British probably did not care enough; the Indian leaders probably did not know enough; the public certainly did not know anything… and so on.

So, when Covid-19 came in the February of 2020, I thought the world would be ready for it.

And Lo. And Behold.

Except for China and some honourable exceptions like New Zealand, Germany, Norway and Vietnam – it was not.

In the United States, President Donald Trump downplayed it eventually making even the wearing of masks a political statement. Democrats generally favoured it; Republicans opposed it. The result was a record number of deaths. In the United Kingdom Prime Minister Boris Johnson talked about herd immunity which implied that the elderly and vulnerable would risk death till a very large number of people got infected and recovered from the disease. The result was pandemonium and unnecessary deaths till Johnson himself fell ill and then instituted more stringent ways of dealing with the pandemic.

In our neighbouring country, India, while Prime Minister Narinder Modi did order a lockdown to prevent the disease from spreading, he did it so suddenly and with so little care and preparation that people had to walk to their villages. This inflicted untold suffering upon the poor who had no support system in the large cities and had to fall back on their villages.

In Pakistan, the handling of the pilgrims from Iran was so woefully inadequate that the disease could not be contained. In the first phase of the pandemic, I thought the PPP government of Sindh was the most sensible of the whole leadership. Chief Minister Murad Ali Shah was a treat to listen to during the first phase. He imposed the much-needed lockdown in the province and the fact that the federal government did not support him adequately is much to be regretted. The CM talked of stopping the infection and won the applause of the neutral people in the media. The PTI, however, reacted to the praise showered upon the Sindh government as if it was some enemy government, and PM Imran Khan personally downplayed the deadliness of the disease.

One could see sense in allowing some business activities to go on but I, for one, could not understand why the recipients of the Ehsas programme (which is the new name for the Benazir Income Support Programme with some additions and improvements) had to be herded together to jostle for money. Mechanisms to disburse the money to them while they stayed at home could have been put in place but they were not.

Then, while the most sacred mosques in Saudi Arabia were closed, not only mosques but even other religious get-togethers were not stopped. Indeed, even when the second spike came in November, we had religious conferences, all inspired and supported by the government, in Lahore.

The PM also addressed the volunteers (the Tigers) whereas he should have set an example by never addressing any gathering at all. When the first Eid came, public transport, including the trains, was opened up with the result that we had many cases after it. During the second Eid, sacrificial animals were sold and bought whereas this time this occasion could have been used to distribute the money people wanted to spend on sacrifice to the deserving poor.

We had crowds for Pakistan Day and so on. Even worse, elections were held in Gilgit-Baltistan whereas the most pragmatic course of action would have been to postpone them. The government held large rallies with PM Imran Khan personally addressing crowds. Since all these gatherings, and especially the reopening of schools and marriage halls, was justified in the name of the SOPs, I must mention their true nature. In practice, neither the leaders nor the ordinary people bothered about the much-touted SOPs. They either did not wear masks or wore them with their noses open leaving them vulnerable to contracting the virus and spreading it as they breath out droplets.

In Pakistan, the handling of the pilgrims from Iran was so woefully inadequate that the disease could not be contained.

They did not — and indeed could not — observe social distance as crowds do mill about. And it was not only in the political gatherings but also in bazaars that people rubbed shoulders. Moreover, the political leaders did not set an example for them. They even fell ill but hardly wore masks consistently. Even worse, well-informed people who should have known better, also wore their masks – if they wore any at all—below the nose, shook hands and visited one another as if nothing were wrong. Conferences, polo matches, weddings and other functions were held as if it were a normal year.

I must add, however, that the PTI government did some good things also. First, educational institutions were closed down thanks to Minister Shafqat Mahmood’s right decision in both the first and the second phases of the disease. Secondly, in the first phase, marriage halls were closed down (though in the second, they were not). Thirdly, in the first phase officials were asked to work from home (in the second, this was done with fewer people and less effectively). And, fourthly, medical help was made available despite meagre resources – this happened in both phases. Here, one must praise the efforts of the doctors, nurses, volunteers who supplied medical equipment and medicines in all the provinces. In some cases, the provincial ministers of health created ad hoc hospitals to deal with the cases. Minister Yasmin Rashid, for one, acted with dignity and confidence. She gave information about the disease — perhaps not all of it correct but information nevertheless — and did improve hospitals dealing with the disease.

And what did the leaders of the political opposition do?

In the first phase, as mentioned above, they stood for caution, clamping down on gatherings and better medical care. Indeed, one of their complaints against the PTI was that PM Imran Khan had personally downplayed the seriousness of the pandemic. While this was true, this is exactly what they themselves are doing now. Indeed, while Imran Khan personally made statements which can only be called regrettable, his government, both in the provinces and the Centre, did pursue at least some useful policies which I have mentioned above.

As for the leaders of the opposition, Maulana Fazlur Rahman took the lead by leading his supporters to Islamabad but others followed soon. When the second wave of Covid-19 struck all the opposition parties including the PPP, the PML-N, the JUI-F and the the ANP led huge processions in the whole country. Every day in the months of November and early December the news was grim: over 3,000 cases a day; over 50 deaths but the leaders of the opposition paid no heed to it. They said that the government had done it earlier. While this is true, two wrongs do not make a right. Moreover, since the cases of infection had increased, it was even more imperative for anyone who had compassion, vision and sensitivity to human suffering that they call off their protests in the name of saving human lives.

I am aware that, despite the rhetoric of downplaying the seriousness of the issue, the Sindh government is adhering to sensible policies but that does not mean that its leaders are not playing with the lives of people. So, indeed, are the leaders of all other opposition parties. The government too has not closed down all opportunities to hold large gatherings though it has, to its credit (despite being more to oppose political rivals than save people), stopped addressing mammoth gatherings for the last fortnight or so.

With these leaders, both in power and out of it, exposed by their response to Covid-19, do we have any hope that they will take life-saving decisions? Will they, for instance, avoid war if they can? And, more urgently, will they provide us with a vaccine against the pandemic? And, if they do, will it be safe? I have very little hope but let us see a silver lining in the gloom of the polluted December sky in Pakistan. Those who survive will see.

The author is an occasional columnist

Political leadership in pandemic times