Hindsight 20/20

January 3, 2021

Let 2021 be the year of fighting the pandemic with commitment, introducing compassionate policies, and coming out as survivors

2020 has been the year of fear, not only due to the coronavirus pandemic but also due to turbulence in world politics.

The whole world went into a complete lockdown as human survival appeared to be in jeopardy. Conditions that were hitherto perceived as normal don’t seem to be normal now. As we were all fighting an invisible enemy, a virus that needed a human host to rip through populations, people became suspicious of one another. People became increasingly suspicious and fearful, and for one whole year, the world was in pause. Global policies regarding health, education and public interest were exposed, structures that had been deceiving people for years collapsed. People were dying not only of Covid-19 but also from hunger, depression and inflation made worse by government policies during the pandemic.

In Pakistan, doctors and health workers took to the streets to demand and protest for protective equipment. Scores of healthcare workers were fired. The government failed to produce alternate ways to provide people with necessary and proper infrastructure to fight the pandemic. The mismanagement points to the dangers posed by ineffective institutions like the disaster management authorities. We weren’t prepared to fight a pandemic, given the dismal performance during earthquakes and floods. From world history, we know that pandemic like cholera and Spanish flu can take down entire nations.

The government struggled to get its priorities right. Social distancing in this situation was the sole weapon against the deadly virus. It required a more efficient and strategic management on a large scale. Our government was late to catch up, and emerged as a baffled entity unclear about the agenda.

The ‘smart’ lockdown policy was introduced after the first lockdown hit the vulnerable the hardest as they lost jobs and livelihoods.

The healthcare system in Pakistan buckled under this pressure. More than 500 health workers including doctors and nurses died in the line of duty. Meanwhile, decisions like the PM donating a plane-full of PPE to the US while Pakistan’s health workers were protesting in the streets for access to safety equipment further undermined trust.

2020 has passed with the fear of losing loved ones and the crisis of work and healthcare. The socio-economic crisis in Pakistan led to social movements of various streams against the government. The IMF-dictated budget was seen as “a suicide call” for the working class. The government announced a Rs 70 billion Covid-19 relief programme, but it is a part of the Public Sector Development Programme that stands at Rs 650 billion. A The News editorial pointed out that “this effectively means that there is no economic stimulus programme – and that there is around a 20 percent decrease in the amount of economic activity the state generates in the next year through new or continuing public sector development projects”. This is concerning, notes the editorial, given that no steps have been taken to “steady the tide of the growing fiscal deficit”.

Going into 2021, the mistakes of 2020 shouldn’t be repeated. Let it be the year of reforms as much as it will be a year of challenges. There should be a vast budget dedicated to health, education and workers, one that caters to the masses and can address their basic and fundamental needs. A holistic structure should be designed by the government to review linkages between these areas within the social sector. Economic and social dynamics of public interest, informed by lessons from the pandemic, should guide the way.

The government will likely have to and should be increasing their budget in 2021, which is being seen as the year of the vaccine. A carefully chalked-out and holistic system of social welfare with proper pathways will help manage things better during the pandemic. A focus on public health and safety will eventually lead to decreased death rate and prevalence rate. Pakistani lives are just as precious as the lives of those in the global north. Let 2021 be the year of fighting the pandemic with commitment, introducing compassionate policies and coming out as survivors.

The writer is a climate and health activist, and a member of Haqooq e Khalq Movement (HKM)

Hindsight 20/20: Let 2021 be the year of fighting the pandemic with commitment