Imran Khan has been accused of bowing to religious extremists in Pakistan. Photo: AFP/Aamir Qureshi
Imran Khan could well return to power in Pakistan, and the US must be prepared to deal with him. Photo: AFP / Aamir Qureshi

The Covid-19 pandemic has hit Pakistan and the number of patients affected by the coronavirus is increasing at an alarming rate. At the time of filing this report, a total of 183 patients had tested positive for Covid-19. Most of those infected are people who have come back from Iran, but the failure of the provincial government of Balochistan to keep them in quarantine and the delayed decision of the federal government on closing the border with Iran have already caused damage.

The Sindh provincial government led by the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), despite a lack of resources, has done a great job testing people suspected of carrying the virus. Much to the credit of Sindh Chief Minister Murad Ali Shah, he did not hide the tally of the patients affected by the virus and has focused all his energies on fighting the pandemic.

However, the rest of Pakistan remains at the mercy of circumstances and luck, as the central government led by Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) and those in the provinces of Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa led by the same party have not shown any will to fight the pandemic. People in Punjab and in federal areas are not being tested despite showing symptoms of Covid-19 and the central government is not interested in tracking down people who ran away from quarantine after entering the country from Iran and are carriers of the coronavirus in Balochistan, Punjab and KP.

Such is the poor state of understanding the horrible consequences of the pandemic both medically and economically that most Pakistanis are not bothered about socially distancing themselves.

The government has closed educational institutions all over the country but many people are still roaming the shopping malls, are making unnecessary travel, and have not even stopped shaking hands with others. The PTI government, meanwhile, has still not launched an effective public awareness campaign that could at least warn people that the whole world including Pakistan is going through testing times and many more people will lose their lives and many economies will be sunk because of the impact of Covid-19. 

Slow understanding of pandemic’s impact

When Covid-19 started spreading in China, anyone with common sense could have seen that Pakistan, being a neighbor of that country, would definitely feel the impact and the chances of this virus coming in were high. However, the federal government did not show any interest and kept right on wasting its energy on attacking its political opponents and critics.

Then came Iran’s turn. When the coronavirus outbreak created havoc there as Iranian authorities instead of dealing with the problem tried to hide the number of infections and deaths, still the Pakistani regime failed to act.

Instead, Prime Minister Imran Khan and his cabinet carried on as usual, criticizing the opposition, and other than a few press conferences held by the adviser to thePM on health, Dr Zafar Mirza, not many public-awareness messages were delivered through the media by the government.

At a time when other countries were canceling big sporting events, the Pakistan Super League was allowed continue cricket matches. The prime minister and his cabinet only opened their eyes when the province of  Sindh started reporting Covid-19 cases. But by then, the damage was already done, as now the number of cases is increasing with every passing day.

The delay in launching a massive public awareness campaign and banning events and festivals that bring thousands of people into contact with one another has resulted in the spread of the coronavirus across the country.

Lack of focus

The PTI government, like always, has been busy with optics and instead of taking precautionary measures has kept on targeting its political rivals, and much of its attention has been focused on how to bring former prime minister Nawaz Sharif back from London or how to stop Maryam Nawaz from flying to the UK to see her ailing father.

PTI’s media team has kept mocking the PPP government in Sindh for its inability to deliver basics facilities in the rural areas of the province. To quote an example, even at this time when Pakistan is facing a serious disease outbreak, the prime minister has launched a digital-media team and allocated 42 million rupees (US$263,800) of taxpayers’ money for the team to promote a positive image of his government.

Meanwhile the PTI chief minister of Punjab, Sardar Usman Buzdar, is completely out of the picture, and other than forming a helpline on the coronavirus that is useless as it only offers tests to those who have a recent travel history, the most populous province in Pakistan has been left on its own.

It was only after a meeting of the National Security Council that the central government paid a little heed to the outbreak. However, still the masses are not being asked to remain in their homes and public places are still not being closed.

In a country like Pakistan where the literacy rate is not high and most people see natural calamities including pandemics as the wrath of God and instead of taking preventive measures leave it to God to protect them, the government needed not only a strong awareness campaign but also should have restricted the movement of people by declaring it mandatory not to go outside without an urgent need. Now even if this measure is finally taken, it is too late, and there may be hundreds of carriers who have already mingled with others in public places.

Poor health infrastructure

The health system in Pakistan is very weak as the government does not spend enough to improve it. The obsession with weapons purchases and defense has impeded the growth of the health and education sectors, as most of the fiscal budget is allocated to the defense sector. So Pakistan is not in a position to treat a large number of people if the outbreak expands like it has in Iran or Italy.

The government is placing all its bets on the hope that the summer season will bring an end to Covid-19 because of the hot weather, but there is no scientific evidence yet that the coronavirus will be affected by summer heat.

Even the health system in Punjab that was improved by the previous chief minister Shahbaz Sharif has been collapsing because of negligence and the lack of will to allocate funds to the public hospitals by the current PTI provincial government. As well, there is no coordinated effort among the provinces to deal with this pandemic, as PTI’s political rivalry with the PPP government in Sindh is a problem, and the central government is only trying to take political advantage of the situation, as it did recently when the World Health Organization praised Pakistan’s efforts of to stop the Covid-19 outbreak. In actual fact, the WHO was praising the Sindh government, not Imran Khan’s regime, but instead of demonstrating statesmanship, the prime minister opted to claim that the WHO had praised the efforts of his government.

This reflects the fact that as with other issues the PTI government in Islamabad is only interested in gaining political mileage from the pandemic without recognizing the catastrophic impact this outbreak could have on people’s lives and the economy.

No plan to rescue economy

Governments worldwide are facing the economic impact of the pandemic and devising strategies to cope. The US Federal Reserve has announced a drop in the policy interest rate to near zero to protect the American economy. In Pakistan, however, the government has shown no vision at all. It has not approached the International Monetary Fund to request a delay in the repayment of loans or to change the tough conditions set by the IMF.

Those conditions have resulted in increases in direct and indirect taxes, while the policy interest rate is fixed at around 13.25%. With such a high rate, small and medium-sized industries cannot afford to borrow from the banks, while investors are happy to pour money into their bank accounts to reap the benefits of high interest instead of putting their money into circulation by investing in large business projects.

Amid the Covid-19 outbreak, the masses cannot bear the brunt of inflation, and neither will the economy survive if an immediate rescue does not come from a friendly country or an international financial institution.

The way forward

The only way to survive the impacts of Covid-19 and to stop this coronavirus spreading further in Pakistan is the adoption of a coordinated national plan, and the government needs to focus all its energies and resources on stopping the outbreak as the provincial government of Sindh has done.

An around-the-clock awareness campaign to encourage social isolation and suspending gatherings in mosques, shrines, and markets is the need of the hour. Restaurants and coffee shops also need to be closed and they should be encouraged to deliver food to the homes of their customers.

The government needs to allocate more funds and resources to buy more testing kits and ventilators. Last but not least, massive testing is required and the government should authorize private laboratories to conduct tests free of charge and later can compensate these labs.

Prime Minister Khan can start with an example, by instead of charging 7,900 rupees (about $50) for a coronavirus test he should provide free tests in the hospital he established in Lahore, Shaukat Khanum Memorial Hospital, which was built with charity money given by the masses.

Covid-19 is not an opposition party or a dissenting journalist that can be stopped by mocking it, criticizing it or using government institutions to arrest it. This pandemic needs a wholehearted, well-organized and focused effort to prevent the country from a crisis like Iran is facing.

The question remains, however, whether the PTI government has the will and capacity to fight this pandemic. We should all know the answer in five to six weeks, or less. 

Imad Zafar is a journalist and columnist/commentator for newspapers. He is associated with TV channels, radio, newspapers, news agencies, and political, policy and media related think-tanks.