Former prime minister Imran Khan released on bail after his controversial arrest. Photo: AFP / Aamir Qureshi

A microscopic virus has brought the entire world to a standstill. Originating from China’s Wuhan province, the coronavirus that causes Covid-19 shattered the mirage of man’s control and power.

As of now, China claims to have successfully contained the contagion, but the rest of the world is at crossroads. As unprecedented as this is, leaders everywhere appear to be helpless in the wake of this global health crisis.  

Not even rich and developed countries can cope with it. It is neither a problem of the economy nor of development, but of timely decisions and following strict safety protocols. Taiwan, for one, has managed to accomplish this otherwise impossible task.

What about developing countries and struggling economies? Pakistan, for instance; can one look beyond despair?

Trail of indecisiveness

Covid-19 began spreading in Pakistan with the pilgrims coming back home from Iran via the Taftan border crossing. The pilgrims reportedly were neither tested thoroughly nor quarantined. The result was obvious: The contagion got its chance to spread all across the country.

The Interior Ministry closed the Afghan border and the Kartarpur Corridor. However, the government stated that Indian Sikh pilgrims would be allowed to visit. One wonders why the issue of closing borders and restricting movement came so late. Incompetence, inconsistency, indecisiveness, prevailing confusion, and inaction are the causes of the outbreak surge in Pakistan.

Plight of the prime minister

Prime Minister Imran Khan, as leaders are supposed to, came to the fore and spoke to the nation on the outbreak. He informed the people that a lockdown was an impossibility and tried to encourage them while telling them of the awful state of medical facilities in the hospitals. In his second speech, his insistence on delaying the lockdown and the unpreparedness to provide comfort to the nation was itself a reason for panic. While talking to journalists, he was pressed with many questions but could not offer any satisfactory answers.

There is no denying that these are times of helplessness, but that’s when leaders should rise to the occasion. It is the time when a leader needs to inspire his people with hope. To Pakistanis’ chagrin, their national leader fell short of comforting his people, who had negligible awareness of the disease and were at the risk of losing their lives.

Action not supplication

Since it was a national crisis, Khan should have given a national response. He should have convened an all-party conference to bring all the stakeholders on board and demonstrated the resolve to move past the political differences this time. Not only politically, but the need of the hour also was to take all the community leaders on board. The chief minister of Sindh, Murad Ali Shah, seemed wiser and did all the right things, including enforcing a lockdown.

There is a need to chalk out a national plan by mobilizing all the resources at hand. First, the relief package Khan announced on Tuesday must be refined further. For example, how those affected by the crisis will be identified and provided what they need is a huge undertaking. It needs a sharp plan so that the right people get help at the right time.

It would be more appropriate for the relief plan to be implemented by creating relief zones. For example, in one section of the city, all the political parties of that area, religious leaders, and philanthropists should be given the responsibility to cater to the needs of the people during the lockdown. That would address the issue of rightly identifying the needy people and timely delivery of relief services to them.

It has been said that the daily wage earners will be the worst hit, but they are not the only ones. It is the middle class that always bears the brunt, such as employees who work on contractual or daily basis, and educators. If their salaries are cut off, even partially, it will result in spreading despair, confusion and ultimately socio-economic chaos.

Coupled with this is the problem of hoarding. People must be strictly watched as to whether there is any such activity going on anywhere in the country. Failing to ensure this, the country could end up in despair and discontent.

Second, people are not well aware of the nature of this disease, its symptoms, and how it spreads. A nationwide campaign should be initiated on social distancing.

Third, those who are at the forefront of this war are doctors and paramedical staff. Why should they risk their lives? They must be encouraged and paid tribute to while providing them the facilities they need during this time.

The people of Pakistan have been going through many trials and ordeals. Though Covid-19 is a global issue, in Pakistan it is only adding to the tragedies of the people. How do the people feel after going through this much hardship?

A brilliant young poet and social activist, Afkar Alvi, wrote a metaphoric poem, Murshid (“The Mentor”), that aptly describes the despair:

Dear Mentor, this I know;

The worst has happened,

I have been set on fire,

Tend to my bleeding wounds,

Give me cure, only cure,

Dear Mentor, give me hope, not supplications.

The slogan “Please do not panic” is not the solution. The most important factor that could defeat this disease is timely management. If actions are taken timely, the country will be brought back to normal, restoring faith and hope in the government.

Ghazanfar Ali Garewal is Lecturer in International Relations department of the National University of Modern Languages in Islamabad (NUML). He holds an MS degree in International Cooperation from Yonsei University, Seoul, an MSc in international relations from Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad, and an MA in English from NUML.