Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) chairman Bilawal Bhutto's pleas for opposition parties' advice to be heard went unheeded. Photo: AFP / Aamir Qureshi

The world has been changed by the Covid-19 pandemic. Such is the impact of the change that the new world order designed by the US after it was attacked on September 11, 2001, is beginning to collapse. Nowadays no one feels threatened by the Taliban, al-Qaeda or ISIS; the threat to the entire globe is now the coronavirus that causes this new disease. Even a superpower like the US is struggling to combat the Covid-19 outbreak as it was not able to assess the threat at first.

While the countries of the world are focused on improving their health services, spending money on trying to find a vaccine and restructuring their economies to face the challenges of the post-pandemic era, the debate in Pakistan still revolves around whether congregational prayers should be allowed in the mosques or not. No one is bothered about the changes this pandemic have brought to the globe, and the focus is entirely on whether to keep the mosques open or close them down for an indefinite period.

The federal government led by Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), which also rules in the provinces of Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP), decided not to ban the Friday congregational prayers that attract large gatherings of worshipers, while the provincial government of Sindh led by the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), going against the odds, has banned the prayers in mosques until April 5.

This reflects the political and religious divide in the country at a time when national unity is the need of the hour. Prime Minister Imran Khan has miserably failed to bring the political leadership together, and instead the young Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, who leads the PPP, is doing this job and contacting every political party to devise a uniform policy against the outbreak of Covid-19.

Much to the credit of the PPP, despite being portrayed as a corrupt and evil party by the controlled media, it has not only managed to effectively counter the spread of the disease in the province of Sindh but it has also been leading by example. The call for social isolation and to lock down the country first came from Bilawal, and it was the PPP government in Sindh that led the way by going for a lockdown in the province it governs.

Even the chief minister of Sindh, Syed Murad Ali Shah, can be seen in the field as he regularly visits hospitals and quarantine centers. It seems that we are watching the revival of the old PPP of Zulfikar Bhutto and Benazir Bhutto that was liked in every part of the country for its passion for the common masses and its ability to make hard decisions.

Perhaps Bilawal has taken the path of his late mother Benazir, and this is the reason that at a time of crisis when PTI has choked in the center as well as in Punjab and KP and was clueless about going for a lockdown or not, the PPP has risen to the challenge and despite very few resources at its disposal is fighting the pandemic efficiently.

Even this decision to ban congregational prayers is not easy, as a country where mullahs and so-called religious scholars enjoy a monopoly and can easily brainwash millions of minds against this step, the PPP government is very brave and needs to applauded. That is where the PPP stands tall and way ahead of the other mainstream centrist parties like PTI and the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N).

However, the Sindh government’s fight against the pandemic and Bilawal Bhutto’s efforts to unite the political leadership are not enough to save the country from the likely consequences of this pandemic, both in terms of losing lives and the impact on the economy. There is no way this pandemic can be stopped while the gatherings of people in the mosques are allowed, but the federal government and Prime Minister Imran Khan, as usual, are happier to please the mullahs and the right-wing vote bank.

In fact, the federal government even at this late stage is unable to decide whether a nationwide lockdown is necessary or not, as Khan has asked the provinces to reassess their own lockdowns and relax their conditions. The never-ending narcissism of Khan is not letting him understand a basic point that the entire world has acknowledged, that at the moment only lockdowns can reduce the spread of Covid-19.

The federal government has approved a 1.2 trillion rupee relief package to meet the crisis created by the pandemic. In the package, 150 billion rupees is earmarked for laborers and 280 billion rupees for wheat procurement to support farmers. The government has also cut the prices of petroleum products by 15 rupees.

However, the part of the package targeted for the poor seems a joke, as it is only offering 3,000 rupees per family to the daily-wage-earners segment of the masses, an amount that could not support a family of three or four members for even a week. In contrast, the Sindh government is reaching out to the poor by providing them with food for the month of March, and it intends to continue this provision until the pandemic crisis is over.

The central government has been unable to understand the gravity of the situation. As part of its relief package, the policy interest rate has been reduced only slightly, to 11% from 13.25%. All that will do is ensure that the hot money that had been attracted by the higher rates will be pulled out by investors.

As a result, on Thursday the rupee lost its value against the US dollar massively. The same is the case with the stock markets in Pakistan, where because of the fall in the rupee’s value uncertainty still prevails despite the government’s relief package. In contrast, the $2 trillion relief package passed by the US Senate has not only strengthened the trust of investors but it has also brought a new lease on life for the stock market, as the Dow soared 11% on Tuesday, the highest single-day jump since 1933.

Of course Pakistan is not the US, and it cannot present a relief package of that magnitude. But still, only cutting interest rates minimally and giving 3,000 rupees to poor families is not going to help stop the anxiety and panic of the business community and the masses. The most important aspect is being entirely ignored, and that is the restructuring of the economy, as in the post-Covid-19 era the world will be relying on digital economies, and until a vaccine is found the conventional style of business and maintaining economies will not work properly.

The government seems visionless, as it is still focused on how to undermine the PPP government’s good fight against the pandemic in the province of Sindh and to undermine the free press further, as the editor-in-chief of Jang Group, Mir Shakil-ur-Rehman, is still languishing behind bars. Meanwhile Imran Khan, despite being in a very weak position due to his confused state of mind and lack of ability to make timely decisions, is not ready to release Shakil as a goodwill gesture to win back the confidence of the press. Likewise, he also is not interested in listening to the advice of the opposition parties, and this has made him politically isolated.

At a time when the prime minister needed united political support, he chose to self-isolate – not from Covid-19 but from the support of all the political parties. So the worries for Pakistan are not only how to stop the spread of this pandemic and to save its already fragile economy from collapsing, but also the absence of a mature and independent decision-maker in the central government.

A government that cannot even resist the pressure of the mullahs and ban the gatherings of worshipers for a limited time and in limited numbers can never stop this pandemic from spreading. The PTI government needs to understand one simple point, that is it not only the doctors and the medical staff that will have to wage a tireless war against this Covid-19 pandemic, every single person in society has to play his or her own role.

To persuade the masses to do what is needed in these times of crisis, this government not only needs complete political support at its back but it also needs to learn quickly the requirements of the post-Covid era. There is no point in locking down the cities while not doing massive testing to separate the disinfected; there is no use asking people to self-isolate when congregational prayers are still allowed in most parts of the country; there is no point in announcing a relief package to meet the crisis when the government cannot even provide face masks to the downtrodden segment of society.

This is not a short-term battle, it’s going to be a very long war, and the masses need to be prepared for it – they don’t need to be further brainwashed by mullahs in the name of religion.

No religion in the world can invent a vaccine for Covid-19, and no religion should ask its followers to conduct collective suicide by gathering for worship at a time when self-isolation is as vital as oxygen for the survival of human beings. Likewise, Imran Khan and his team can learn from Bilawal Bhutto’s political wisdom and the uniting efforts of Sindh Chief Minister Murad Ali Shah about how to assert government authority on the mullahs and how to fight the pandemic in an organized way.

At a time of crisis, the stature of a man decides whether he will be lost in the dustbin of history because of his inability to rise against the challenges posed by the crisis, or if he will be always remembered for rising to the moment and facing the challenges with wisdom and courage.

For now, Pakistan has a long fight ahead like the other countries of the world against this pandemic, but the positive things are that in the form of Murad Ali Shah we have seen that if one decides to take on the battle against this pandemic, it can be contained, and at some time it will be defeated, as we human beings have been existing on this planet for hundreds of thousands of years and we will continue to exist because of our ability to survive in any condition.

Bilawal Bhutto Zardari rising to the occasion and coming up with good ideas and uniting the political leadership is also a good sign that some of the country’s politicians have a sense of responsibility and they are owning this battle against the pandemic. It is the prime minister who needs to end his political “quarantine” and take the responsibility of leading this battle.

For now, it is Murad Ali Shah and Bilawal Bhutto who are leading the charge against the pandemic in Pakistan.

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.

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