Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan. Photo: AFP / Aamir Qureshi

The economic impacts of Covid-19 are becoming visible in Pakistan. The weeks of lockdown have affected daily wagers and the lower-middle-class segments of society. If one goes to the markets one can find many white-collar people trying to buy food for their kids. Meanwhile the minorities are ignored entirely, as are those living in the slum areas, while the restaurants, the textile sector, the agriculture sector, indeed every single industry and business has been hit badly.

The actual number of people suffering from Covid-19 is unknown, as Pakistan is among those countries that are badly behind when it comes to testing people suspected of carrying the coronavirus.

Meanwhile, the federal government led by Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), weakened by the recent “sugargate” corruption scandal, is relying on media and advertising to try to fool the people that everything is under control and that the needy have been provided enough food and money to survive for at least another month.

A few leading publications are reporting headline news that Pakistan has allocated the largest social relief package of all time to relieve the impact of Covid-19, yet they seem unaware of the miseries of the common masses. Only 12,000 rupees (US$72) for four months provided to the poor through this so-called generous package is not enough for even a single person, forget about a family with two kids trying survive on that meager amount.

In contrast, the Bangladeshi government recently approved a whopping $8.5 billion bailout package to counter the pandemic and its impacts on individuals and businesses. Bangladesh has a population of around 164.69 million with GDP per capita of $1,905 in 2019, while Pakistan’s population is estimated to be 200.7 million with GDP per capita estimated at $1,388 last year. So it is not hard to see how the government in Bangladesh is standing up for its people despite having few resources while in Pakistan the PTI-led federal government is busy with self-promotion and taking political mileage while doing nothing substantial to provide relief to the masses or to the small and medium-sized industries and businesses that are dying because of the economic recession and the lockdown.

Any major government in these times of crisis would have announced a bigger package than a mere $1 billion and would have at least provided money to the masses that could have been sufficient for them to buy food and milk for their kids.

The PTI-led government also stooped to a new low by first trying to change the name of the Benazir Income Support Fund (BISP) to Ehsaas Kafalat Program, under which it is disbursing the relief money to the poor, most of whom were registered under the BISP. After a controversy over the proposed name change, the government decided to run the BISP under its Ehsaas program. But all this is just an effort to cover up the PTI government’s failure first to anticipate the gravity of the Covid-19 pandemic and then remaining in self-denial about imposing a lockdown.

The BISP, which was Pakistan’s largest social protection program to date, was launched in 2008 by the Pakistan Peoples Party government of that time, and even the subsequent government led by the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) did not change the name of the program. Right now the country does not need petty politics and image building by Prime Minister Imran Khan and his cabinet.

As the economic crisis is likely to worsen in the coming days, the sloganeering and public image-building campaign by PTI will not help resolve the problem. According to a report by tax advisory Tola Associates, tax collection by the Federal Board of Revenue (FBR) may fall short by a whopping 1.5 trillion rupees ($9 billion), and even if the pandemic crisis had not emerged the government would still have been 1 trillion rupees short of the tax-collection target.

According to this report, the livestock, forestry and fishery sectors will underperform because of the lockdown, while in the services sector, wholesale and retail trade is expected to decline because of the pandemic.

The report also suggests that the purchasing power of Pakistani citizens will fall, resulting in low consumption during Ramadan and also low shopping activity during the annual Eid celebrations.

So the picture remains gloomy as far as the economy is concerned, and if the daily-wage workers are not given reasonable relief instead of mere 3,000 rupees a month, it could lead to civil unrest. The same is the case with small and medium-size service, manufacturing and marketing businesses, as if they are not provided relief, hundreds of thousands more people will become unemployed, and then media manipulation and Khan’s personal self-glorification will not be able to save the economy from shrinking at an alarming rate.

No single political party and not even the mighty military establishment can thwart the economic crisis singlehandedly, and they all need to join hands at least to put a good fight against the odds, both during the pandemic and in the post-Covid era. The problem remains the egoistic approach of Imran Khan, who is not willing to come out of self-denial mode and seek cooperation from the opposition political parties.

In fact, if sources are correct this hybrid regime is working on leaking planted news that will target both the PML-N and PPP regarding corruption and commissions illegally made during their tenures in government. And in a bid to make the report look “balanced,” the Peshawar Bus Rapid Transit (Peshawar BRT) project under the PTI provincial government in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, which cost the national exchequer a whopping 2.4 billion rupees per kilometer, will also be included in the story. In that way, an impression can be created that the news is not planted or deliberately leaked, as a PTI-led government will also be named. This clearly depicts the mindset of Khan and reveals his priorities of diverting the masses’ attention from the pandemic instead of solving the crisis.

On the other hand, the establishment clearly is fed up with Imran Khan’s unsuccessful governance and his inability to rise above petty politics. This can be seen and felt even from that section of the press that is a mouthpiece of the deep state and played a vital role in bringing Khan to power through spreading fake stories and propaganda against the mainstream opposition parties. A few TV anchors and journalists in this section of the press have started to criticize the incompetence of Khan and his cabinet, and one does not need to be a genius to figure out who gave them the nod to turn their guns on the same man and political party whose image they themselves built up.

The truth of the matter is that on its own, without the backing of the establishment, PTI could never win more than 24 National Assembly seats from across the country, and the day the establishment ditches it this party will vanish like the one General Pervez Musharraf had in his pocket during his reign, the Pakistan Muslim League Quaid-e-Azam (PML-Q). As PTI is made up of a bunch of turncoats and opportunists who were brought together by the establishment, they will change their loyalties the moment the establishment decides to turn off the switch for Naya Pakistan.

Right now Pakistan is not only facing a pandemic and its economic impacts, it is facing an invisible tussle between the hybrid regime in Islamabad and the opposition parties. The PTI government, insecure of its future, is only relying on creating a good impression about its performance through a certain section of press, whereas the reality is that it has brought the economy and the political discourse to the brink of collapse.

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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