A security guard stands behind a barrier closing a street during a government-imposed lockdown as a preventive measure against the Covid-19 coronavirus, on the outskirts of Islamabad on March 24, 2020. Photo: AFP / Farooq Naeem

Every day, the Covid-19 pandemic is creating panic and economic crisis all over the world, not to forget the loss of precious human lives. The inability of even developed nations like the US, Italy and Spain to defeat this outbreak has created chaos, as sooner or later every single country will have to face a surge in infections, if they haven’t already.

This pandemic has also busted many myths and beliefs, as no help from an unknown world has ever arrived to stop the loss of lives. The lesson is clear that the only nations that will survive the pandemic itself and its aftermath are those that know this fight can only be won by us, the human race, whereas those nations waiting for divine help will find it hard to survive.

The federal government led by Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) is facing this situation, as it is not only pitted against the pandemic itself but because of a lack of resources, it is unable to protect the vulnerable and poor segments of the society from the economic impacts of the Covid-19 outbreak.

The reality is that Pakistan, despite being helped by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and global players like the US and Saudi Arabia, still needs to find a way out of this crisis with minimum damage both in terms of human lives and economic impacts without amassing a heavy debt burden. Unfortunately, the PTI government is hell-bent on shooting itself on the foot.

First, it was unable to provide financial assistance to the needy segments of society, and then it started a war of accusations with the Sindh provincial government led by the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP). Then on Tuesday, the federal government under PTI, which also rules the provinces of Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP), announced a half-hearted lockdown extension while allowing certain industries and businesses to remain open, whereas the PPP government in Sindh went for a strict lockdown again and enforced it extension with every means possible.

The chief minister of Sindh, Murad Ali Shah, who in these testing times has emerged as the man of crisis, held a detailed press conference on Wednesday where he again advised the masses not to take the pandemic lightly. But PTI-appointed cabinet ministers in Islamabad are busy accusing the PPP of misgovernance, thereby trying to hide their own failures in the center, Punjab and KP by playing the blame game.

So at a time when the country needs a united effort against the outbreak and to rescue its economy, most of the federal ministers as usual are busy with photo shoots and media appearances, while it is getting tougher for the poor and lower middle class even to survive and feed their families.

The emotional addresses of Prime Minister Imran Khan cannot feed empty stomachs, and his highly incompetent cabinet is only keeping him and the masses in the delusion that everything is OK. The reality, however, is that the masses, most of whom are daily-wagers, have been left at the mercy of their circumstances.

There is complete confusion in the PTI central and provincial governments. On the one hand they want to protect the lives of the people and show care for the poor by relaxing the conditions of the lockdown, but on the other hand, they are completely helpless in persuading the mullahs to stop congregational prayers, instead doing nothing other than asking for charity from the world and the Pakistani people themselves.

In fact on Thursday when the Group of Twenty announced that poor countries’ loan repayments would be deferred for the next 12 months, the PTI government presented it as a success of Prime Minister Khan, who has been pleading with the global powers to write off Pakistan’s debts. But everyone knows that the deferred repayment of loans is not specifically for Pakistan but also includes dozens of other poor countries.

Likewise, the International Monetary Fund disbursing US$1.1386 billion to Pakistan under its Rapid Financing Instrument program is not a donation or a free lunch, it is a debt that has to paid back.

Nevertheless, it is good that at least Pakistan has some resources available now to settle the balance of payments and try and to give relief to the marginalized segments of society. However, only relying on these loans and not trying to create IT-enabled jobs at a time when the digital economy will remain the only way to self-sustain for the next few years shows this government’s lack of seriousness.

In contrast, the PPP has shown itself to be in a different class, as not only is Sindh Chief Minister Murad Ali Shah putting up a good fight against the pandemic, but the young chairman of the party, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, can be seen pressing the need of national unity and to shun political squabbling in this time of crisis.

In fact, Bilawal’s knowledge about the pandemic and his solutions are more effective than those of the entire federal cabinet, which is only concerned with maligning the Sindh government. In fact, the PPP leader has correctly identified the problem, as he said the biggest hurdle to a national consensus was the prime minister’s ego.

Perhaps being a victim of his own ego Imran Khan does not realize that he needs to focus on creating national unity in a country where the politics of hatred was reintroduced by him during his days in opposition, and now it is beyond his control to lower the political temperature back to normalcy and to sit together with the opposition to find ways to save the economy and the human lives. In contrast, Shah has emerged as the man with a plan, and his actions are speaking louder than words.

This is the time for Khan to learn from Shah how to handle the crisis, as the Sindh chief minister is doing so even with a minimum of resources and in an atmosphere where his political party is continually painted as corrupt and treacherous by the right-wing and conservative sections of the press.

The federal government’s latest decision to cut the policy interest rate to 9% is a good one, but Khan ignored this suggestion from opposition parties earlier, and now when the military establishment has intervened and advised him to listen, the question remains: How long will he keep making late decisions and failing to acknowledge the role and support of the opposition parties?

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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