There could hardly be a worse time for any political party to be in government than the present time of the Covid-19 pandemic. Governments struggling to slow the spread of the coronavirus must face the question of how long they can rely on locking down their entire countries and halting economic activities.
The federal government led by Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) is also faced with this tough choice: lifting the lockdown in stages to allow daily-wagers and the lower middle class to restart economic activities to feed their families, or maintaining a full lockdown in order to preserve precious human lives.
On Thursday, Prime Minister Imran Khan for the first time spoke with clarity regarding the lifting of the lockdown in gradual steps. Khan earlier was of two minds about whether or not to implement a lockdown and never appeared confident on the matter, but his body language and his calm demeanor during Thursday’s press conference suggested that he finally had made up his mind.
The lockdown in Pakistan will be lifted in stages starting on Saturday, and the prime minister has given a solid reason for that, saying he believes that a country the majority of whose population is dependent on daily wages and jobs cannot afford to continue with a complete lockdown.
It is a very unpopular decision as far as the Pakistani bourgeoisie class is concerned, as those people with reserves in their bank accounts can afford to stay in lockdown for many more months, but on the ground, for the majority, the situation is entirely different.
If you visit the garrison city of Rawalpindi or the federal capital Islamabad, you will see a large number of people standing alongside the roads and asking for food or money to feed their kids and to pay their rent or utility bills. For them, Covid-19 is no more a threat than being denied earning opportunities as they are faced with starvation and more poverty.
Then there is the white-collar, lower-middle-class segment of the population who cannot beg like the poor, and their situation too is gloomy.
So any government could have done what Imran Khan has decided to do by announcing the gradual lifting of the lockdown. In fact, the lockdown was never a reality anyway, as despite the government closing shops and offices, many people kept coming outside, and in the slum areas of the cities, poverty and crowding inside small houses made it impossible for the government to enforce the lockdown.
Though this correspondent has been a strong critic of the PTI government for its undemocratic credentials and has advocated the lockdown, when even after almost two months of the lockdown the federal and provincial governments have not been able to conduct tests for Covid-19 in large numbers, there remains no option but to endorse Imran Khan’s decision to reopen the country gradually.
No one knows better than Khan that if the decision to ease the lockdown does not pay off, it will be the end of the story for him and his government, as the last thing the PTI regime would want is immense numbers of people dying from Covid-19 or being hospitalized because of the illness. So he for sure has taken one of the biggest risks of his political career.
As far as the risk to the general population is concerned, even during the lockdown the majority was not taking precautionary measures, and the lack of an effective awareness campaign using the union councils and town administrations made it impossible for the federal and provincial governments to persuade the masses to adopt such measures.
Even in developed countries lockdowns have created havoc in the lives of common folk, and no country can just shut down and wait 18 months or more for a vaccine to be invented. In fact, there is no guarantee that we will be able to develop a vaccine against the coronavirus in the immediate future. So in the end life has to move on, and the ability of humans to adapt to change will surely help us defeat this pandemic one day.
And then there are senior epidemiologists like Professor Johan Giesecke, an adviser to the Swedish government, who are of the view that the lockdown policy of the European countries and the US are not evidence-based and the correct policy is to protect the old and frail only. The PTI government is going with this theory, and has decided to adopt the Swedish herd-immunity model. Prime Minister Khan during his press conference repeated many times that young people have the responsibility to take care of their elders.
Sweden is among the few countries that have not gone for a lockdown and instead only focused on trying to protect the elderly and ill people. Its approach has been largely successful compared with some other European countries.
Currently, in the absence of a vaccine, the world has not discovered any way other than testing, tracing and isolating the infected people from others. However, in developing countries like Pakistan, the capacity to test people in mass numbers cannot be achieved rapidly, so is not an option.
The doctors certainly have their own perspective of human life and their disapproval of lifting the lockdown can be understood, but then the question arises, in the absence of a strong social system and mechanism to provide food and basic necessities to the underprivileged segments of society, what else can this government do? Should it maintain the lockdown for an indefinite period?
Of course, the government or people like us can wait, but the underprivileged cannot, as for them getting food for their families, and paying rent on their homes, is more important than the threat of Covid-19.
If Imran Khan can put his ego aside and try to maintain a good relationship with the opposition parties, he will be able to come up with a cohesive plan on how to move forward while easing the lockdown. As for the opposition parties, they should realize that this pandemic is not an opportunity to undermine the PTI government or to settle old political rivalries.
Lockdown or no lockdown, the number of Covid-19 patients will rise in any case, but if journalists like us keep criticizing the government for every step it takes even with good intentions, or the opposition parties and the federal government itself waste their energies on useless political point-scoring, the ultimate losers will be the people of Pakistan.
It is time to find solutions to this situation instead of targeting the government, or the PTI government targeting the opposition. Likewise, for dissident journalists, there is ample time to write and speak about the wrong policies of this government, but right now everyone should at least realize that politics or criticism on every occasion is not the right approach. And Prime Minister Khan and his cabinet also need to realize this soon.
In any case, it is good to see that finally Pakistan’s prime minister is free of ambiguity regarding the pandemic, and finally walks the talk.