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Balancing life and livelihood in coronavirus-hit Pakistan

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A view of a downtown market is seen empty during restrictions due to COVID-19 situation in Karachi, Pakistan, March 20, 2020.

Despite the opposition’s making political capital out of the coronavirus catastrophe, and the media’s vicious misinformation campaign, Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khanis coping well with the current pandemic. 

An apocalyptic medical emergency having hit a rather weak health care system hard has all the potential to create panic. But the Prime Minister has convincingly spoken several times to mitigate the fear that the electronic media is busy creating among the people. The negative role of the media has national security implications. 

But the Prime Minister has reacted to the situation as fast as it is possible and to the best of his ability. With looming gaps in the health care system and lack of public cleanliness, the existing gaps cannot be bridged in a short time. Only an organised all-out effort can mitigate the havoc. 

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While the new coronavirus is highly contagious, it is established that most of the infected who have mild symptoms of fever and cough, recover after a couple of days or within a maximum of two weeks. The death rate (just below 10%) is highest in Italy. But even there, 90% of the afflicted recover with most of the fatalities being among the elderly or people with a weak immune system. 

Without playing down the danger to public health, one must put it into context all the hazards threatening millions of lives in Pakistan. Among them are a failing economy and spreading poverty. These could trigger food riots if and when food is not available or is too expensive. One can have a full lock-down or curfew in big cities. This may lessen massive infection but it will ruin the economy if the supply lines are interrupted not only for agriculture but for industries too. 

This was what Imran Khan had in mind when addressing the public, medical specialists and the political leadership to ‘discuss and reassess’ the situation in the country and adjust the measures planned and/or implemented. His is a sensible understanding of the adjustments needed. 

Given the fact that all the previous pandemics in the world had hardly impacted on Pakistan, there is no precedent to follow and no ready-made recipes to employ. Even the West, with its much better developed health care systems, medical research and experience with previous epidemics, is ‘learning by doing’. Every two or three days they are making the necessary changes.

The most important message that Imran Khan is trying to deliver is that the economic outfall of the lock-down would be much more dangerous than the medical one. 

Days into the partial lock-down, the virus is clearly strangling Pakistan’s fragile economy. Shortage of foreign-exchange reserves along with plunging demand and global supply-chain issues could send Pakistan’s economy to the morgue. But the IMF’s putting aside long-held principles and promising help brings relief.

Imran Khan has lifted the ban on goods transport movement and has decided to allow opening of food-related industries to ensure adequate supply of essential items during the nationwide lockdown. Core Pakistani industries like textile have to keep working. Employees need the jobs and the country needs the industry. Many will die from hunger and others diseases when they have no money to buy medicines and no transport to reach help. 

We have already interrupted the supply chain. Milkmen are giving milk free in their own localities because they could not get their milk to their market. So is the state of vegetables which are perishing. The govt has taken a wise decision by purchasing wheat. Threshing will be possible only by the end of April. By the end of May unemployment in Pakistan could surge by several millions. 

A rough estimate based on Pakistan Bureau of Statistics data suggests that approximately 4.2 million salaried people could end up jobless by the end of this period. But my own estimates are between 4 to 12 million people. Workers should be provided with masks and be alerted about keeping a two meter distance from each other and avoid physical contact.

The daily wagers and their families are hit hardest by the loss of income. For rations to be distributed, a network has to be developed on a war footing. It is good that wage support to enterprises is being planned as is direct income support to daily wagers. Local governments could be drafted. Rations have to be delivered to the district authorities for further distribution to the Union Councils. 

These bodies have to organize a scheme for distributing rations to needy families. The local “tandoor” in each locality in the urban areas could be made the central point of distribution. A representative of the Union Council and law enforcement agencies must be designated for keeping order and oversee distribution. 

One person from each family could come and collect the ration and a time schedule has to be devised so that not all come at the same time and no crowd is formed. Arrangements to prevent misuse have to be put in place.

The major issue is the impending financial crunch. Already under heavy financial burden, there is a need for Pakistan to keep the burden on the State as small as possible which means that interest rates have to be brought further down to close to zero as it has been done internationally. The so-called “hot money” having mostly gone, what is remaining is most likely to stay. 

Having had good profits last year and the years before, the banks should share the financial burden of the country. In any case almost 70% of these profits came from T-Bills, the interest on them being paid by the public exchequer. Pakistan’s stock market, in any case, does not have any relevance to the market situation and to the commodity prices. It is at best a gambling den that also doesn’t need the State Bank of Pakistan’s (SBP) support. 

This situation requires the financial burden to be shouldered by those who can afford it. It is the solidarity with the weak in such time that makes a nation. Even Pakistanis abroad can help. Keeping in view the devaluation of the rupee against the dollar, one would urge overseas Pakistanis to deposit funds into an account in the SBP that could be set up to help lift the pressure off the rupee.

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Lockdown is important but it has to be graded and phased to balance saving lives with saving livelihood. We cannot blindly follow examples of other countries. Every country, in fact, even different Provinces (or States) within any country, should have a response peculiar to it. Those playing politics are playing mindless politics with the lives and livelihood of people. 

While the West has considerable financial resources to contain the economic downturn and the recession they are already facing, Pakistan does not have that luxury. We have to ensure that the livelihood of people is not damaged beyond repair by blindly emulating the Western countries and China. What needs support are our mainstays, namely, agriculture, wheat and cotton. Flour mills can be kept open but cotton provides employment in textile and allied industries. We have to risk keeping our textile industries going.

The most important requirement is that the epidemic and the subsequent economic hardship can be defeated by the united effort of the entire nation, not by the government alone. 

 

The writer is a defence and security analyst