No end in sight – Mohammad Zubair

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The government’s narrative remains the same: we can either protect lives or livelihoods and, considering everything, it is livelihoods that will be protected.

For the PTI government, it has been a zero-sum game – corona or economy. The PM has remained consistent that he cannot fight the pandemic because that will ruin our economy.

Every country in the world faced the same challenge when confronted with the coronavirus pandemic. The international best practice was to impose lockdown – and a strict one at that. A lockdown of a nature that meant literally choking the economy. But lives had to be protected and that is why there was almost no debate in most countries whether a lockdown was required to contain the spread or not.

More important, there was only one definition of a lockdown. Starting with China, it virtually meant closure of the entire cities and towns. The lockdown window was limited knowing full well that an unlimited lockdown is unsustainable from an economic standpoint.

Pakistan was the only country which had different versions of a lockdown – full lockdown, partial lockdown, smart lockdown, limited lockdown and so on.

The worst was the messaging to fight this pandemic; and leading the field in confusing people was our PM. Consistently downplaying the significance and the threat, he started off by describing it as a simple flu. Then by advising people that even if they had fever or cough or flu, there was no need to go and get tested for coronavirus. Later on, he changed almost everything that he prescribed in the beginning. He famously stated that the elite was able to order lockdown (everyone to this day wonders who exactly he was referring to). He has also been consistently criticising the Sindh government, saying they got scared of the pandemic and imposed a lockdown.

The Sindh governor, not to be left behind, tweeted that it is a simple flu and there is nothing to worry. More hilarious was his statement that the lockdown was imposed because the elite of DHA / Clifton wanted one since New York, London, Paris and other cities had lockdowns. A high ranking MPA of the ruling party even suggested that there were no patients in any Karachi hospital. According to him, he and his other colleagues had been visiting hospitals and found no evidence of Covid-19 in Karachi. He even suggested that Pakistan had been affected with the ‘C’ category of Covid-19. No one in the world has ever suggested that there are different categories of Covid-19 – A, B or C.

The federal planning minister who has led the government’s strategy, if there has been one, has been more vociferous in advocating why saving lives is not as important as ensuring economic welfare. More people die due to traffic accidents. That was the rationale from the leading PTI leader responsible for implementing the government strategy. He gave the reference of Sweden as the only country with ‘no lockdown strategy’ and called it a success story. Hardly; compare Sweden with its regional counterparts – Finland, Norway and Denmark – and one would see a marked difference – not just in the pandemic infections and deaths but also the devastating economic implications. There are almost no new cases in Finland, Norway and Denmark. That’s the success of a strong lockdown policy.

That brings us to the economic impact. All countries have suffered economic consequences as a result of this pandemic – lockdown or no lockdown. But in the example given above, Sweden’s economy will suffer much more than the other three countries. The answer essentially lies in the period of suffering. If the lockdown was strongly implemented, countries were able to contain the spread and therefore return to economic activity much earlier than those that did not implement a strong lockdown strategy.

Pakistan is included in countries which did not implement a lockdown strategy, and the result is for everyone to see. More than three months and we are still far away from the peak. It could come in August or maybe later. As for the economic consequences, the numbers tell the story. Starting in April, all indicators are down. This according to the government’s own numbers. Growth will be negative for the first time in 68 years. Exports are massively suffering. So is the tax revenue.

Unemployment is widespread and millions are being pushed below the poverty line. Clearly, contrary to the PM and his team’s assertion, we have not been able to protect our economy – and this is just the beginning. If the pandemic continues a few more months, as it looks to be the case, the economy will further nosedive. Several months later or towards the end of the year, when the devastation will be better known, we will realise we failed miserably on both counts – lives as well as livelihoods.

Mr Prime Minister, we are losing the battle against the coronavirus. That was in any case part of your strategy. The unfortunate part is that we are also losing the battle to protect livelihoods. The worst sufferers of the economic downturn are the poor that you thought you will be able to protect. The elite is surely going through a rough patch but given the billions that they have in their bank accounts or properties, they can wait as long as the economy continues to bleed. It’s the poor, the lower middle class and the middle class which have been on the receiving end.

Surely the policy has backfired. But it’s nothing new. This trend of economic failures is a process that began immediately after the current government came into power.

The PM and his team continue to live in a state of deep denial which will have catastrophic consequences for the country. Meanwhile, there seems to be no end in sight to the misery of almost every Pakistani.

The writer is former governor Sindh and former minister for privatisation.