Pakistan’s struggle to save lives and livelihoods By Zahid Hussain

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As Pakistan fights the deadly COVID-19 infection, the government struggles to maintain the right balance between measures to save lives and to save livelihoods. While the rising number of coronavirus cases has increased pressure on the public health system, the economic costs of the shutdowns have also been massive.
The country has effectively been in a state of lockdown for the past two weeks. For an already troubled economy, this does not augur well. A major consequence of the shutdown is the worsening unemployment situation, with daily wage earners the worst affected. This has increased pressure on the Imran Khan government to ease restrictions and allow some businesses to reopen.
The approach of the month of Ramadan has made things more complicated, making it harder for the government to continue with restrictions. Ramadan is to begin in late April and last through most of May. The government has yet to announce plans for the holy month.
The federal government has indicated that it may relax restrictions from April 14 and allow some industries, including construction projects, to operate– but the decision raises questions about the implications for public health. The lockdown has had serious economic impacts, but it has also helped contain the spread of the disease.
Some experts warn that a premature move in order to save the economy could wreak far greater disasters that would be harder to deal with. While reopening businesses may help reduce unemployment and revive the economy, there is also a huge danger of workers being exposed to the infection.
It will be much more risky as there is no sign of the curve flattening anytime soon. The number of confirmed coronavirus cases has risen exponentially over the past few days. And according to the government’s own estimate, the count could go up to 50,000 in the next two weeks — more than a tenfold increase in the number of infected persons.
Moreover, any move to relax restrictions and reopen some industries could defeat efforts made so far to contain the disease. The cost of the uncontrollable spread of the deadly virus would be much higher. The decision could also exacerbate the crisis and increase the pressure on healthcare resources.

It will be much more risky as there is no sign of the curve flattening anytime soon. The number of confirmed coronavirus cases has risen exponentially over the past few days. And according to the government’s own estimate, the count could go up to 50,000 in the next two weeks — more than a tenfold increase in the number of infected persons.

Zahid Hussain

The setting up of a command and control center to tackle the coronavirus has given some coherence to the country’s efforts to fight the battle against the pandemic. But despite an improvement in the medical capacity, the country is not yet prepared to deal with a catastrophe. There is indeed some degree of coherence in the federal government’s strategy now, but it is still not enough, given the enormity of the crisis. There are still some shortcomings, given the country’s limited resources.
There have already been some serious problems regarding the full implementation of lockdown orders. In many parts of the country the restrictions have already collapsed. A major challenge for the administration is to enforce a ban on religious congregations. One of the reasons for the lapse is attributed to conflicting policies adopted by the federal and provincial governments.
While the Sindh provincial government has issued strict orders to stop prayers in mosques, Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhawa has more relaxed rules. The ineffective implantation on the ban has been cause for serious concern for the public. The situation could turn more serious during Ramadan.
It will be hard for the administration to persuade people to stay home during Ramadan and to make sure that those worst hit by the economic lockdown also get financial help and food supply. The federal government’s financial aid plan for the poorest sections of society through a welfare program will benefit some 12 million people who desperately need support to survive in these hard times.
Some other measures announced by the government may also help lessen the hardship faced by the poor. Given the limited resources available, the subsidies given by the government are quite significant. But a major challenge for the government is to supply rations to the people, particularly daily-wage workers, who have been worst affected by the lockdown. Most of them, now unemployed, have no other source of income.
The prime minister has announced the formation of a half a million strong ‘Corona Relief Tiger Force’ that is supposed to help identify those needing help and supplying them with ration. But there is a concern that an officially controlled ‘volunteer force’ would add to the confusion and create problems for local administrations. For now, it is clear that the government is struggling to find the right balance.
– Zahid Hussain is an award-winning journalist and author. He is a former scholar at Woodrow Wilson International Centre for Scholar, USA, and a visiting fellow at Wolfson College, University of Cambridge, and at the Stimson Center in Washington DC. He is author of Frontline Pakistan: The struggle with militant Islam (Columbia university press) and The Scorpion’s tail: The relentless rise of Islamic militants in Pakistan (Simon and Schuster, NY). Frontline Pakistan was the book of the year (2007) by the WSJ.