Reaping a bitter harvest – Maleeha Lodhi

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DESPERATE appeals by doctors were ignored. Warnings from the Pakistan Medical Association were brushed aside. The advice of public health officials was disregarded. Voices of anxious citizens were dismissed.

The government went ahead anyway and made the fateful decision to ease the lockdown on May 9 — a lockdown that had not been rigorously enforced but had still managed to ensure some social distancing. Once restrictions were relaxed, marketplaces reopened, and most economic activity resumed, people tended to assume that Covid-19 was not such a dire threat after all. What followed was entirely predictable. Medical experts had repeatedly warned that easing the lockdown too hastily and sweepingly when the virus was multiplying and the virus curve was far from flattening would create an alarming situation. This is exactly what happened.

The country reaped a bitter harvest from the government’s May decision. Covid-19 cases skyrocketed by over 500 per cent in the next five weeks. From 27,474 cases on May 9, they soared to 154, 760 by June 17. They now continue to surge daily by record numbers. Fatalities too rose over five-fold in about the same period, from 618 to over 3,380.

Some increase in cases was to be expected. But initial government ambivalence, late intervention after the outbreak, and early easing of the lockdown contributed to a much higher rate of increase.

The government’s self-righteous attitude precludes any policy review or a course correction.

As this disturbing situation emerged, federal minister Asad Umar, who chairs the National Command and Operation Centre (NCOC), took to the media on June 14 to declare that the weeks ahead would see even more virus cases. There could be 1.2 million infections by the end of July, he asserted, in what was widely seen as one of the most casually made public announcements on such a serious issue. There was no certainty about this projection, he added, and it was avoidable, provided people “get serious” — advice that his government would have benefited more from. In fact, it is the confused manner in which the government has managed the health crisis so far that needs to be corrected before homilies are directed at the public. After all, it was the muddled messages repeatedly conveyed by the government that led the public to erroneously believe that the country was past the pandemic. Weak public health guidance also contributed to this.

Rambling pressers by top leaders focused less on the gravity of the Covid-19 threat and more on how Pakistan was doing so much better than the worst affected countries. Taking a cue from their leader, ministers kept insisting that a lockdown was no solution — a strawman argument, as no one ever claimed that it was a solution. But as the global experience has shown it has been the only effective way to mitigate and slow the spread of the virus. Repeatedly taking a position to oppose a lockdown was hardly a way for the country’s leaders to encourage people to comply with SOPs in the so-called ‘smart’ lockdown phase.

As the situation deteriorated and cases mounted, the authorities were compelled to order selective lockdowns at hotspots in 20 cities. Curiously, no member of the federal government took ownership of this decision which was announced as a “recommendation” by the NCOC. The World Health Organisation urged a “two weeks-on and two weeks-off lockdown strategy” pointing out that the virus, which had now spread across the country, had pushed Pakistan to the top ten nations recording the highest number of new cases every day. This advice was spurned even as the WHO representative emphasised in a letter addressed to the authorities that “As of today, Pakistan does not meet any of the prerequisite conditions for opening the lockdown.” The Pakistan Medical Association endorsed the WHO’s recommendation and again urged the government to revisit its strategy, arguing that partial lockdowns will not work.

In the face of mounting virus infections government ministers chose to assign the blame for this situation on the public. Punjab health minister Dr Yasmin Rashid went so far as to say that the citizens of Lahore were “jahil” (illiterate) for not taking the coronavirus seriously, adding that “few nations are more jahil than Pakistanis”. This blame-the-people stance was not just voiced by one provincial minister. It reflected a narrative that top leaders of the federal government had for weeks adopted to explain the worsening situation, not pausing to consider their own role or missteps that may have contributed to this.

This attitude of blaming others while believing in their own infallibility seems to spring from a characteristic that has been in evidence from pre-pandemic days, and in fact, since the PTI assumed power. It appears to emerge from a belief of its leaders and members in self-ascribed qualities of being exceptional, even ‘superior’ to others, and more sincere and well-meaning in their governance abilities than anyone else. This self-righteousness convinces them that their actions are beyond reproach or criticism.

It feeds a we-can-do-no-wrong culture that rules out any introspection or rethink of policy actions. Self-praise is a hallmark of this culture, which has been on frequent display, especially during the pandemic, when in press conferences and cabinet meetings, the government has showered praise on itself and claimed that its management of the crisis is an example for others to follow. Indeed, hyperbolic praise is regularly expressed about various aspects of the government’s Covid-19 handling by official spokesmen. Self-congratulatory tweets à la Trump are also a common feature.

The problem with this attitude is that it obviates any review by the government of its policy and precludes a course correction. That is why despite overwhelming evidence that its pandemic strategy has yielded less than satisfactory outcomes, government leaders remain stubbornly resistant to any change of course. The public is left to carry the burden of the mythical belief in their ‘special’ qualities to govern and manage crises. But this burden is proving to be onerous as people confront a health crisis now entering its most dangerous phase.

The writer is a former ambassador to the US, UK and UN.

Published in Dawn, June 22nd, 2020