Something happened in the first week of June that triggered a tectonic shift in how Pakistan has perceived Covid-19 since it broke out in February. More has changed in the last two weeks than in three months.
Two things happened. Let’s rewind though.
In March, Prime Minister Imran Khan took a position. It was a position that was based on the premise that Covid-19 wasn’t as lethal as was being considered. What was his assessment based on? This remains a key determinant of where we stand today. Preliminary information that has filtered out of government quarters is that someone from among his key advisers persuaded the prime minister that he should not go all out on the virus issue like many other countries because the damage in Pakistan would remain contained. It is quite possible — in fact probable — that the prime minister discussed the gravity of the virus with a number of people before shaping his position, but we know of at least one key person who played a major role in downplaying the threat of Covid-19.
By the time there was some clarity about the issue within the Prime Minister’s Office sometime in March, the government of Sindh led by the charged Chief Minister Murad Ali Shah had already taken an aggressive position on the virus and barrelled ahead with measures including lockdown and testing. The virus had by this time wreaked havoc in China and was burning through lives in Italy and Spain.
Something happened in the first week of June that triggered a tectonic shift in how Pakistan has perceived Covid-19.
The international echo of Covid-19 reverberated across our borders and began to find resonance in media newsrooms. It was an issue and yet somehow not really an issue because the government in Islamabad was underplaying it. Which is exactly why Murad Ali Shah’s proactive approach began to find traction in TV headlines and newspaper front pages. This added another factor to the shaping of policy in Islamabad.
Had Karachi trumped Islamabad? For a federal government that obsesses with media perceptions, this possibility was nothing short of an outrage. In hindsight, this makes even more sense now that we have seen earlier this week the prime minister visiting Sindh and not bothering to even meet the chief minister. This disdain for a political rival — contempt, if you will — may have manifested itself organically in the March decision to break away from what Sindh was doing. There could have been numerous reasons for this but at least one surely was an absolute refusal to be emulating Sindh on policy regardless of whether it was good or bad.
In March then, the government in Islamabad locked its anti-lockdown position. Now it was a matter of justifying that this was indeed the correction position. The message went down the ranks and a political narrative was constructed around the economic destruction wreaked by lockdown. What was a public health issue had now become a political one.
Shortly thereafter, the National Command and Operations Centre was constituted and the establishment gradually began to exert its influence on Covid-19 policy. The larger narrative however stayed intact, reinforced by optics and verbal messaging from the top that consistently — though often subliminally — kept diluting the threat of the infection. One of the outcomes of such messaging was a sustained public perception that the virus wasn’t that big a deal.
The lockdown that was grudgingly put in place was lifted with a vengeance in May. The government had built its case against it so it just eased the country out of the restrictions. Mosques had already been opened, followed by bazaars for Eid shopping and then finally transport was allowed back on roads and rails. All was well.
Except it was not.
May went along with the narrative. The government said the cases might be rising but the death rate was under control. Health facilities had been expanded significantly and the NDMA had acquired enough equipment to carry us through the expected load. Yes of course the people should be wearing masks more and following SOPs more, the government said, but still there wasn’t much to really panic about. We were, it seemed, all set to ride out the virus.
Then came June and all hell broke loose.
Which brings us to the two things that happened. First, Covid-19 hit home in terms of proximity as well as familiarity and smashed the narrative that all was under control. Second, it forced the government on the back foot and pushed policy back towards something that the government was loath to do: lockdown. Within two weeks, the entire situation appeared to have been turned on its head.
Experts say first the Ramazan spike hit, followed by the Eid one. This double-whammy slammed into an unsuspecting nation at a time when a natural progression of the virus was climbing towards a high. As a result, the noise decibel of the virus ratcheted up to a near-deafening level. Covid-19 was everywhere: on social media timelines, electronic media headlines and hospital waiting lines. It seemed everyone knew someone who was either infected or dead.
So first the narrative changed. Then the policy changed.
Today most people do not dismiss the virus as a mere flu; today most in government do not consider it under control. The May peak was pushed forward to June and now to July/August. The hospitals that were supposed to have plenty of excess capacity today are seen groaning under the weight of patients. And the government — after building up its political narrative against lockdown — is forced to go back to resorting to it.
Death — and fear of it — has a strange way of focusing minds and policy.
The writer is Dawn’s resident editor in Islamabad.
Published in Dawn, June 20th, 2020