Even as a poorly equipped Pakistan puts up a valiant fight against COVID-19, the ruling class still finds opportunities for political point-scoring amidst the crisis. Rahimullah Yusufzai reports
Like other countries, Pakistan is struggling to contain the spread of the coronavirus and at the same time trying to minimise the impact on its already depressed economy.
After toying with the idea of ordering a complete lockdown, the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) government led by Prime Minister Imran Khan is considering a ‘smart lockdown’, to restrict movement of people and economic activities in specific zones most affected by the virus, rather than shutting down the whole country. However, implementing such a decision is going to be challenging as Pakistan’s institutions and bureaucracy aren’t known to have achieved assigned targets in the past. The government earlier had to re-impose lockdown in certain areas when the relaxation led to a rush of people in the bazaars and the reopening of unauthorised shops and businesses. Traders, businessmen and clerics have been the most restless in terms of abiding by the lockdown and have kept demanding that markets and mosques should be allowed to re-open.
Also, adopting the ‘smart lockdown’ method could be a bit late in the day as the government appeared indecisive when COVID-19 first started spreading in the country. In fact, the prime minister has been arguing that Pakistan, due to its poor economic conditions and high levels of poverty, cannot afford a complete lockdown, as was done in Western countries. Opposition parties, particularly the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), which is in power in Sindh province, accused him of wasting time and failing to lead effectively to contain the spread of the virus. The PTI’s federal government in the centre and in Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, and also as a coalition partner in Balochistan, has been engaged in a verbal duel of accusations and counter-accusations with the PPP’s provincial government in Sindh over their handling of the pandemic.
The Sindh government has won praise from many for adopting a stricter lockdown policy and timely action compared to the federal government’s delayed measures.
A major issue of contention between the federal and Sindh government has been the congregational prayers in mosques, particularly during the month of Ramadan, which has just started. Having earlier banned the faithful from praying in mosques as this could spread infection, the federal government succumbed to pressure from the religious lobby and made a 20-point agreement with top scholars representing all sects, under which prayers in mosques were allowed, albeit with certain restrictions to maintain social distancing. Soon, though, the restrictions were being violated and both President Arif Alvi, who had negotiated the Ijma-e-Ummat agreement (consensus of the Muslim community) with the Ulema, and Prime Minister Imran Khan, started warning that permission to hold prayers in mosques, particularly the crowded Friday and Taraweeh prayers, was conditional and could be withdrawn.
The Sindh government again took a tough stand on the basis of a call by senior doctors to continue the ban on congregational prayers in mosques, including Friday and Taraweeh prayers, to prevent more people from getting infected. It ordered that such prayers during Ramadan should be offered by just four or five persons, including the prayer leaders, the muezzin, who issue the call to prayer, and their assistants. Problems could arise if this directive is also applied to Mufti Taqi Usmani (Pakistan’s top religious scholar), Mufti Muneebur Rahman and others who head madrassas (Islamic schools) in Karachi, capital of Sindh, and had made the agreement with the federal government.
Overall, though, there is a sense of relief that cases of COVID-19 and resulting deaths in Pakistan aren’t so far very high, considering the country’s huge population, poor health infrastructure, economic problems and cultural norms that make social distancing hard to ensure. Although selective testing, when deemed necessary, seems to be one major reason for the relatively low number of coronavirus positive cases, the numbers are still fewer than those anticipated. Still, there are fears they could rise steeply, given that the pandemic has not yet peaked. It is believed May and early June could be the peak period, with the rise in COVID-19 cases then possibly overwhelming the country’s inadequate public healthcare system.
As of April 24, Pakistan had reported a total of 11,513 confirmed cases of COVID-19, with Punjab, the most populous province, having 4,851 patients. Sindh was next with 3,945 cases, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province with 1,541, Balochistan 607, the Gilgit-Baltistan region bordering China 300, the federal capital Islamabad 216 and Azad Jammu & Kashmir 55. Total deaths in the country up to the time of writing are 242.
After a slow start, the rise in the number of positive cases was steep. Pakistan reported its first COVID-19 case on February 26, and the first death from the disease occurred on March 20. Now all four provinces, and regions and urban centres, have reported cases and a massive campaign to create awareness about preventing the spread of the virus is underway. Quarantine centres have been set up aplenty, a growing number of people are self-isolating, and high-dependency units in hospitals are functional. However, there are shortages of ventilators and personal protection equipment (PPE) for doctors and support staff, a problem that has still not been fully overcome. Doctors even staged protests, demanding provision of PPE to reduce risks to them and other healthcare workers treating patients. Such demands grew when some doctors and other employees contracted the disease and a few lost their lives.
The police set a worthy precedent by arranging a guard of honour for doctors and other healthcare staff at different hospitals to pay tribute to them for risking their lives by being in the frontline in the battle against coronavirus. This set a trend that was repeated all over the country. The doctors later reciprocated the gesture by acknowledging the work of the police, who have also been at the forefront of efforts to contain the pandemic by ensuring the lockdown and interacting with clerics, notables and commoners during the awareness campaigns. Some police officers also tested positive while on duty and had to be quarantined.
An alarm was raised when the prime minister’s personal physician advised him to undergo a test for coronavirus because he had met Faisal Edhi, the son and successor of the late Abdul Sattar Edhi, a respected humanitarian worker who subsequently tested positive for COVID-19. Faisal Edhi, who heads the Edhi Foundation after the death of his father, had met Imran Khan to deliver a cheque of Rs10 million to the prime minister’s COVID-19 Relief Fund, which is attracting donations in Pakistan and abroad. The prime minister’s test turned out to be negative, much to the relief of his supporters.
Initially, coronavirus positive cases in Pakistan were imported by Pakistani pilgrims returning home from Iran and Saudi Arabia. The government decision to close the land borders with Iran and Afghanistan, stop flights from other countries and set up quarantine centres helped to contain the spread of the virus, but stopping it altogether wasn’t possible. When 37 out of 108 stranded truck drivers and their helpers recently tested positive after undergoing tests on their return home from Afghanistan, via the Torkham border, the Pakistani officials overseeing the operation were alarmed by the high incidence of the disease.
This also provided an indication of the likely extent of coronavirus cases in war-wrecked Afghanistan, where lack of testing services and poor health infrastructure won’t be able to cope with any serious outbreak. After four decades of devastating war and the hurdles facing the fragile peace process involving the Taliban, the US and the Afghan government, the coronavirus threat could turn out to be the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back.
Now that the World Bank, Asian Development Bank and other lenders and rating agencies are forecasting that Pakistan could fall into recession for the first time in 68 years, and there are dire projections of deceleration of GDP growth up to 2.6% due to the country’s high population growth of 1.8%, the government is under pressure to focus on preventing further damage to the economy.
It also had to announce a Rs1.15 trillion relief package to help the poor, low-income groups, and the agriculture, industrial and export sectors affected by the lockdown. The government started paying a lump sum of Rs12,000 each to 12 million poor households from April 8 under the Ehsaas Programme to help them cope with loss of livelihood.
Despite the critical health and economic crises due to the coronavirus outbreak, there has been no break in politics as the government’s anti-graft body, the National Accountability Bureau (NAB), continues to hound opposition politicians on corruption charges, even arresting a media tycoon, Mir Shakil-ur-Rahman, over a 34-year-old private property case. (His Jang Media Group alleges that he is being punished by the Imran Khan government because his newspapers and TV channels have been critical of the ruling elite.)
Pakistan’s opposition parties, meanwhile, do not want to miss any opportunity to condemn the ruling PTI and Imran Khan, and demand fresh elections. All calls for a joint national stand to tackle the challenge posed by COVID-19 have gone unheeded.