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Monday, April 15, 2024

COVID-19 world: Does the government or opposition have any plan?

Pakistan was unable to define any brief long term plan for the pandemic. Both the government and opposition seem confused. How can Pakistan free itself from the clouds of confusion?

In the clutter of daily breaking news, political mudslinging, and the no-holds-barred social media, it is easy to lose track of what is important to us as individuals, and as a nation. It is easy to confuse the important with the irrelevant; the meaningful with the useless.

So let us attempt to sort out some of the wheat from the chaff, and try putting in perspective the myriad of issues that consume our public debate in Pakistan.

First, the menial everyday politicking and petty partisan squabbling. No surprises here: of course, these are largely irrelevant, with no real consequence to the happening on ground. Bilawal Zardari’s recent statements concerning PTI’s alleged incompetence, and Rana Sanaullah’s statements concerning handling of the sugar inquiry report, are a prime example of this.

Read more: Decade long suffering of Pakistan: Will new start be any different?

Such statements are momentarily flashed across our television screens, yes – but they are irrelevant to the outcome of any policy or program in the country. Does Bilawal have a better plan for governing the country? No. Does he have a proposal for potent public healthcare system? No. If he did, Sindh would not be such a mess, and the PPP tenure of 2008-2013 would not be remembered as the very benchmark for incompetence in our governance history.

Similarly, PML-N’s criticism of the sugar commission report could be taken seriously, if it wasn’t so disingenuous. Producing honest reports, making them public, and holding the culprits accountable is the very antithesis of PML-N’s governance model – as evident from the Model Town Inquiry report issue from some years back. The partisan statements of these opposition leaders may help keep them in the news cycle for a few moments, but are largely irrelevant to any consequential outcome.

Next, the heated issue of Cynthia D. Ritchi’s allegations against PPP leadership, and in particular against Rehman Malik and Yousaf Raza Gillani. Of course, this is important. Because the crimes alleged are serious, and the people involved were at the highest echelons of political power at the time.

Take the first of these issues – of COVID-19 and Pakistan’s response to it. For all intents and purposes, this issue can be divided into two further parts: 1) What is Pakistan’s ‘policy’ response to COVID-19

As a result, these allegations require a thorough and dispassionate investigation. The purpose of such an investigation would be to exonerate or prosecute the characters involved, and reach the core of factual happenings; as necessary as that is, it is unlikely that the outcome of such an investigation will have any serious policy implications for the future of Pakistan.

Next, the issue of Shehbaz Sharif’s arrest, and allegations against him by Shehzad Akbar. At this point, all one can say is: so, what’s new? Sharif family is corrupt, and Shehzad Akbar will eat them alive, right? Wrong. It’s a badly orchestrated drama, at this point, which happens to be stuck on the same episode. The same PID press-conference. The same brandishing of cross-cheques.

The same threats to sue in British courts. The same attempts to arrest. The same Lahore High Court. The same bail proceedings, with the same counsels, the same arguments, and identical results. Not a dime recovered. Not one asset confiscated. And all of the allegedly ‘corrupt’ elements (from Nawaz Sharif to Shehbaz Sharif, Rana Sanaullah, etc.) roaming free. So, the tiff between Shehbaz Sharif and Shehzad Akbar is certainly is not an issue of tremendous national significance anymore.

Read more: Partial lockdown or curfew? Who is right – PM Imran or CM Murad?

What is important then? Two things: 1) COVID-19 epidemic, and Pakistan’s response to it; and 2) the new Great Game in this region, and Pakistan’s alignment with China in the post-COVID-19 world.

Take the first of these issues – of COVID-19 and Pakistan’s response to it. For all intents and purposes, this issue can be divided into two further parts: 1) What is Pakistan’s ‘policy’ response to COVID-19; and 2) What is Pakistan’s ‘economic’ response to the epidemic. With a heavy heart, it has to accepted that Pakistan’s ‘policy’ response to COVID-19 – including provision of adequate resources to frontline doctors, observing a lockdown, and enforcing the SOPs – has been wanting! We had enough heads-up for the epidemic, as it ravaged countries in our immediate neighbourhood.

Still, we could not articulate a short or long-term policy for the crisis. Our provinces and institutions issued disparate instructions to their residents, and kept oscillating between varied policy options. And any little possibility of rectification was then obliterated during the Eid break. Result: we are today faced with one of the highest rates of infection, and surpassed China in the total number of people infected (confirmed). Still, for some reason, there is tremendous resistance to the possibility of another lock-down, amidst the government policy circles.

Will our response to national security issues remain short-term tactical, or is there a vision/strategy for the next decade of regional Cold War?

Why? This brings us to the second part of the issue: ‘economic’ response to the epidemic. From the very start, the Prime Minister and his aides have insisted that Pakistan cannot afford a prolonged lockdown for economic reasons. That we will not be able to feed our poor, resulting in rampant poverty, which could cripple our economy for the foreseeable future. Fair point, perhaps.

But, even then, was it really necessary to allow people to mingle (as freely as they did) during the Eid break? Can our economy sustain the infection rate that we are now facing? Will the economy recover, even as thousands of people get infected each day? And, in case the world is unable to find a vaccine for COVID-19 in the foreseeable future, will we continue to throw caution to the wind, sustaining thousands of fatalities, in the name of economic activity?

Away from the immediate impact of the epidemic, Pakistan must plan for the post-COVID-19 age. And for this, two important questions need answering: 1) What is our ‘regional’ strategy for the post-COVID-19 world? We are committed to CPEC, of course; but are we willing to go against the United States’ interests in the region, if they conflict with CPEC?

Read more: Politicians could not unite against COVID-19

Have we formulated a concerted policy for withstanding the pressures of the coming Cold War? If the West splits atom with China, along with threat sanctions against anyone siding with China, will we still stay course? And what about Afghanistan? As we help orchestrate a deal for withdrawal of US troops, what will our future role in the region be?

Will we go back to the policies of the 1990s, or is there a fresh plan in place? How will we counter India’s distortions in the equation? And speaking of India, are we leveraging China’s regional position to reach a peaceful resolution of the Kashmir issue? The plan does not have to be disclosed, for strategic reasons, but is there a plan in place?

Connected to this is another issue importance: what is our internal strategy going to be in the post-COVID-19 world? Are we still going to be plagued by issues of systematic mismanagement in the governmental machinery? Will the 18th Amendment continue to serve an impediment in developing a coherent national strategy?

Read more: A response to claim: COVID-19 will spread in Pakistan due to CPEC

Will organisations such as PTM, funded in part by foreign sponsors, continue to wage war against state institutions? Will organisations such as the banned BLA continue to serve as a threat to the safety of CPEC routes? Will our alliance with China have the stomach for such issues? Will our response to national security issues remain short-term tactical, or is there a vision/strategy for the next decade of regional Cold War?

These are important policy questions. And Pakistan, as a nation, will have to answer them sooner or later. For now – amidst menial partisan bickering – we seem to be stuck in reverse gear. It is time we sifted the important from the irrelevant. And set sails for the inevitable future in this region.

Saad Rasool is a lawyer based in Lahore. He has an LL.M. in Constitutional Law from Harvard Law School. He can be reached at saad@post.harvard.edu, or Twitter: @Ch_SaadRasool. This article originally appeared at The Nation and has been republished with the author’s permission. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space.