Pakistan’s fight against the spread of coronavirus is entering its most critical phase. Despite the ongoing lockdown, there have been more than 1,400 coronavirus cases confirmed across Pakistan, 12 of which have resulted in loss of life. And as had been expected, Punjab has overtaken Sindh as the province with the highest number of confirmed cases (more than 500 cases in Punjab).
If international trends are a yardstick for projection, Pakistan’s coronavirus victims are likely to swell over the course of the next two weeks. People who caught the virus some two weeks back, before the lockdown was initiated, are likely to turn up at our hospitals in the coming days.
The projections from Italy, Spain, Germany, United Kingdom and the United States show that once the total number of coronavirus cases go beyond a critical barrier (usually 1,500 patients) there is an exponential growth in the reported cases, unless draconian restrictions are strictly enforced.
Should we impose a curfew across the entire country? Perhaps. Does this partial lockdown run the risk of spreading the coronavirus, while also ruining the livelihood of the daily wagers? Possibly
We are close to that barrier. Very close. And as a result, the one question that consumes our administrative and media debate is this: should there be a complete curfew (or lockdown enforced by law enforcement agencies) across Pakistan?
On the one end of this issue is the Sindh government, which has proceeded to fully shut down its province. For the first time, in almost 13 years of its uninterrupted governance in Sindh, the PPP seems decisive in its policy choices; no matter what the consequences might be to the economy or daily wagers, Murad Ali Shah is sure that the only way to save people’s lives is to shut down the province. And he might be right.
How PPP made this decision is unclear: after all, PPP has no track-record of caring for the health of its constituents – be it the HIV victims of Larkana, the rabies victims of Karachi, the starving children of Thar, or the mutilated victims of Sehwan and Shikarpur. Be that as it may, the PPP government in Sindh has taken decisive steps towards a virtual curfew in Sindh, if only to disagree with Imran Khan and his strategy.
On the other hand, the PTI leadership (and Imran Khan in particular) has opted for a partial lockdown, which prohibits all gatherings, but allows for restricted movement of people to get their essential items. Imran Khan’s rationale for resisting a complete curfew (or lockdown through use of force) is that the 40% of our population that lives below the line of poverty will starve to death during curfew. That people who depend on daily earning to feed their families will not survive a protracted lockdown.
But, truth be told, PTI’s leadership also recognizes that a complete lockdown or curfew (in areas most affected by coronavirus) is perhaps inevitable. But it recognizes that we do not have the resources to alleviate the plight of the poor, during such a curfew.
For this purpose, Imran Khan has announced a relief package worth Rs1,250 billion (approximately $7 billion) for those most affected by this epidemic. Focusing specifically on the hundreds of thousands of labourers and daily wage workers bereft of income during this period, the relief package includes Rs200 billion rupees ($1.25 billion) for low-income groups, particularly laborers, and another Rs280 billion ($1.76 billion) for wheat procurement, apart from a significant reduction in petroleum prices.
Or the journalists who are focusing their time and energy on telling the Prime Minister to sit with opposition leaders. People can see through such tactics
This package will pay some 5 million people, a monthly stipend of Rs3,000 ($20) for the next four months. Furthermore, the government has announced that the payment of electricity and gas bills (below a certain amount) may be staggered into instalments. Also, loan interest payments for exporters has been deferred temporarily, while a package of Rs100 billion ($63 million) will provide support to small industries and the agriculture sector. And another Rs50 billion has been allocated for Utility Stores Corporation, to help subsidise five basic edible commodities – flour, pulses, sugar and ghee.
The National Disaster Management Authority, which is now the focal authority for mitigating the staggering effects of this epidemic, has been allocated Rs25 billion. Furthermore, this financial assistance package Rs15 billion have been allocated for tax break on health and food supplies. Also, a reduction of Rs15 has been done per litre of petrol, diesel and kerosene, with another Rs100 billion allocated for residual/energy fund.
In short, this is the largest relief package ever announced in Pakistan, in response to a national emergency.
Of course, we do not have the money to fund all of this. We barely have the resources to meet our regular budgetary allocations. As a result, in order to meet the costs associated with countering this epidemic, the government has reportedly sought $1.4 billion from the International Monetary Fund on a fast-track basis. Also, a request has reportedly been made to the World Bank for $1 billion, and another $3.5 million from the Asian Development Bank, besides early release of $900 million earmarked by the later for different projects.
Will these measures be enough? No one knows. Should we impose a curfew across the entire country? Perhaps. Does this partial lockdown run the risk of spreading the coronavirus, while also ruining the livelihood of the daily wagers? Possibly. But, for now, Imran Khan is trying to allow his compassion (for the very poor) to be the guiding concern in domestic policy. Whether this is wise or foolhardy, we will know soon.
In fact, it is likely that we will know within the next two weeks, as results start to pour in about the extent and spread of coronavirus in Pakistan. And we should pray, divorced from all partisan proclivities, that the government’s strategy succeeds. And that our collective existence is spared further horrors of this epidemic.
As a side note, in conclusion, it is important to mention those who are politicking at this critical juncture of our national existence. Those who are trying to score points through token walk-out from electronic political gatherings; who can fund the entire cost of countering this epidemic through a fraction of their personal wealth, and yet do nothing.
Or the journalists who are focusing their time and energy on telling the Prime Minister to sit with opposition leaders. People can see through such tactics. There will be time for politics, once we get past this epidemic. Till then, try not to embarrass yourselves.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org, 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.