While we may feel a bit satisfied and grateful to the Almighty due to the fact that the curve representing infections and deaths caused by coronavirus in Pakistan has not yet assumed alarming proportions like in Western countries – USA and others – there is no room for lowering our guard. There are two aspects of dealing with the pandemic. The first is containment which focuses on measures to prevent its spread. The second is availability of adequate health facilities to quarantine and treat those who are affected.
It is an irrefutable reality that the exponential spread of the virus across the globe has devastated public health systems of even the most developed nations, which are finding it difficult to cope with the ever-changing situation. In case, God forbid, a similar situation crops up in developing countries like Pakistan, one cannot even imagine how they would be able to grapple with the situation, considering the fact that their health systems are too fragile and inadequate. The most worrying fact is that no vaccine or an effective medicine is available to treat those who become victims of the virus. The burgeoning death toll around the globe testifies to the likely horrors. Nobody knows how long this pandemic is going to last and how many lives it is likely to claim till a vaccine is developed by the scientists and medical experts.
Under the existing scenario the best weapon against the virus is to put in place measures that help to prevent its spread. There is a universal consensus on the lockdown strategy and social distancing. China, Korea and Singapore have contained the virus through total lockdowns. But the dilemma is that similar lockdowns cannot be enforced in all the countries. It is said that for political, economic and other policies and strategies to be successful, they have to derive their legitimacy from the cultural and social realities of that particular country. That is why different countries, while subscribing to the concept of lockdowns and social distancing, have applied it in varying degrees in conformity with their own ground realities and social conditions, making sure that while fighting with and mitigating the adverse effects of the virus with regards to human lives, economies are also kept running to save the situation from further exacerbating.
The best strategy is the one which is economically and culturally sustainable. The approach adopted by the PTI government with regards to containment of the virus through partial lockdown while unleashing efforts to keep the economy running is beyond reproach. While it is important to save people from the pandemic it is also an inescapable imperative not to shut down the economy completely as it would have a devastating impact on the lives of the poor segments of society. Our economy is already in dire straits and it cannot take further strains triggered by the coronavirus unless the global community and the international lending institutions help in a big way to deal with any developing eventuality.
Pakistan has a population of 220 million people and simply does not have the resources to deal with the problem in a comprehensive way. However, within its limited resources the government is doing all that is possible. It has announced a stimulus and relief package of Rs1200 million, which is not enough considering the fact that 25 percent of our people live below the poverty line and millions will be added to the list who will be hard hit by the lockdowns. The government has also taken an appreciable step to make cash payments to 12 million families through the Ehsaas programme, under which needy families are being given Rs12000.
The worry is that if the situation worsens, it would become extremely difficult for the government to continue helping the affected people financially. The pandemic of coronavirus is a global problem and needs to be tackled through concerted efforts of all the nations in regards to prevention and building medical facilities and necessary infrastructure. Prime Minister Imran Khan has rightly urged the UN and the international lending institutions to not only consider writing off loans of developing nations as well as postponing debt payments in case total writing off was not possible to enhance fiscal space for them.
It is satisfying to note that the government is also working with determination and unruffled commitment to import necessary medical equipment including protective kits, ventilators, thermal scanners, testing kits besides expanding the facilities to quarantine and treat the people affected by the virus. The slow rate of the spread of virus and low number of deaths is due to the success of the lockdown strategy which has surely provided time to the government to enhance the capacity for testing people at risk, isolating them and tracking and testing their contacts. My honest opinion is that notwithstanding the flak that the opponents and critics of the government are hurling at it in regards to late and inadequate response, it is doing well within its means. However, there is no room for complacency.
Yet another encouraging factor is that the charitable organisations within the country, NGOs and people at individual level are also supplementing the efforts of the government to help the poor and needy through cash payments and the distribution of rations, which indicates the character and resilience of our nation. The spirit of solidarity and compassion being witnessed is absolutely unprecedented.
I think due credit also needs to be given to the media for its role in creating awareness among the masses about the implications of the virus, hammering in the need for social distancing, keeping the spirits of the people high, urging them not to panic and reminding them of their obligations towards their fellow countrymen in need of help.