From despair to hope

In Pakistan, the role of armed forces in warding off this pandemic will be crucial.

Every soldier is motivated to lie in wait for a day that may never come and yet be prepared if it does; even to the peril of life. Military planners spend entire careers identifying a threat that may never materialise. The world over, militaries are being requisitioned to help contain and fight back the coronavirus pandemic. In the developing and lesser developed world, they will be required to take control of the situation in hospitals and streets. In armed forces, contacting an infectious sickness is considered an offence and every subunit is well trained in quarantine procedures. In Pakistan, the role of armed forces in warding off this pandemic will be crucial. Perhaps this could be the final battle and the last frontier in national development. A crises nonetheless, it can be converted into an opportunity.

This is not a threat perception but an unfolding reality. How else could we categorise an impeding catastrophe that threatens to wipe out approximately 3% population of the developed world, may persist and bring economic and military juggernauts to a halt? How the developed world most affected by this pandemic, is reacting is a tutorial for less developed countries where health and sanitation services are not as good; health insurances non-existent; quality of emergency services far from satisfactory; and where it has yet to spike.

A comparison of military like enforcement is apparent in case of China, Iran and Italy, the three worst-hit countries. So far, in China, 87% patients have recovered compared to 32% in Iran and 11% in Italy. Though the time lag may have some effect, the military role indicates its efficacy in enforcement and treatment. Hence like any calamity, the armed forces will have to play the lead role with their well-rehearsed system of field hospitals, quarantine centres, casualty evacuations, airlifts, logistics and the fighting will. Enforcement of discipline in otherwise panicky public and corrupt elites will be crucial.

‘This is already a war’ and President Macron of France minced no words about it. German Chancellor said that coronavirus is Germany’s greatest challenge since World War II that would affect 70% Germans. She called on German citizens to recognise the gravity and to do their part in helping to slow its spread. Dr Marc Lipsitch a leading epidemiologist suggests 40-70% infections. Health services and militaries are being mobilised.

But this is just one dimension. What will happen to economies, supply chains and food security in a blindfolded game? The developed world may be able to wriggle out with reserves. The developing world will have to cling to last bits of straw, good management, discipline and resilience cum determination of the working classes it keeps neglecting. As ever, the poor and hapless with their neglected and unregulated markets will pull the country through. They have done this so many times in the past. The bloated bureaucracy and political elites have to be tamed by the civil society and armed forces to turn a crisis into an opportunity.

USA and UK brought down interest rates by 0.5 to just over a single digit. Later, the Federal Open Market Committee decided to lower the target range for the federal funds rate to 0 to 0.25 percent. In the developed world, 15-20% of GDP has already been earmarked to hedge health and businesses. As medics fight this war with cooperation of the people, the economic consequences can only be overcome through some very smart economic measures. Both Macron and Angela Merkel implied it was a people’s war and people have to play a major role. To make people more responsive Hong Kong with some of the stringiest measures has dished out $1,200 to every citizen.

Though the lesser developed world has suffered far less, the exponential nature of COVID-19 spikes poses a catastrophic danger. Countries that struggle with deficits do not have the luxury of diverting enormous economic resources for healthcare and businesses. Decentralising is the answer, wherein the ingenuity of people to sustain themselves will be formative.

In the case of Pakistan, many mega cities like Karachi, Lahore, Faisalabad, Multan and Rawalpindi-Islamabad have more populations than entire countries in Europe. Per capita income as part of GDP is a fraction. Going by European standards, Pakistan in ‘firefighting mode’, needs a minimum of Rs6 trillion. As compared to 50 billion of USA, 500 billion of Germany, 100 billion of UAE and 25 billion of Italy, Pakistan has so far only allocated Rs500 billion ($3.12 billion) i.e. is Rs.2,200 per capita. This means that Pakistan’s reliance on self-imposed protective measures must be far more than in the developed world. Effective containment allowing the virus to fade away appears to be the most cost-effective method. It thus becomes a people’s war backed by the government and its armed forces.

Pakistan’s first measures at containment were devastating. All port of entries by sea, air or land are federal subjects. The quarantine at Taftan lacked imprints of military efficiency; it was rather an incubation centre for the virus. The people carried the virus down country. The quarantine at Dera Ghazi Khan was most unprofessional, cruel and resulted in cross infections. Thus, it spread into densely populated areas of Punjab, Karachi and Sindh. The quarantine at Sukkur is better but limited in size. If the government fails in enforcing airtight containment measures and people remain non responsive, Taftan could turn out to be the gateway to Pakistan’s most lethal pandemic.

Economic managers are in slumber and have yet to wake up. The double-digit discount and interest rates of the State Bank of Pakistan indicate there are no economic variants in offing. It is apparent that economic gurus have not had time for ‘in-house discussions’. How would an already depressed economy with IMF centred policies cope with the challenges? The answer is straight forward. They cannot.

To support businesses and industries that will begin running into losses, the entire package of interest rates, tariffs and sustaining working classes has to be worked out in phases of three months each. This means realigning federal and provincial budgets to pandemic projections. This has not even begun.

As Europe and USA get to grips with their own crises, Pakistan’s exports in the textile sector are stalled. This means cancelled orders and pending payments with no timelines. To depend on textile sector to provide a succour of $4 billion is unrealistic.

Pakistan should be prepared for a negative GDP. Practically, it means living with far less. All development projects may have to be cut and postponed for better times. Similarly, all loan repayments should be frozen so that funds can be diverted to emergencies.

But on the horizon, there is hope.

Pakistan’s depressed working classes have always responded positively to calamities and crises. They will respond once again.

Agriculture, the most neglected sector in past seven years can rise to the challenges and produce an exportable surplus by the end of 2020. The only measure the government has to take is to rid it of blood sucking cartels of sugar, fertilisers and agro chemical mafia. If this is done with a purpose, Pakistan may end up with a positive growth rate despite the pandemic. The army will have to be employed in introducing new agricultural practices.

Pakistan’s pharmaceutical industry is modernised and ready to take up challenges. It has provided crucial support to China during the present crises. The government must provide support so that not only Pakistan but also the region benefits from high quality medicines.

FBR should stop scaring small businesses and petty traders. In these crises, the government should liberate irregular and unregulated economies. These will provide jobs and sustenance to people and keep the wheel spinning.

Last but not least, the youth bulge in Pakistan will ensure that fatalities are reduced. As a densely populated country, despite being vulnerable, Pakistan also has the advantage of absorbing the shock. The quest for survival amidst an emergency will stir imaginations, creativity and entrepreneurships. Maybe, this is the crisis that will finally bring Pakistanis into their own.

As Allama Iqbal said, “The tempest brings out the best in people.”

What will the end of the crisis bring? A new social contract may well be in offing. Keep your eyes wide open!

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