The political economy of coronavirus

Yesterday, Pakistan reached the 4th week and the most critical phase of the Coronavirus pandemic. It is a race against time to deploy critical medical supplies from abroad and provide safe conditions to medical staff.

Prime Minister Imran Khan insists that taking precautions and staying indoors is the best measure; denying the virus space to conflagrate. After decades of loot and plunder and an otherwise rich and resourceful country sucked blue, passive measures are our only line of defence. With a confused economic policy, failure at enforcement in broad range of issues and a deficient health system, everything could choke. There is no other option. All we can do is back him, lock ourselves indoors and pray.

On February 26, Pakistan confirmed the first two cases of the virus. Both patients had returned from Iran. Next week three more cases were confirmed. By the third week, the confirmed cases were 53. Then the spike began. Within the next 11 days till yesterday, the total cases exceed 1,200. Most of the infected cases came from abroad but local infections are catching on.

At least three provinces, Sindh (in lead), Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan are more assertive. Punjab, the most populous is not far behind. Kashmir so far is most satisfactory. Gilgit-Baltistan has witnessed a spike. Thankfully, the mortality i.e. conversion of infection to death is very low. Four out of nine fatalities had multiple causes.

Some virology experts term the next two weeks as critical. The virus could spike exponentially as it did in China, Italy, Spain, France, USA and Iran; and within days choke the frail, ill-equipped and neglected healthcare system of Pakistan. If this tragedy takes place, the projections are grim.

Contrarians cite the low mortality rate and argue that there exists some unexplained immunity that shall ultimately flatten the spike till it is over, maybe by mid-April this year. Sunlight rich with Ultra Violet (UV) rays kills infections in the atmosphere.

Pakistan, short of announcing a total shutdown, is in lockdown. The Prime Minister argues he does not want panic to take over. Certainly, the working classes and poor who are his caucus belli have not panicked.

A day-to-day existence for the poor is itself a challenge. There are good Samaritans everywhere that take care of the less privileged. Like always, the philanthropic nature of the people will come to the fore and provide despite the proliferation of hoarders, speculators and elitist classes well-entrenched in the system. These classes will exploit this pandemic to make quick money.

Geographically, India is located in the same latitude zones as Pakistan. Genetically and ethnically there is a similarity in major populations. In sharp contrast, India, despite lesser incidents and low casualty ratio, is taking no chances and has gone into shutdown with brute force. The punishing nature of the Indian lockdown helps the government to dilute the street agitations against the citizenship laws.

Why India went for such drastic measures is a case study that shall unfold in the next few weeks. I pray the immunity theory proves correct, not because Pakistan benefits, but because saves precious human lives.

In defence of the Herd Immunity School that predicts no spikes in the same proportion as Europe and Iran, nature could possibly intervene? On this blessed Friday, while the country argued whether to pray in mosques and churches, clouds suddenly swarmed in. In Pakistan rains and reduction in pollution due to lockdown are a Godsent. We do not have many options other than divine intervention.

Watching daily press briefings by the federal and provincial governments reflects many aspects of national life. Well dispersed government officials underline the importance of social distancing. The Prime Minister, Advisor Health and Chairman NDMA put up brave defiant faces. The body language of every other member of the official entourage betrays the facts. They know they got it wrong with a bent conscience. Economic managers know that they have run the ship aground and that from hereon, every economic decision however positive, will have negative consequences. At some stage will Prime Minister will have to jettison this overload is as relevant as ridding Covid-19.

The brave faces understand the odds but show grit and courage. When they talk of imminent supplies arriving even on personal contacts; rushing supplies to Gilgit-Baltistan through one time opening of Pak-China Border; they admit that the health system was resigned to corrupt abandon and that whatever existed has been smuggled and hoarded. How helpless that despite being powerful, that they are darning worn out rags.

It is painful to see the Prime Minister defending the wrongs of economic managers. Either way, negative effects of high interest rates are visible. Pakistan has reached a stage that even reducing them is a nightmare. In 24 hours, the Pakistani rupee shed off 10 against the US dollar. Speculators within the interbank went on a buying spree and hot money quickies under pressure from their borrowers walked away with their treasures. This has resulted in a flight of over $ 1.5 billion in an instance. It proved the destructive nature of IMF-imposed policies and ‘hot money’.

Given the spoils earned by elites, Pakistan is in fact a rich country. These elites are using the corona crises to hedge their interests and holding the country hostage. Downstream agriculture industries and cartels are focused on the 200 billion reliefs to agriculture and SMEs. The government has no idea how to use it. Most likely it will waste away in subsidies to these industries. APTMA, rather than act like Bangladesh, has already started asking for loan waivers and subsistence. The fact is that all these industries and many others owe hundreds of billions to the government and labour of Pakistan. Unlike India, these parasitic mafia and cartels lack a sense of sacrifice.

According to Dr Ikram Ul Haq, the long-delayed and much-needed financial relief and stimulus package of Rs1.3 trillion is found “satisfactory” though “insufficient” by majority of the people. Experts question whether Rs3000 per month for daily wagers is realistic for an average family size of five? The government can do much more than this cosmetic Rs3,000 per labour.

Labour and daily wagers form the moot point of Prime Minister’s argument for resisting a shutdown. Yet the economic team fails to inform the Prime Minister that hundreds of billions in Worker Welfare Fund have piled with business houses since 2006, they are constitutionally liable to pay. Business houses and industries are liable to remit 2% profits to Workers Welfare Fund. Amendments to Sections 2 and 4 of the Workers Welfare Ordinance, 1971 were declared ultra vires in 2012 and endorsed by the Supreme Court in 2016. Consequently, all donors are liable to pay billions in arrears since 2006, not pursued by any government in the past eight years. The prime minister needs to take affirmative action and curative amendment rather than writing off loans and providing subsidies to business houses that mint money in every crisis. The government should force them to come good on their legal commitments. This act alone will address plights of the labour classes.

So as this week ends, let us pray for; the medical supplies to be deployed; our ill equipped doctors and vulnerable medical staff who brave odds on the frontline; the janitorial staff in hospitals who work with no protective gear; herd immunity theory to come true and that the ultra violet rich sun shines brightly.

Till the storm is over, every Pakistani must share with the neighbour and remain indoors. Let us pray in earnest.

ePaper - Nawaiwaqt