THE World Bank has just released its first major report looking in detail at the economic projections for the South Asian region as the Covid-19 fight continues, and the findings are severe. In uncharacteristically blunt language, the report declares at the outset that the economic scenario staring the entire region in the face is “dire”. The impact on poverty could be “catastrophic” and the region will see “the worst economic performance of the last 40 years”. The bank has brought the regional growth forecast down to a range between 1.8pc and 2.8pc for the year 2020, where its earlier forecast was 6.3pc only six months ago. This is a near catastrophic downgrade, and for Pakistan the projection for the ongoing fiscal year could be as dismal as negative 2.2pc, meaning the economy would actually have shrunk instead of having grown.
But this is not even the top item to focus on, though it certainly captures the depth of the economic recession facing the country now. The largest item to focus on is the impact on the poor. The latter are more likely to become infected, the report notes, because they live in cramped quarters and have diminished access to healthcare as well as basic hygiene products such as soap. They are also more likely to lose their jobs, and are more affected by food price spikes, which could well be an unintended outcome of the lockdowns if due attention is not given to keeping the food supply chain moving. The bank rightly points to the grave vulnerabilities of South Asian countries, and the poorer segments in particular, when it comes to tackling the virus.
As the authorities in Pakistan — federal and provincial — grapple with the politics and ground realities of the lockdowns, at some point it will become necessary to also start looking at ways to jumpstart the economy. The report points this out as a clear area of focus, even though its projections show that the economy will be largely moribund all through 2021 as well. That will be the moment when the play of vested interests is sure to kick in with maximum force. Already we can see powerful elements from manufacturing and services increasingly using their considerable clout to find ways to either loosen the lockdown or lift it altogether. When the time comes to jumpstart the economy, this same game will be magnified, and all sorts of schemes will be advanced in the name of reviving growth, but whose main purpose will be to channel the flow of public resources into private hands. Putting vested interests aside during the days of the lockdowns while the fight against the Covid-19 virus is waged is critical to ensuring that whatever growth emerges at the other end of this tunnel is equitable and sustainable.
Medics under threat
REPORTS that dozens of healthcare workers have contracted Covid-19 as they battle the pandemic in Pakistan are alarming.
In Multan’s Nishtar Medical Hospital, as many as 27 doctors and paramedics have been confirmed as having contracted the virus. In the same hospital, one official observed that the total number of medics exposed to the coronavirus was higher, alleging that many test reports had not been made public — a claim yet to be substantiated. In Karachi, the count for healthcare staff so far diagnosed with Covid-19 is close to 40.
The Pakistan Medical Association has blamed the rise of infections within medical staff on the unavailability or poor quality of personal protective equipment.
Pakistan has already lost two doctors, young Dr Usama Riaz and the veteran Dr Abdul Qadir Soomro, to Covid-19.
That medics are being provided low-quality, ineffective masks instead of the WHO-mandated N-95 masks is an indictment of the government’s ability to tackle the crisis. PPE for medical staff is a most fundamental and crucial step in the fight against Covid-19, and one that the authorities here have been aware of for some time now.
Pakistan recorded its first case at the end of February, and prior to that, was aware for months about the rising number of coronavirus cases in the region. Despite having some time to prepare after the international community sounded the alarm, it is unfortunate that the authorities did not procure sufficient equipment or implement a strategy to protect medical workers.
There are reports that some workers are being asked to wear the less protective surgical masks even when dealing with suspected Covid-19 patients. While the government maintains that PPE is being provided to only those medical staffers dealing directly with coronavirus patients, it has failed to develop a system whereby a suspected Covid-19 patient is prevented from roaming around the hospital premises before reaching a designated coronavirus ward.
Lack of protective gear, which also includes gloves and protective suits, will inevitably result in more doctors contracting the disease — especially those dealing with patients who are asymptomatic. The chief ministers of all provinces must prioritise the safety and health of medical staff and engage with the medical community to understand where the gaps lie.
Underreporting confirmed tests and indulging in a blame game will crush the healthcare system. Medics must be protected at all costs; without them, the war against Covid-19 is but a series of one-sided, losing battles.
AT a time when all responsible states should be concentrating their energies on the battle against Covid-19, India is up to no good along the LoC, with deadly results. On Sunday, Hussain Mir, a four-year-old boy living in an Azad Kashmir village near the LoC, was killed by shrapnel from an Indian shell which exploded when he was standing in the courtyard of his house. Of course, this is not the first incident of its kind. In the last few days, several civilians in AJK have been wounded due to Indian shelling, some of them some critically. A senior Azad Kashmir official told this paper that since the start of the year, three people have been killed while 54 have been injured due to Indian aggression.
Such heartlessness and bellicosity is completely unacceptable. However, the fact it is happening at a time when the entire globe is busy trying to contain a deadly pandemic makes the Indian LoC violations even more egregious. Apart from the tragic loss of life, the Indian military is trying to provoke this country into responding to its irresponsible behaviour. Last week, the army shot down an Indian drone that had violated Pakistani airspace. Indeed, the Pakistan-India relationship is currently going through an intensely bitter phase. But the common foe both states face in the form of the coronavirus should convince India to desist from its provocative tactics, and encourage a spirit of cooperation for the sake of the people of South Asia. Covid-19 knows no borders, and a regional, in fact global, response is needed to vanquish the virus. If India continues to carry out such inadvisable violations of the LoC and similar cross-border hostilities, Pakistan will respond in kind. This will take away attention from one of the gravest health emergencies of the modern epoch. The Indian state should act responsibly and refrain from its adventures in order to save previous lives, and to prevent the pandemic from spreading further in one of the most populous regions of the world.