PICTURES of crowded vegetable markets in some of Pakistan’s largest cities in recent days paint a grim picture of how friable the lockdown effort has become, even under ostensibly stricter measures prior to the announcement of a partial lifting of the lockdown. They point to troubling lapses in implementation and suggest that compliance will only get worse now that certain industries and trades are allowed to resume operations. Such a mammoth undertaking was never going to be easy, and fatigue was inevitable. Now, however, the challenge is justifying to a struggling populace the criteria by which certain sectors are classified as ‘low-risk’ or ‘essential’, while maintaining how vital it is for the rest to continue to make sacrifices to stay at home. If people sense discrimination or half-heartedness at the government’s end, they may see little reason to play their part. Yet each instance of complacency risks exponentially increasing the impact of this crisis. Pakistan cannot be lulled into a false sense of security simply because we have fewer confirmed cases than some other countries. This may be due to a host of epidemiological factors, but what is certain is that we are still far from testing enough to have an accurate picture of the prevalence of Covid-19, with potentially many more cases — and even deaths — than have been confirmed. We must therefore utilise the time the lockdown has bought our frail healthcare system to intensively ramp up tracking, testing and treatment capacities.
The priority at this point should be to save lives. This requires that the federal and provincial governments decide on a joint strategy to mitigate the contagion as well as its socioeconomic impacts. Regrettably, however, while Planning Minister Asad Umar spoke of collaboration between the governments during Tuesday’s press conference, some federal officials have taken to publicly belittling Sindh’s efforts — with the provincial government at times retaliating — even to the extent of comparing provincial performances as though this is a competition and not a crisis. This must stop at once. Wasting time and energy on petty politics will only put more lives at risk. Economic hardship, especially for the poor, is of as much concern as the spread of infections, and both sides will need to compromise. Now is the time to build on the Ehsaas Programme, and develop a more holistic response in which charities and NGOs can also be mobilised to expand humanitarian aid and social safety nets.
With the easing of the lockdown, Pakistan is at yet another inflection point in this long, arduous struggle. The federal government along with the provinces must reassess within a week whether the situation is improving. If it isn’t — and, unfortunately, what little can be said about the trends isn’t encouraging — it will have to reimpose and even enhance restrictions. We cannot afford to let our guard down.
THE State Bank is a central pillar of Pakistan’s economic management, and any reform of its constitutive law, especially if the reform is to touch on the core mission of the bank, must be carefully deliberated. At the moment, the State Bank Act endows the central bank with two core missions. First is to ensure price stability and second is to support growth. There is nothing inherently unusual in this since many central banks around the world do have a mission to safeguard growth in addition to price stability. The problem comes in when these two missions pull in opposite directions and the central bank leadership has to make a choice. Powerful political forces are unleashed in these times and the governor finds himself or herself in the centre of a policy storm which can get quite intense. In the past, for example, the State Bank under the leadership of Ishrat Husain leaned too far in the direction of a permissive monetary policy to support the growth process ushered in by the Musharraf regime, thereby laying the groundwork for an inflationary spiral that began in 2005 and engulfed the entire economy by 2008. Similarly, Shamshad Akhtar, his successor, found herself in the midst of a political storm when it became her job to put out the inflationary fire and safeguard the health of the financial system under the massive imbalances that had accumulated during the short-lived growth spurt that the Musharraf regime bequeathed to us.
Today, this history has gained new relevance because the State Bank Act is being amended under the ongoing IMF programme, and pressure from the Fund is to refocus the central bank’s attention purely on the mission of ensuring price stability. In an ideal world, this might sound like a good idea, since it has the virtue of ensuring that the monetary mistakes made in the Musharraf regime do not happen again. But at the same time, it is important to understand that the State Bank cannot be a stand-alone entity altogether, and whatever amendments are made in its constitutive legislation carry the assent of the political leadership in Islamabad, along with the opposition. The State Bank must, therefore, engage productively with the political leadership in helping draft these amendments, but it is the latter that will decide the limits of the possible in this case. In the meantime, the central bank clearly has a difficult balancing act to perform.
ONCE again, US President Donald Trump has let his ego get the better of him. In the midst of a pandemic, he has suspended funding for the World Health Organisation, engaged in yet another blame game, peddled misinformation, and endangered countless lives in the process. Last week, Mr Trump had accused the global health body of being pro-China and reacted angrily to criticism of how he handled the crisis. Instead, he blamed WHO for misleading the world, and distracted attention from the real issues by targeting his favourite scapegoat: the media. At this point in time, when over 2m cases of the novel coronavirus have been reported throughout the world, with over 128,000 deaths, Mr Trump’s actions and words come across as inexcusably selfish and dangerously reckless. While this is a difficult time and there are no quick or easy solutions to the problems confronting leaderships around the world, and even if some criticisms of global humanitarian bodies are valid, they are the only institutions battling misinformation on a global scale, providing essential supplies and services to those who need them the most, and connecting the world by upholding some semblance of a global community, which is especially important in times of growing polarisation and parochial concepts of nationalism — something Mr Trump and others fuel well. Because, truly, we are all in this together.
Failing to take timely action and refusing to listen to the experts, the US now has the highest rate of infection anywhere in the world, with under-equipped and under-resourced hospitals and medical staff struggling to contain the spread of the virus and save lives. Already, over 609,000 people have been diagnosed in the US, while around 26,000 are known to have died from it. At the rate the number of cases is climbing, it is difficult to even keep track of the figures, but it is the poor who are most vulnerable. The world cannot revolve around one rich man.