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Dawn Editorial 7 August 2020

Welcome turnaround

NEARLY five months after the first Covid-19 cases were detected in Pakistan, all indicators suggest that we have managed to prevent the all-out pandemic-induced healthcare calamity that was feared. With cases consistently falling, the positivity ratio in decline and critical care units designated for Covid-19 patients clearing out, it appears that the measures to curb the spread of the virus have been successful. Latest figures shared by the government are encouraging: 91pc of ventilators in the country are lying unutilised and at present, although there are more than 20,000 active cases, only 1,300 or so are being treated at hospitals.
This is indeed a welcome development — and one that the government, especially the National Command and Operation Centre, deserves credit for. In this, the work of NCOC head Asad Umar, advisers and provincial heads is notable, as they tenaciously worked together against a shared national threat despite some bitter differences. After some foot-dragging and fumbling, the authorities managed to get their act together and, under great pressure, formulated and implemented a plan to contain the virus. The criticism against public officials was both necessary and valid, and gave the federal and provincial authorities the impetus to confront a grim reality and act quickly. Pakistan began grappling with Covid-19 a month or so after it wreaked havoc in other countries, giving rise to fears of what the virus would do to a country of our size and vulnerability. After all, Pakistan has a massive population, a fragile healthcare system and a weak economy. Millions of people live in closely packed homes with large families. A significant proportion of the population has underlying conditions such as diabetes. Many communities also face acute water shortages, which meant that both social distancing and frequent handwashing were huge challenges. All these factors made Pakistan especially susceptible to the fast-spreading, high-fatality virus. Fortunately, that doomsday scenario was avoided. Some good decisions were taken: the testing and quarantining of all international passengers, the track and trace system, closures and strict lockdowns in some cities and then smart lockdowns in hotspots. While the prime minister’s initial messaging left a lot to be desired, in his more recent statements about the virus he reinforced its lethality. All these actions were important and have delivered results.
Now, as we follow other countries in moving forward, vigilance is of utmost importance. Mask wearing and social distancing must be enforced. Testing, which remained far lower than acceptable even at its peak, must be increased and made accessible. With Pakistan entering something of a Covid-19 twilight zone, it is important to acknowledge the very real and devastating consequences of the pandemic. Overburdened healthcare workers, fatalities in the medical community and the death of over 6,000 people are more than just sobering statistics of the gloom and doom unleashed by the pandemic.


Economic recovery?

IT is hard to weigh the signs of ‘early economic recovery’ seen in July against the significant loss of business confidence as computed by a business organisation on the basis of a half-yearly survey, and come up with an answer to the question: are we moving in the right direction? The Overseas Investors Chamber of Commerce and Industry informs us that the overall business sentiment has worsened because of the “huge scare caused by the coronavirus pandemic”. Even before the virus had reached Pakistan, business confidence was already declining owing to a combination of factors including massive currency devaluation, high interest rates, steep inflation and the IMF-mandated economic stabilisation policies. The Covid-19 lockdowns and uncertainty had only compounded economic woes with businesses seeing sales slump and profits shrink as domestic and foreign demand crashed, throwing tens of thousands of people out of work.
The forecasts of a slower and painful recovery notwithstanding, July — the first month of the fiscal year — saw a substantial surge in domestic demand, especially in the construction and rural sectors. Cement sales have gone up sharply underscoring a recovery in the construction business. Tractors, motorcycles and farm inputs too are in greater demand indicating improved rural income levels. Carmakers expect their sales to recover over the next six to 12 months. Imports are rising. FBR tax collection has far surpassed the target for the month. Even exports have increased, though only marginally. The stock market is bouncing back. And so on. Based on this data, many are predicting a much quicker recovery going forward than what was previously forecast. But the question remains: is this recovery sustainable given the fact that much of it is caused by fiscal and monetary incentives given to mitigate the virus impact on businesses and reboot construction activity? With infections apparently declining much faster than expected, the government wants to completely reopen the economy in the next few weeks. That will have a salutary impact on the economic activity and create consumption-led growth in demand over the short term. Yet long-term economic recovery requires sustained growth momentum. That largely depends on how the government deals with the structural impediments to new investments in the manufacturing sector to boost exports, and if it still has the appetite to implement policy reforms, including, but not limited to, reorganisation of its tax system and energy sector, to improve the poor business environment.


State of insecurity

ON Wednesday, a Jamaat-i-Islami rally in Karachi, staged in solidarity with the people of India-held Kashmir — which recently marked one year since India revoked its special status — came under attack by assailants who threw hand grenades into the crowd. Nearly 40 people were injured — one person later died — in the attack, which has been claimed by the banned separatist Sindhudesh Revolutionary Army. While there have been fewer militant attacks when compared to our not-so-distant blood-soaked past, such incidents reopen old wounds and bring to life all-too-familiar fears of disharmony in the country. Karachi and other parts of the country have been the sites of ethnic and sectarian violence over the years, and one can only hope to never return to those days of perpetual turmoil and insecurity, when terrorist attacks and bomb blasts became the norm, or when bodies would be left in gunny bags in the dead of the night.
On a less frequent scale (perhaps on account of beefed-up security in some places) a string of sporadic attacks on high-profile targets have been perpetuated in recent times, many of which have targeted security personnel themselves. In June, Baloch separatists attacked the Pakistan Stock Exchange in Karachi, leaving four security personnel dead, and injuring several bystanders. And last year, the banned TTP attacked a DIG police compound in Loralai, killing a number of policemen. In May 2019, a bomb blast carried out by a TTP splinter group outside the Data Darbar shrine in Lahore killed 13 people, including several security personnel. Following this, another attack by Baloch separatists on the Gwadar Pearl Continental Hotel in Quetta left five people dead. Then, in July 2019, militants on motorbike attacked a security checkpoint in Dera Ismail Khan, before a suicide blast was carried out inside a hospital, killing several people, including six security personnel, and injuring many. With Muharram around the corner, the government must ensure greater security for the crowds that are expected to gather in observance of religious traditions.


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