The rise in the number of Covid-19 cases — around 5,000 a day over the last 10 days or so — in Pakistan has raised WHO’s concern. The World Health Organization believes the authorities in the country need to impose an intermittent lockdown to curb the spread of the mushrooming virus that has infected 113,702 people and claimed 2,255 lives as of Wednesday, pushing the country to the 15th rank in terms of most Covid-19 cases. The United Nations agency — through a letter addressed to the Punjab Health Minister, Dr Yasmin Rashid — has also noted that the country did not meet any of the six prerequisites when easing the lockdown on May 1 and then nearly lifting it on May 22.
The WHO’s concerns as regards the spread of the deadly microbe in the country and insufficient facilities to cope with it are pretty justified. But nearly as justified, if not equally, is the response of the government towards the reigning pandemic. An economy — which was already sinking and unable to run without foreign loans and domestic debts and without raising the burden of taxes on the people year on year — is understood to have taken a terrible hit from the coronavirus; there is no need to quote figures here. For such a country, imposing a lockdown — which essentially means holding the economy in shackles — is no easy solution. And then how would a shackled economy cater to the 25 million labourers and daily-wage workers in the country is indeed a big concern for the government.
The government, however, cannot just see the infection graph rise and rise by the day, solely relying on the people to adopt social distancing. It will have to see how best it could address the WHO’s concerns — which is after all in our own best interest — without much harming the economy that is still struggling to find its feet in the wake of the reopening of some financial sectors. In what forms a kind of government response to the recommendations made by WHO, Punjab Health Minister Dr Yasmin Rashid says that the matter will be presented for the cabinet’s review. The government is indeed walking a tightrope in seeking to save the lives of the people without disrupting the means of their livelihoods. It’s time for the government to act prudently.
Arecent report noted that while Pakistan has experienced rapid development since 2000 and now has over 89 million active cell phone users, the “pervasion and widespread consumption of advanced technology and resulting digital services have yet to fully materialize”. The report — compiled by the GSM Association which represents the interests of mobile network operators worldwide — notes that on certain telecoms metrics, Pakistan lags behind its regional peers despite facing similar challenges. Pakistan needs to do more to exploit its demographic advantages, specifically the “increasingly tech-savvy youth population”. The report also suggests that if Pakistan wants to reach the mobile economy’s potential, it must increase access to affordable and high-quality mobile broadband networks and smartphones. It was also critical of the existing tax and regulatory regimes in Pakistan.
The report also has some gaps. When read in the context of the included opening message from Telecom Minister Aminul Haque and a foreword by Chief Digital Officer Tania Aidrus, it appears the handling of critique was done with kid gloves. An overarching suggestion for economic development in the report also appears to be to shift more control into the private sector. But we must note that shifting focus to e-learning rather than public schools is just a way to distract from Pakistan’s historical failure to deliver quality education to the masses. Even Aidrus noted socioeconomic factors holding Pakistan back from developing. The biggest ones are poverty and illiteracy. Cheaper handsets or incentives for cell service providers won’t solve them. While the internet is a fundamental right, in Pakistan, it is one that is mostly abused. Easier access to TikTok, Instagram, and Facebook will not make Pakistan an economic success. They will actually push us backward.
But maybe if we were to fund our schools properly and deliver quality education, people would actually begin to explore the online world beyond looped videos and selfies, and into educating themselves.