COVID-19: Imran Khan needs a break from the past

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As lockdown begins to ease across Pakistan, risk of infection spreading cannot be ignored

By Farhan Bokhari

Notwithstanding Pakistan’s decision to begin easing the lockdown enforced in the wake of the Corona Virus pandemic, the way forward deserves to be a visible break from the recent past.

In the weeks since Pakistan’s prime minister Imran Khan oversaw periods of a de facto lockdown without acknowledging so, he has remained ambivalent on the best way forward.

The glaring gaps in the government’s management of the pandemic has ranged from a failure to build a national consensus with Pakistan’s opposition parties, to a failure to reach out to a wider audience for policy formulation. In the build up to easing the lockdown, many pitfalls have emerged without clarity on the best way forward.

“As the lockdown begins to ease across Pakistan, the risk of the Corona virus pandemic spreading rapidly can not be taken lightly. Towards this end, beyond just a consensus between leaders of the government and the opposition, other types of consensus must be built”

At times, choices on the way forward have been left practically to novices rather than a team of the best trained healthcare professionals to lead the way. In this context, the decision to allow the evening ‘taraweeh’ congregational prayers during ‘Ramadan’ in a clear break from the rest of the Islamic world, stands out as a case in point.

Its therefore hardly surprising that since the relaxation on ‘taraweeh’ prayers, reports from parts of Pakistan have spoken of a failure to enforce a minimum of six feet distance at mosques as stipulated in the agreement.

To their credit, Pakistan’s main opposition parties – the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) were the first to seek a consensus on the way forward. Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, chairman of the PPP, to his credit even urged the prime minister to act in accordance with the stature of his high office.

Equally memorable will remain an all political parties’ video link where prime minister Khan conveniently walked out seconds before the also invited opposition leaders began to speak. Such intolerance of opposition leaders was both inadvisable at a time of a major national calamity with a global dimension, and marked a failure to appreciate the challenge ahead.

Similarly, the matter of how best to help a population that has suffered from a larger unemployment practically overnight, has been far from satisfactory. The army led National Disaster Management Authority or NDMA has led the way on issues ranging from equipping hospitals with relevant equipment to facilitating essential supplies for field based healthcare professionals.

The NDMA’s role appears to have helped avert a bigger disaster. But in sharp contrast, prime minister Khan’s decision to create a vast team of volunteers known as the ‘Corona Tiger Force’ has been nothing more than an ill advised futile initiative.

The force was meant to work as the vanguard of distributing relief supplies across Pakistan. But its widely noticed flaw has been an obvious one. Faced with an imminent crisis, Pakistan could just not afford the luxury of time without putting precious human lives at stake, unless flaws in the working of this volunteer force were accepted.

In the process, alternatives such as organizing the community of grass root health workers on a war footing appear to have been needlessly delayed. Furthermore, the large community of polio workers and/or large numbers of government school teachers, stranded at home with schools and colleges closed till mid-July, were seeming not assembled to lead the way along the grass root.

Going forward, prime minister Khan and the rest of his team must reach out to a wider audience, notably opposition politicians to prepare for the future. While politicians indeed must take charge of the effort, their ability to make the right choices must be driven by the views from healthcare professionals. In brief, the driving seat must be occupied by Pakistan’s ruling class but healthcare professionals must be armed with an effective veto power on future choices.

As the lockdown begins to ease across Pakistan, the risk of the Corona virus pandemic spreading rapidly can not be taken lightly. Towards this end, beyond just a consensus between leaders of the government and the opposition, other types of consensus must be built.

Across Pakistan’s major urban centers, it is vital for the authorities to move forward in tandem with local municipal leaders. This is essential to forcefully deliver the message that the government is working in partnership with where it matters the most – the grass roots of Pakistan.

The other main challenge will lie across Pakistan’s rural areas which by some estimates are home to 60 per cent of the country’s population. Before the challenge of the Corona virus pandemic hit Pakistan, the country’s farm economies were already hit with a succession of crop failures since last summer.

Moreover, an active locust attack in parts of Pakistan has undermined prospects for Pakistan’s large farm sector. These challenges in addition to the fallout from the Corona virus pandemic are set to undermine the capacity of the Pakistani state. It is possible that institutions of the state may carry out fire fighting but their capacity to set the pace for long term reforms will likely remain in doubt.

In this dark hour of challenges, it is vital for prime minister Khan to take a fresh look at widening the scope for reaching out to the public.

Towards this end, its essential for the ruling structure to reach out to the large and potentially robust non-profit sector. In Pakistan’s history, non-governmental organisations have been in the front lines of relief work during times of calamity.

Fundamentally, prime minister Khan and his team needs to demonstrate a clear break from the recent past as they face the toughest challenge not just for Pakistan’s alone. —Gulf News

{Farhan Bokhari is a Pakistan-based commentator who writes on political and economic matters}

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