On a usual Sunday afternoon in Lahore, Pakistan, people are getting ready to go to nearby restaurants to fetch breakfast for themselves and their families. Sunday, being a weekend, allows them to wake up late and share the table with their families which, on weekdays, is a rarity as every family member may have a different schedule.
However, last Sunday was not the same. People did not come out of their homes. The restaurants were closed and roads deserted. There was no sign of life outside one’s home.
Punjab, one of the four provinces of Pakistan, has been under a partial lockdown for over a week. Only pharmacies, bakeries, and dairy shops are open, but that too only between specific hours. People are allowed to come out of their homes only for essential trips or emergencies.
This measure came as the federal government ramped up its efforts to contain the spread of the novel coronavirus disease, COVID-19, which has claimed 20 lives in the country and some 35,114 worldwide as of writing.
Pakistan reported its first coronavirus case on February 26. On Sunday, after over a month, the country’s tally stood at 1,566 according to the national database. By Monday, this was up to 1,670. More than 50 patients have recovered. It merits a mention here that the majority of Pakistan’s cases were the result of a recent visit to neighboring Iran, which is the worst-hit Asian country after China. Comparatively, the number of secondary transmissions is still very low.
The number of patients in Pakistan, by comparison, is nowhere near the tally in Iran and most of European countries. By and large, the government of Prime Minister Imran Khan has been successful in preventing the unconfined spread that, if happens, may prove disastrous for the world’s fifth most-populous country which is already struggling with a teetering economy.
Reservations have been expressed by both local and international media about the measures being taken by Khan, particularly his constant refusal to impose a national lockdown. The prime minister, who has addressed the nation twice about coronavirus, in addition to two live press briefings, has time and again justified his decision by saying that he fears the potential economic fallout of a lockdown.
“Pakistan’s [economic] situation is not the same as that of the U.S. or Europe. There is poverty in our country, with 25 percent of the population living in extreme poverty,” he said in his first national address after virus outbreak, observing that a national quarantine could result in the poor “dying from hunger.”
Numerically, Khan is right. With an economy as fragile and debt-ridden as Pakistan’s, the government cannot feed 220 million people for an incalculable period of time. The situation has already inflicted a loss of 30 billion Pakistani rupees (about $182 million) on the country’s economy. Economists believe the figure might soar to 1.3 trillion rupees, more than thrice the incumbent losses, or even more in the next few months, “If the situation doesn’t improve, or if we continue to impose lockdowns across the country.”
However, despite the aggravating situation, the government has announced a multi-trillion-rupee relief package, allocating 200 billion rupees for the labor class, in addition to calling on the private sector not to lay off laborers. Under the package, some 10 million people, categorized under low-income groups, will get a lump sum amount, initially for a period of four months.
The relief package comes in addition to safety measures being taken both at the federal and the provincial level, including setting up of temporary hospitals and isolation centers to accommodate thousands of patients in case of a spike in cases. The Pakistani government has also suspended flight operations, both domestic and international, to restrict the possible introduction of new cases via travelers.
Meanwhile, the provincial governments have imposed complete or partial lockdowns and announced additional relief packages for the poor. To implement the lockdown and other measures in letter and spirit, the provinces also requisitioned the military deployment, a decision that met with unnecessary criticism both at home and abroad.
The background of such a decision needs to be understood. As a result of repeated military interventions and a tug-of-war among political parties, the civilian administrative structure in Pakistan could not be strengthened and, therefore, is unable to deliver at the grassroots. Thence, whenever a crisis emerges, the civil administration finds itself unable to take decisive action and calls in the military.
Following the 18th constitutional amendment, which gives a semi-autonomous status to the provinces, the provinces are able to adopt a different course of action than the central government. It is in this scenario that the provincial administration sought the army’s intervention under the constitution, which allows the military to, “act in aid of civil power” but not until formally invited. It is erroneous to assume that the military “sidelined” the elected prime minister of Pakistan, amounting to contempt of the democratic and independent electorate.
Pakistan’s all-weather ally China, despite being hit by the coronavirus itself, also has lent a supporting hand and doled out much-needed medical equipment and other goods both at the government and provincial levels.
It is a difficult time for all humanity as thousands of families have lost their loved ones worldwide and nearly 3 billion people are confined to their homes. Life has come to a standstill everywhere in the world.
The Pakistani government is also struggling hard to face the daunting challenge by providing administrative as well as financial support.
There is also a big question mark over Islamabad’s post-coronavirus relationship with Beijing, which is conjoined in the shape of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), part of China’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Pakistan may get through this difficult moment but how it will impact the future of two “ironclad brothers” is yet to be seen.
Muhammad Ahmad Saad is a journalist based in Lahore, Pakistan.