If your day begins with Pakistani media’s barking news madness; you have my sympathies. Never one to shy away from broadcast histrionics, news channels in Pakistan are particularly brazen these days. This is understandable, to an extent at least. We are in the midst of a pandemic. And, at the risk of triggering some people, the Pakistani government’s response is a bit alarming.
To be fair, these are confusing times, and it is fair to expect trials and errors. But, with the international examples mounting, is the delay excusable any more? Or perhaps more importantly, is it wise to be applying a narrative of exceptionality?
“Pakistan Cannot Afford A Lockdown”
Yesterday, during a press conference, Prime Minister Imran Khan echoed a familiar sentiment; “Pakistan cannot afford a lockdown.”
It is a tale as old as this crisis’ official pandemic status. We had heard other senior officials say as much, even while cases continued to rise.
I don’t want to encourage panic. Nor do I want to make a broad generalisation about the inaction. Instead, let’s look at each one of the PM’s reasons, and promised actions.
The Italian Comparison
The claim made is that because of Pakistan’s current economic standing, a lockdown would impact the country negatively. He went on to highlight that Italy’s per capita income was higher than Pakistan, and thus their strategies couldn’t be applied.
Okay, so let’s get into that. The Italian lockdown is important, because their declaration was followed by heightened activity across Europe and North America. Whether their lockdown was a catalyst or a coincidence, is unclear. But it did signify a shift in priorities and tension.
And it is true that in terms of GDP and per-capita GDP, Italy fares better than Pakistan. But, to use this one measure as an indicator of overall economic prowess is disingenuous.
Italy Before COVID-19
Even as early as mid-2019, the state of Italy’s economy was alarming global stakeholders. This was down to the Italian debt to GDP ratio, which had reached worrying levels since 2014. What’s more, Italy’s debt numbers were in violation of European Union standards. Many were sure that Italy would follow in Greece’s footsteps from ten years ago. Except, given Italy’s place in the global economic status quo, the repercussions would be much worse.
Just for comparison, Pakistan’s debt to GDP ratio in 2018 was 72.5%. Italy’s in the same year was 134.8%.
Moreover, Italy’s only chance of curbing this rising figure was economic growth. Which was already below required numbers, and will now surely continue to plunge because of the lockdown.
So, when the Italian government decided to impose a national lockdown, it wasn’t because Italy could afford it. No country can afford a lockdown. Those that opt for it, do so because it has been known to help with the global pandemic.
Just this week, the last temporary hospital in Wuhan, Hubei province, China was finally closed down. And just yesterday, there were reports of restrictions being reduced, in conjunction with the drop in new cases. Would this have been possible without the state imposed lockdown? So far, it appears not.
Those In Need
PM Khan’s concern for daily wage earners, and the informal economy is both fair and completely understandable. In fact, across the globe, those at the bottom of the wealth pyramid will be most severely impacted. This much is accepted, and governments have to actively work to assist them.
But, to rule a lockdown out as a response could have the opposite effect.
In India, the consensus amongst experts appears to be that a spike in cases is inevitable. The World Health Organisation (WHO) has encouraged governments to conduct more testing. And as more people are tested, more cases will emerge. So, without adequate testing, conducted en masse, Pakistan cannot know how many people are actually ill.
This may mean that Pakistan will also see a spike in cases, as did Italy and Iran. If that happens, will it not put a strain on resources? And without the necessary equipment, how can we hope to cope?
A Misguided Stimulus
PM Khan’s announcement of a stimulus for the construction industry is perhaps the most troubling part of his speech. Because he predicated it on hoping to encourage more employment. Internationally, such announcements have focused on assisting with employment insurance, and subsidising workers. At this point, a global recession is seen not as a possibility, but an inevitability.
Could construction projects entail temporary hospitals, as was the case in China? Of course. But if that was the intention, why didn’t he announce as much? Why do we have to wait until Tuesday to know the nature of the stimulus?
The ultimate dilemma isn’t just misguided policy, inaction, or even misinformation. Rather, it is the delay. Yes, he announced that he’d provide regular updates from now on. But, when the first cases appeared weeks ago, this is already a delayed response. Delayed response has only exacerbated the situation the world over. And there is no reason why it will have a different impact in Pakistan.
On Media Reporting
Now, I take PM Khan’s ‘keep calm and carry on’ advice with a grain of salt. However, if we were to turn our canon on reportage for a moment; the time for a collective facepalm is nigh.
If you frequently watch a certain program featuring a certain highly respected journalist, I can only apologise. But, said program announced that there is in fact a cure for the pandemic. That’s right folks; doctors and scientists everywhere are sweating bullets; and the cure was always in a Pakistani newsroom.
He claimed that hydroxychloroquine is the coveted cure. Now, before you rush to a pharmacy near you, let’s learn how to spot misinformation; together.
First step, listen to a misguided academic. Here you go.
(You don’t have to listen to all of it).
Second, do some research and reach the source of the information. In this case, hydroxychloroquine and chloroquine are among those being tested. And their results so far have been promising. But, they have also cautioned that these are early stages, and hence are not ruling it as a definite cure. Simultaneously, reports suggest that any kind of vaccine is at least a year away.
Third, remind yourself that words carry responsibility; especially when you have a platform. All drugs have side-effects. This one, usually prescribed for malaria is no exception. So, to encourage people to see it as a miracle cure when the jury is out, is an egregious low.
Please, spread information, not misinformation.
Where I do agree with PM Khan is on individual responsibility. His policies, and delayed response are a notch against him. And yet, our individual actions cannot be ignored. People in Pakistan, as people elsewhere, should adhere to recommendations.
There will be many people, who will leave their homes because they have to. They have to earn, they have to work, and they have to provide. But, I’m sure we’ve all heard about the weddings that aren’t pausing, or the clerics refusing to budge. Anecdotes, for sure, but they might be pointing towards a lax attitude.
Again, nobody wants to stay at home all day (your toddler’s opinion doesn’t count). But given this unprecedented situation, it is the need of the hour. Those in charge, and those at home, need to understand that.
Please note: Since this post was originally published, the FDA has approved the use of chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine. They have approved them under the emergency that has presented itself in the USA. Trials to determine effectiveness are also underway.