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Pakistan PM Imran Khan's strategy to contain the virus is a big success

Shahab Jafry
Filed on August 27, 2020
Pakistan, lockdown, Imran Khan, virus

The PM feared that a complete lockdown would put millions at risk of death from hunger and starvation within days even if the virus was contained.

Say what you will but Pakistan has managed the coronavirus pandemic better than almost any other country in the world, even though the only thing about its policy that differed from any other country was opting for limited or "smart" lockdowns instead of a complete shutter down. And it didn't seem to make too much sense at the time, which explains why this strategy impressed very few people outside the ruling party when it was first proposed, but it has delivered which has left many people scratching their heads.

After all, the main thrust of any official policy at that time was limiting the spread of the virus by any means possible. That is precisely why everybody shut everything down except coronavirus quarantine centres, emergency wards and pharmacies. But Prime Minister Imran Khan did not agree for one moment because he feared the a complete lockdown in place like Pakistan, where a very large portion of the population lives barely on either side of the poverty line, would put millions of people at risk of death from hunger and starvation within days even if the virus was contained. 

So he gambled on the idea of closing down places where the virus was on the ascent, by all means, but still letting the economy reopen slowly so some of the many jobs lost could be reclaimed and money could start flowing once more. It's another matter altogether that nobody knew just how they would find out, in a place as chaotic as Pakistan, precisely which areas of which cities were suffering more than others and deserved to be shut down.

Still, only weeks after implementing this policy the number of new cases started dropping, first slowly then sharply, and the tremendous, almost unbearable burden on medical facilities began receding.

Then, as if that was not miracle enough, the economy suddenly started posting numbers the likes of which are rarely seen even in good times and a few even broke records. Exports unexpectedly jumped 5.8 percent in July 2020 over the same period last year in dollar terms. At a time when much of the world was still in quarantine and international trade was pretty much paralysed, something like this is very welcome news indeed. No doubt the decision to reopen the economy earlier than others enabled Pakistan to capture some markets whose traditional suppliers were still compromised. Then we got to know that the country received record high remittances, for reasons still unexplained, in the same month. With economies crashing all over the world and expatriate Pakistanis losing jobs everywhere, how could they possibly send more in this one month than any other month in history? Unless, of course, a lot of them were wrapping up and coming home and sending their life savings ahead of time?

That's not all. The Federal Board of Revenue (FBR) has collected 23 percent more taxes than targeted in the first month of the new fiscal year despite the slowdown and all the job losses and business shutting down. The stock market is rising on expectations of healthy corporate earnings. Real estate prices have resumed their upswing after the government announced its construction package to get things going again. And the current account deficit (CAD) recorded a $424 million surplus in July from a deficit of $100 million in June and $613 million last year.

All this is very welcome news indeed even though the case could be made for each item in the list to be circumstantial at best and caused by the extraordinary situation that everybody is trying to make the best of. But that doesn't explain why the pandemic was controlled so successfully and so quickly. That is why now you can't stop government spokespersons from saying 'we told you so' on prime time TV if you wanted to.

And to be fair the government has negotiated this treacherous storm rather wisely. It was quick to offer an around $8 billion relief package when it first shut everything down and the central bank played a very helpful part by announcing concessional loans for businesses as long as they refrained from letting off any workers. Then, when it saw that there was simply now more elbow room for another stimulus package, and that those at the bottom of the food chain would be dead in a matter of days, it decided to open the economy in phases and keep problem areas under lock, key and a very watchful eye. The result has been nothing short of a miracle and now everybody from the World Health Organisation (WHO) to Bill Gates is appreciating how Pakistan handled the whole thing.

Now, in order to keep the good times going, the government must immediately constitute committees to figure out how to maintain the advantages in exports, revenue collection and even, if possible, strong remittances. It would be a big shame if all that has been so remarkably achieved is allowed to slip away.

Shahab Jafry is a senior journalist based in Lahore


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