By delaying lockdown, Pakistan has spared the poor


Pakistan, lockdown

The bit about the uncertainty, particularly not knowing at all when things could start getting better, puts countries like Pakistan in a bigger mess than others.

By Shahab Jafry

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Published: Fri 27 Mar 2020, 7:34 PM

Last updated: Fri 27 Mar 2020, 9:38 PM

The most urgent issue in Pakistan over the last week was whether or not to shut down the whole country to limit the spread of the coronavirus. The federal government, more specifically Prime Minister Imran Khan himself, never liked the idea. And the reasoning was understandable enough, at least in the beginning when the full gravity of the situation hadn't perhaps been realised. A sudden lockdown, grinding the economy to a trickle in no time, would no doubt seriously compromise the millions upon millions of daily wage earners. And it is the government's responsibility, after all, to make sure the marginalised sections do not face hunger and starvation when extreme steps like complete lockdown are being contemplated.
Yet it shouldn't have taken more than a sobering look at the headlines to settle those concerns. No better examples than Italy and Iran to show what can happen if initial warnings against public interaction are not taken seriously. Sooner or later even more extreme isolation becomes inevitable and rich and poor alike have nowhere to go except, in rising numbers, to quarantine centres. Indeed, the only reason for China's success in controlling the pandemic so far is its immaculate isolation regime. And there is genuine concern that, impressive as its efforts so far have been, there's a good chance of the numbers rising once again as social interaction resumes.
So far, then, prevention seems the only option because a cure has yet to be invented/discovered. That realisation most likely led the provinces to exercise a rare constitutional provision and call in the army; enforce a lockdown of their own, in other words, even as the centre continued to disagree. Strangely, the prime minister's team believes that, much rather than enforce a mandatory lockdown, people should be 'convinced' to self-isolate. But wouldn't that also keep people at home rather than work, greatly reducing economic activity, and hurt daily wagers more or less the same? Besides, most people simply ignored all initial warnings and kept mingling as usual; though such behaviour was not restricted to Pakistan. That is why most countries are extending targeted relief packages to protect the most vulnerable people instead of putting everybody at risk - something the Pakistani government is also doing now.
But now that a lockdown is in force and everybody is working from home, what next? This is not a storm you can survive simply by hunkering down until it passes. The best course the whole world has been able to identify so far is locking everybody up so there's very little people-to-people contact and the virus can at least be contained; that too at the cost of crashing local and regional economies. There's considerable economic/financial trauma, quite naturally, and so far governments have taken to throwing money into financial markets to keep them from drying and preparing huge stimulus packages to make sure their economies keep trudging along.
Yet such emergency measures can be employed for only so long. Since there's still no cure for the coronavirus, and nobody has any idea when one would be found and brought to market, there's also no telling just how long the whole world will have to stay locked in survival mode. And so long as this uncertainty lasts practically all economies will require cash injections and relief packages. So it is fast turning out that the only viable route to take for now is simply unsustainable even in the medium term. And unless somebody somewhere does something to effectively treat this virus, the entire global economy could well go off the rails. Already leading industries like aviation, manufacturing, tourism, etc, are feeling the pinch and will require strong outside support or go belly up.
The bit about the uncertainty, particularly not knowing at all when things could start getting better, puts countries like Pakistan in a bigger mess than others. The economy was just saved from sure default a few months ago by signing a $6 billion Extended Fund Facility with the IMF. Now, the initial hit alone from the coronavirus is estimated at $10 billion. It's clear that Islamabad will not be able to play the game of stimulus and solvency for too long. That is why the government, despite its reservations about the lockdown, will have to ensure that it is followed in letter and spirit. The number of confirmed cases, presently lingering around a thousand, must not be allowed to get out of control. We have neither the money to keep markets solvent for too long nor the medical infrastructure to treat too many patients. Our best bet, really, is to keep a lid on things, get the Fund to show some flexibility regarding its quarterly targets and arrange just enough money to keep the economy from collapsing and hope and pray that somebody comes up with a cure that everybody can use before both time and money run out.
Shahab Jafry is a senior journalist based in Lahore, Pakistan

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