COVID-19 – State is missing in Pakistan

The world including Pakistan has come into the midst of social, political, and economic crises due to novel coronavirus. It is difficult to critically challenge the prevention measures taken by governments, since they do not have any previous experience in dealing with a pandemic. However, some countries have distinguished themselves by playing the true role of state for their people.

Pakistan is being ruled by a popular government under the premiership of Imran Khan. Moreover, his party Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) is governing all provinces either solely or as a coalition partner except for Sindh, where the Pakistan Peoples Party’s (PPP) third regime is going on. This is reflective of the responsibilities held on PTI’s regime. Although, the 18th amendment in the constitution of Pakistan has declared many domains including health, and law and order as provincial subjects, but this has increased the need for coordination too.

Many analysts note that the pandemic has not only revealed the state of governance in Pakistan, but also put a question mark on the Prime Minister Imran Khan’s understanding of the crisis and its management. The premier has maintained his communication with the nation through multiple addresses and media interactions throughout the crisis. Unfortunately, he could not come forward with a clear policy to curb the spread of the virus while arguing against lockdown. Instead of taking immediate steps, he expressed that the government may consider the option of lockdown if the situation gets worse. Eventually, the addresses have increased the confusion on the matter of lockdown instead of showing a proactive and vigilant policy.

The COVID-19 crisis has revealed two things. The first is the lack of centre-province coordination especially that between Sindh and the federation. Second has been the indecisiveness of the premier, Imran Khan, over the decision of lockdown. Sindh was the first province that announced complete lockdown. Other provincial governments also followed suit. Meanwhile, the premier remained indecisive. He tried multiple times to explain the difference between lockdown and curfew, and urged the citizens to take prevention measures through physical distancing and self-isolation at homes.

When rapid and drastic steps were needed, he announced the formation of the voluntary Corona Relief Tiger Force to assist the government in providing corona relief fund to the citizens and educating them about physical distancing and self-isolation as well.

The government is responsible to provide necessities in case people are restricted from going to workplaces, and this compensation cannot be named as social work.

During a televised address, the PM successfully retained his populist image by discussing the possible plight of those 25% Pakistanis who cannot earn square meals, if the cities are shut down. His followers praised this rhetoric by referring to it as his signature characteristic.

However, this is the time when Imran Khan should know his position as a PM. He should mobilise resources using his position’s authority, in order to make the government play its true role. While discussing the plight of deprived communities and daily wagers, he seemed to overlook the fundamental right of a citizen to earn a livelihood under Article 18 of the constitution of Pakistan. The government is responsible to provide necessities in case people are restricted from going to workplaces, and this compensation cannot be named as social work.

Many individuals and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) have started ration distribution among affected people. However, at many places, a distasteful picture of our society emerges when some individuals and NGOs capture pictures while helping the poor. Moreover, ration distribution by many NGOs is recorded to have not undertaken SOPs, which has raised concerns regarding the violation of physical distancing.

On the other side, the federal government was clueless as to how to reach out to the marginalised citizens to provide ration and data collection. These tasks are the responsibilities of Tiger Force. Later on, the federal government managed to identify the affected population and ensured transparent fund disbursements through ID-based solution of “Ehsaas Emergency Cash” that is built on the platform of the Benazir Income Support Programme.

The federal government’s reluctance to consult the provincial leaderships especially that of Sindh has prevented a unified policy. The federal government should have prioritised the policy actions, the first is increasing health facilities to combat the virus, second  is compensating the affected daily wagers and small business owners, and the third policy action is the rehabilitation of the economy after the pandemic.

To execute these plans, the policy of division of responsibilities could have been opted. Like the federal government only could have taken the responsibility to transfer cash to the affected people to help them meet daily expenses. For instance, the government executed the “Ehsaas Program” lately.  Similarly, provincial governments only would have had increased testing capabilities and other health facilities without any involvement in compensation activity.

The federal government can revise the monetary and financial policies to rehabilitate the economy as they reduced the interest rate to 9%. This method would have saved the energies of all tiers of the government, which in turn could have gone with more focused approach to fighting the pandemic.

On the stark contrast, the Sindh government complained that the federal government neither clearly denied nor responded positively to their formal request to share data – from FBR, the State Bank of Pakistan, and the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority –  required to authenticate the eligibility of the families in need. Consequently, the provincial government of Sindh established committees of union councils, which has caused corruption and missteps in the process. The decision also exacerbated the disharmony among Sindh and the centre.

Owing to the increase in unemployment, the much applauded new refinance scheme was launched by the State Bank of Pakistan to avoid layoffs of the workers. However, the situation needs to restrict the employers, by the law, to retain their employees rather than just compensations made to the employers, in order to keep the jobs in place. In this regard, the federal and all provincial governments could have followed the footprint of the Sindh government, which has issued the notification for employers, ordering not to terminate their employees. The Centre and other federating units have not followed the Sindh government’s decision to provide relief during the ongoing lockdown in the form of legal measure. The Sindh government has drafted an ordinance which includes measures such as the waiving off of rent and utility bills, payment of salaries to factory workers and restrictions on their termination.

PM Khan never misses a chance to repeat his vow to make Pakistan in the image of “the state of Madina.” However, he first needs to understand the role and power of the “state.” State can go beyond the prevalent practices, if it has to ensure the fundamental and constitutional rights of the citizens. For example, recently Spain has nationalised its entire healthcare facilities overnight to combat the virus.

In Pakistan, when doctors were demanding a stricter lockdown, the PM Khan was trying to loosen the restrictions. The relaxation provided to some industries to re-open their businesses paved the way for religious clerics to ask the government to allow prayers at mosques. The situation is continuously diverting the government’s focus on increasing the capacity of health infrastructure and dealing with the economic crisis.

Owing to his popular stature, PM Khan may ask the business owners and landlords to cooperate and provide relaxations in terms of rent and debt wave offs during the pandemic. Eco system businesses are based on co-dependence.  In this system, one sells the product which is produced by someone other and other one transports it from one location to another. Shops, workshops, offices, and factories are rented to do economic activities. If wholesalers give relaxation to retailers in terms of payments or credits, and landowners provide relaxations for rents, economic activities will start easily and all the parties in the system could reap the benefits.

The PTI government had a good chance to make the citizens realise the presence of the state through actions and rhetoric. PM Khan could have made sure that the government machinery is available to compensate all the effected citizens by extending initiatives like Ehsaas Program for small business owners as well.  He could have taken strict actions to use elite’s wealth to help the poor survive, by imposing taxes on assets of the super-rich. Moreover, he can create awareness among the citizens that to combat with economic crisis after the pandemic, solidarity is required rather than hatred.

The crisis will leave sooner or later. But if it harvests a sense of insecurity and lack of confidence between the small federating units and the federation, or between marginalised classes and the state, it will eventually decrease the country’s ability to defeat crises in the future.

Bilal Ahmed

Bilal Ahmed

has done his Masters in Public Administration with Specialization in Human Rights, and Human Resource Management. His areas of interest are local politics, urban governance, human development, constitutional and administrative law, and human rights.

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