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How to deal with Covid-19

Opinion

April 1, 2020

Like other countries, Pakistan too has been hit by the coronavirus pandemic, and on a daily basis the cases of infected persons are surging and putting an already shaky healthcare system under tremendous strain.

It is feared that in the absence of any leadership and concrete policy the twin crises of economy and healthcare can create a very unsavoury situation that may spiral out of control and cause irreparable damage in terms of human and economic losses.

So far, more than 1800 cases have been reported with 25 deaths. But most of the medical analysts fear that there can be a surge in cases, and more deaths in the days and months to come in the absence of any viable policy and preparation to contain the spread of the virus as there are very few quarantine centres, test kits and Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) for medical staff.

In such a crisis-like situation, the role of the political leadership is an important one. It must come out with a clear and concrete policy. But what we saw was an indecisive prime minister appearing again and again in meetings with journalists and TV anchors spelling out no clear-cut policy to deal with the corona pandemic at a time when the cases are soaring. The prime minister had opposed the lockdown and confused it with a curfew, and focused more on the plight of daily wage workers.

The fact is that as a nation, we are facing a serious health crisis which is further worsening our already precarious economic conditions created by the IMF programme.

According to Dr Sheha Najib Siddiqi, who holds a PhD in crisis management, leaders must be reassuring and need to be prepared for a crisis. The most important thing to remember is that all crises do pass. When a crisis occurs, don’t ignore it or avoid it. Instead, tackle it head on, and use it as a stepping stone to learn and enact change. A crisis is always an opportunity to acknowledge responsibility, take ownership and do better.

She further argues that as soon as the disease hit China in December of last year, leaders in Pakistan should have anticipated similar conditions and prepared. The information on the fast spreading disease should have been communicated to the public by the leaders immediately. Proper, fact checked information should have been disseminated confidently by the leader to the masses to reduce panic and manage hysteria.

In contrast with the federal government, Sindh has shown true leadership. Sindh CM Syed Murad Ali Shah heading a team of young minister and advisers has not only been reassuring but has also taken timely decisions like placing into quarantine pilgrims from Taftan at the Sukkur Quarantine Centre, announcing a lockdown, enforcing social distancing and limiting congregational prayers to 3-5 people in mosques. These revolutionary steps of the Sindh government have, to some extent, contained the proliferation of coronavirus cases. Other provinces are following Sindh now. The DG ISPR has also pledged to work with the provincial governments to deal with the situation on the ground.

We are frequently faced with crisis after crisis whether economic or health related, but our leadership has utterly failed to pass the test.

I argue that no crisis can be handled unless policies are made on scientific bases, and handled professionally.

Generally, public policy refers to government action which is intended to solve problems and improve the quality of life of its citizens. A policy formulated by the government goes through several stages from problem identification, agenda building, formulation, adoption, implementation, evaluation and termination. It involves all the stakeholders from inception to conclusion.

But unfortunately, in our country public policy is not made on a scientific basis but on the whims and wishes of our rulers, who try to shape policymaking. No discussion on the merits and consequences of the policy is assessed. The result is utter failure has happened in the case of the corona pandemic.

Political economists argue that crisis management is a function of politics and involvement of professionals. Bad politics and poor leadership do not produce good management, but bad management and bad management produces a vicious circle of the crisis that goes on and. In Pakistan most of the time politics is dominated by the elite who always use it as a tool to capture power in order to serve their own interests rather than to promote public welfare and minimize economic and social inequalities through the distribution of resources, education and health.

According to the political economy model of growth and public services, ‘oligarchy’ would oppose widespread education and health because educated people are more likely to demand decentralization of political power – democracy. Hence, the ruling oligarchy is incentivized to resist a mass education and healthcare system to keep people in a state of bondage.

When we discuss politics that promotes dysfunctional institutions, decaying economies and poor healthcare systems, the study by Prof Maurice Garner of the London School of Economics is very influential in the context of developing countries. The study titled ‘Politics vs Professionalism’ reveals that politics in developing countries is killing professionalism because it is driven by ideology that believes in personalization of power which is used not only as a tool of personal vendetta but for allocation of resources in addition to the postings, transfers and appointment of various heads in institutions and enterprises. The recent allocation of Rs42 million for the creation of a social media wing to defend the PTI government is a glaring example of misallocation of resources at a time when nation is grappling with the corona pandemic.

Personalization of politics and power happens in societies which don’t have institutions and institutional rule. It has social and economic costs in the form of a health crisis, economic inequalities, soaring unemployment and economic stagnations which in turn work as a breeding ground for political instability and societal decay.

In this regard, the book co-authored by Daron Acemoglu and James A Robinson, ‘Why Nations Fail’ is very seminal work in which the authors argue that the key differentiator between rich and poor countries is “institutions”. Nations thrive when they develop “inclusive” political and economic institutions, and they fail when those institutions become “extractive” and concentrate power and opportunity in the hands of only a few.

The lesson of history, the authors argue, is that you can’t get your economics right if you don’t get your politics right.

It is therefore high time we not only changed our politics but redefined it, built inclusive institutions and strengthened the pro-people role of the state. As Margaret Thatcher, former premier of the UK had once said ‘there is no alternative’ (TINA) to neoliberalism’, the current exponential spread of Covid-19 has demolished the myth of market capitalism as a problem solver. Since 2001, more than $6 trillion has been spent on endless wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and Pakistan, yet the big powers waging war do not have masks, respirators, and adequate supplies in hospitals at home.

According to Salman Akram Raja, the prominent and progressive lawyer of Pakistan, pandemics remind us that there is no alternative to a strong state that provides healthcare, housing and education as rights, not as commodities sold in the market.

Let us hope that the federal and provincial governments will take policy measures to invest more in the healthcare system as we need more doctors, nurses, ventilators, respirators and hospitals than tanks and missiles.

The writer works as professor in thedepartment of management sciences atSZABIST, Karachi.

Email: [email protected]