Instead of following leading epidemiologists, politicians were relying on their hunches
ovid-19 has not only wrecked economies and social lives, but also exposed state capacities and leaderships across the world. Understandably, this is a difficult time for governments around the world as uncertainty is hindering the decision-making process. That is why my earlier piece in this publication titled Public Policy in the Age of Corona suggested, “In current times, the policy response will be the key concept. The state will have to be alert to respond quickly and decisively to emerging situations.”
Since signalling is pertinent in public policy, some of the grave mistakes that the Pakistani leadership has made after the Covid-19 outbreak are confused, often contradictory, messages by the political elite. The initial framing of the Covid-19 outbreak was based on the assertion that it was like flu and will only put old people at risk (as if they don’t have a right to live?). Instead of following leading scientists and epidemiologists, politicians were relying on their hunches.
While mistakes have been made, now is the time to learn from them and formulate a more informed policy response for what lies ahead. In the last week, there has been a surge in the number of reported cases across the country. The reason for the initial lockdown was to prepare the healthcare system to respond to this crisis, but it remains clear that corona wards do not have the capacity to accommodate patients at the rate of increase in reported cases.
The cost of a lockdown is huge for any economy but the notion that lockdowns are more manageable for developed countries as compared to developing countries is flawed. In fact, lockdown can be more manageable in developing countries due to a strong presence of an informal economy. It is evident from our experience that food supplies and grocery items remained available in Pakistan while there were shortages in every developed country. This was due to the informal economy that ensured the supply chain – from farming to transportation, market to street vendors – remained intact. The ideal strategy, in this case, should be to open street vending, isolated shops of essential products/services and key factories. There is no need to open malls and every type of business for the next few months. The government also needs to signal the protection of such small businesses and informal economy. They do not need any bail-out package.
As we are moving towards an inevitable second lockdown to control the spread of the virus and buy time for the healthcare system, it is important to address three areas where Pakistan needs to reconsider its strategy.
First, we need to make our cities friendlier to people and informal businesses during the lock down. There is a need to restrict cars in every congested market in order to create safe spaces for people to walk in fresh air and small businesses to operate. Congested areas make it difficult for people to safely practice physical distancing. They also do not give them space to relax during a lockdown. Pakistan’s cities need to take into account the need for such public spaces and pedestrian markets during the lockdown. While many cities in the world have practiced this strategy, Pakistani cities are far behind in this area.
Second, Pakistan’s extent of testing is still very low. There is a need to gear up efforts to enhance testing in the country. Testing and contact tracing are the most effective policy options to combat Covid-19. Some experts have suggested considering the use of antibody rapid diagnostic tests as well along with polymerase chain reaction tests. Recently a trend is visible in the data on tests and positive cases reported by the government of Pakistan. It appears that there are 15 percent to 20 percent positive cases of total tests performed in a day. This indicates that more testing may reveal a higher number of positive cases. We should not close our eyes to this reality.
Third, there is an urgent need to call for a meeting of the Council of Common Interests in order to come up with a coordinated and unified policy response to the crisis. Mixed signalling by politicians has amplified fear and confusion among the public posing hurdles in their following of precautionary measures. The federal and provincial governments should develop a unanimous narrative to educate people on Covid-19, prioritise testing, and work on safe spaces for people and local businesses to remain calm during the lockdown. Once the priorities are straight and the communication is clear, the public will have more faith in the political leadership.
The mixed signalling by politicians has amplified fear and confusion among the public posing hurdles in their following of precautionary measures.
Fourth, there is still a need to educate public and business employees to take care of their health and hygiene during Covid-19. What Benjamin Franklin said in the 18th century is still valid: “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure”. There is a need to bring Pakistani scientists to the forefront of conversations on Covid-19. Somehow, doctors, bureaucrats, economists and politicians have been more visible in this fight against Covid-19. The country needs introspection: why has the scientific community not been given policy space and a seat on the table to build a narrative on this infectious disease?