ISLAMABAD: Coronavirus is now everywhere from mass media to social media, daily death counts dominate dinner conversations, the number of new cases instills growing fear and herbal to nuclear medicinal cures are the most forwarded messages on WhatsApp.
This hysteria is leading to food shortages, empty pharmacies, counter-measure policies, job layoffs, stock market crashes, stimulus packages and state compensation bills. The world seems to be tumbling down a well of misery.
In Pakistan, the supreme leader commands us not to be afraid, opens the borders to infected neighbours, seeks waivers from loaning agencies and masquerades the disease intensity.
Prime Minister Imran Khan government’s systematic failures over the last year and a half are a testament that the corona crisis will be no different. The PM is a history major from Oxford, yet fails to realise that past epidemics or pandemics caused exceptional damage to the human civilisation.
Examples include the Black Death (years: 1347-1351, deaths: 200 million), Small Pox (1520, 56 million), Spanish Flu (1918-1919, 40-50 million), HIV/AIDS (1981-present, 25-35 million) or The Great Plagues (1165, 0.6 million).
The truth behind the charade is that not only is the national exchequer bankrupt and is in no position to provide financial bailouts but also Pakistan has never developed its manufacturing sector to sustain itself, in the said case being pharma, health care and medical equipment.
The country’s reliance on foreign credit and foreign procurement have made it completely reliant on international high-technology vendors and susceptible to high pricing while continually depleting local innovation.
In all first-world nations, the development of any product is made by the local industry. In Pakistan, however, we have failed miserably to invest in the public or private sectors of applied engineering and product development for non-military purposes.
The limited manufacturing is always for arms and the businesses are state-run. So how are these billion-dollar bombs going to save us from the COVID-19?
PM Imran’s vision is to eliminate the import-export differential, but what the policymakers fail to register is that, apart from agriculture, what does Pakistan have, which is exportable and competitive in the global markets?
Even the public sector is in shambles, the companies under the government umbrella are as political as is the government itself. No real scientific progress ever takes place but the managerial appointments keep courts busy with suo moto class actions.
Examples to follow
Several recent examples of public and private-sector contributions in the fight against COVID-19 are reported daily. In the US, NASA has announced that its full assembly line would be re-engineered to manufacture ventilators. Mainframe time on the world’s most powerful super computer, SUMMIT, has been dedicated to protein mutation studies and vaccine module simulations.
Elon Musk, even with his crashing companies of Tesla and SpaceX, is gearing up to produce remedial equipment. In the UK, Rolls-Royce has been tasked by Prime Minister Boris Johnson to switch to medicinal paraphernalia.
China’s response to the pandemic through its manufacturing is exemplary, how the quarantine centres, testing kits and medication supply operation were set up in a short period. Even Mahindra Industries in India is revamping its production lines for the pharmaceutical apparatus.
The fundamentals of science always remain constant, hence making this switch from a product to another product is no big deal, given the engineering infrastructure exists. All it requires is knowledge, skillset and change of engineering processes for multi-purpose industrialisation.
Unfortunately, the lack of manufacturing facilities in Pakistan will prevent this switch at the moment, and the most-favoured auto parts bolt-tightening assembly line strategy will simply not work this time.
In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, the current government should very energetically, emphatically and systematically invest in local manufacturing as a top importance.
In the short term, these investments could be channeled into existing facilities for high-priority equipment manufacture and increase of pharma production with target-based processing.
The use of automation, information and communication technologies (ICTs) and Internet of Things (IoTs) would be vital in implementing social distancing/human interaction and to increase system efficiency. The research, academic and medical institutes could provide experts to oversee these switches.
A committee of Ministries of Production, Health, Science, Labour and Manpower, and Finance should be constituted, headed by the prime minister, for establishing the medical industry and conversion of existing facilities into medical practices around the country.
Initial essential procurements could be made from China and other friendly countries in the short term, while full-scale manufacturing should strictly only be in conjunction with the local complementary industries in the long run.
Through this programme, Pakistan will not only be able to tackle the present COVID-19 crisis intrinsically but will also prepare for future breakouts. Subsequently, the reduction in import bill and unemployment would be a prize and local manufacturing boom a bonus.
This self-isolation period is a time of self-realisation, a time of self-reflection and a time for a change of national trajectory. Pakistan’s need is self-sustenance and adversity always integrates.
We, as a nation, must think carefully and selflessly about how we will survive this pandemic, find clarity of purpose and what lessons can be learnt for a better future.
Every nation’s self-respect comes from its self-determination, self-worth and self-sustenance. Today, we stand at the crossroads of history from where we will either soldier on or be part of the forgotten past.
The writer is a PhD in Engineering from the University of Cambridge, United Kingdom. He is an expert in emerging technologies, having worked in the UK, US, UAE and Pakistan
Published in The Express Tribune, March 30th, 2020.