Save lives or livelihoods?

The government will have to let the wheel of the economy roll, and it is time to start thinking beyond the lockdown


Hasaan Khawar April 14, 2020
Seven-year-old Uzbillah stands with face masks on a stick selling them with his brother at the corner of a street during a lockdown after Pakistan shut all markets, public places and discouraged large gatherings amid an outbreak of coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in Karachi, Pakistan, March 31, 2020. REUTERS/Akhtar Soomro TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY

While driving around Lahore, one can witness scores of people sitting along roadsides, waiting impatiently for divine help to arrive. Occasionally, when a charitable individual brings food to them, they can be seen fighting tooth and nail to claim their share. Islamabad and Karachi are no different. The frustration is building up and the aggression is evident.

Some blame the government for the plight of these people, who have lost their livelihoods. But the government had to save lives. Nevertheless, more than the pandemic, it’s the lockdown that can cause major GDP losses, unemployment, business closures, disrupted supply chains, loan defaults, and more. The exact impact of the crisis is yet unknown, but the multilateral agencies have been adjusting their models every few days, chasing the growing estimates of the economic losses that can follow.

While the lockdown has pushed the middle class to eat up its hard-earned savings to avoid exposure to the virus, the choice for the poor has been much harder — whether to die of the virus or starvation. The only way to dilute the impact of the pandemic is to lift the lockdown. But is it even possible, given the scale of the threat at hand?

China imposed a strict blanket lockdown in Wuhan, backed up with a massive testing and contact tracing capability and enormous cellular, facial recognition and financial transaction data that was used to identify population at risk. A risk-based approach was then used to ease up mobility, gradually allowing the economy to open up.

No other government can probably do it like the Chinese and would not even have the data to do it with such precision. But countries like South Korea and Germany have put their testing capability to full use and have been quite successful in early identification and response, thereby flattening the curve. But even for the less capable and resource-starved governments like Pakistan, lockdowns have undoubtedly helped in preventing rapid spread of the infection and avoiding the collapse of the public healthcare system under a sudden surge of the disease.

Even more importantly, the lockdown in Pakistan has brought routine life to a screeching halt, making people realise the extent of the problem and providing a well-needed time window to the government and the private sector to re-think how business should be conducted under the shadow of the coronavirus. There is a need to fully use this window to define a new order of life. We must realise that social distancing and a functional economy are not mutually exclusive.

First and foremost, the government should come up with specific regulations and SOPs for various sectors to operate with necessary public and workforce safety measures. Larger organisations can be requested to come up with remote working plans to the extent possible, while the government should come up with the negative list of sectors that should not be allowed resumption of business. Education institutions for instance should continue on the remote learning model and wait it out through the summer. Marriage halls or any business involving mass gatherings should not be allowed either.

Secondly, the government should start ramping up its testing capacity and track the spread of the virus. Governments of Khyber-Pukhtunkhwa and Sindh are already considering using block/pooled testing approaches based on the German model, to significantly enhance their testing capacity, while the federal government has come up with a smart phone application to track areas at risk. These approaches should be fully adopted to identify the populations with a greater risk. Lastly, once business resumes, the government should approach the lockdown selectively, using limited lockdowns in specific localities or cities.

Sooner or later, the government will have to let the wheel of the economy roll, and it is time to start thinking beyond the lockdown.

Published in The Express Tribune, April 14th, 2020.

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