As the pandemic crisis deepens

Impact of the lockdown is being reflected in people’s charged mood


Dr Moonis Ahmar April 17, 2020
The writer is former Dean Faculty of Social Sciences, University of Karachi and can be reached at [email protected]

As there is no let-up in the lethal attack from the unseen enemy, the crisis which struck the people of Wuhan, China, in late December last year has now globally infected over two million people and killed over 135,000 deaths. Pakistan, which in the second week of March had only 31 cases of Covid-19, now has over 6,500 cases with more than 100 deaths.

The crisis which has gripped the world is deepening with each passing day. More and more epicentres and hotspots are emerging in different parts of the world, including the United States where the death toll has crossed 28,000. But the situation in Pakistan, which is relatively better in terms of the numbers, is expected to worsen in the coming weeks. With a population of 220 million and an inadequate health and hygiene system, Pakistan is highly vulnerable to a sharp escalation of the pandemic which will not only raise the casualty figure but will have far reaching economic, psychological and social implications. The National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) and the National Command Authority (NCA) which are dealing with the crisis tried to assure the people that the government is keeping an eye on the virus spread and has taken appropriate measures to prevent its escalation. But the on-ground reality may be different.

Crises produce unusual and abnormal conditions which require extraordinary management and leadership skills. While the NDMA and the NCA are involved in coping with the pandemic crisis, the army has established the National Command and Operation Center (NCOC) to deal with Covid-19. Never before in Pakistan’s history have such large-scale operations been launched by multiple organisations against an unseen enemy which can indiscriminately infect millions of people and kill hundreds and thousands.

The pandemic crisis is Pakistan is getting worse not only in its range but also in terms of the social, psychological and economic costs it is inflicting. The closure of business centres barring grocery and medical stores and the suspension of public transport is causing millions, who are already hand to mouth, to suffer.

If the country remains in a lockdown till April 30, there is no surety that it will not be extended for another 10 days. In densely populated localities where social distancing cannot be maintained even within houses, how can one expect people to remain out of employment, both in the formal and informal sectors, and curb social interaction for an unlimited time? In an environment of frustration, anger, antagonism and intolerance expecting the lower and lower middle class to abide by social distancing is highly impracticable.

The impact of the lockdown is being reflected in people’s charged mood as they are now fed up with the curbs on their lifestyle despite being told that it is in their own interest. If sentiments such as what harm can the virus do if unemployment and hunger will kill first, develop in the poor segment of society, it can lead to large-scale riots, particularly in Karachi, where water and electricity issues during the summer causes periodic violence.

The prevailing crisis in Pakistan is two-fold and neither adequate time nor resources are available to deal with it. Even the will, determination, capability and capacity of those who matter is questionable because of their inability to enforce things, which further augments the level of frustration amongst the people.

First, the economic fallout of the pandemic is not only grave but is getting uncontrollable. Since 2018, Pakistan’s economy has been declining in terms of growth rate. Responsible quarters who keep an eye on Pakistan’s economy have predicted that it will shrink to around 2% in the coming year because of a huge decline in exports, collection of taxes and revenue. When the entire world is in the pandemic’s grip, one can expect Pakistan’s economy to further deteriorate too. The depleting foreign exchange reserves, low income from taxation and revenues, low foreign investment, remittances and the shrinking growth rate will make things miserable for the economy.

The benefit from falling oil prices at the international market will not reach Pakistan’s economy because of a sharp decline in transportation, businesses, and industrial production during the lockdown. For how long will the Rs1.2 trillion package to cope with Covid-19 last? It is estimated that if Rs500 are paid daily to each unemployed and those badly affected, the cost will total Rs200 billion per month. The Prime Minister’s Fund for Overseas Pakistanis, which was established to mobilise resources to help around 50 million people, has not yielded positive results. Charity work done by welfare organisations also has its limits. Whereas those who have accumulated trillions from plundering the country’s resources must be held accountable and forced to contribute to cope with a national disaster.

It seems that if the pandemic is not controlled by the first week of May, the country’s economy may be in great danger because of the reasons stated above. Second, frustration which has augmented as a result of the lockdown is a source of great alarm. Unlike in developed countries where people have space to cope with the lockdown, things are different in Pakistan and other poor countries. Crammed in small houses and makeshift accommodation, millions of families cannot protect themselves from the virus because they can neither keep a safe distance from each other nor do they have adequate water to wash their hands several times a day. Soon either people will not adhere to these restrictions or will face the wrath of the law enforcement agencies. In both cases, one can expect worsening social tension.

Social and psychological frustration will give rise to violence at the community, class, sectarian, religious and ethnic grounds. Curbing people’s movement will compound the existing socio-economic malaise which the vast majority of Pakistanis face. Yet, proper awareness in a professional manner can minimise the risk of further infection and normalcy can resume. Technological efforts particularly in the developed part of the world, like tracking those who are violating the lockdown, cannot be applicable in Pakistan as it will further escalate the existing level of frustration and anger.

Coping with the economic, psychological and social implications of Covid-19 is a big challenge for Pakistan, particularly when those giving the orders while sitting in their comfortable offices are the least mindful of the plight of the majority. The government will have to substantially ease the lockdown after April 30 while urging people to take precautionary measures to minimise the chances of infection. After all, there is no surety that further lockdown will reduce the number of cases of infection. On the contrary, the crisis will worsen when majority of the people will be unable to survive because of unemployment and loss of business.

Published in The Express Tribune, April 17th, 2020.

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