A Reuters representational image.

A challenge to leaderships as never before

M Imran Khan perhaps does not want to invite the displeasure of the clergy

Talat Masood April 22, 2020
With the coronavirus continuing to spread globally, the quality of top leadership of countries is being tested as never before. If a judgment is based on the success of the policies adopted and commitment and confidence level of leadership then clearly South Korea stands out among developed countries. Australia and New Zealand too have reported low numbers of Covid-19 cases and deaths as compared to other developed countries. In Europe, Germany is being praised for low number of deaths due to better management practices. And Angela Merkel has proven her mettle once again, standing out as a mature and confident leader who can face a mega crisis successfully.

There is a general consensus among experts that early national lockdown, disciplined and supportive public, and sufficient testing facility contribute to low cases of infection and deaths from Covid-19.

Among the developing countries, the spread of Covid-19 has not peaked and it is too early to pass judgment on the performance of any leaders or nations. One aspect is, however, clear that any comparison of developing countries with the developed ones would be unrealistic as living conditions, state of national discipline and attitude towards life is very different in both. At the same time it is equally true that Covid-19 does not differentiate or change its lethal attributes based on degree of affluence, status, religion, nationality or any other class differences. It is this harsh reality that tests to the very core the national leadership as to what best nuanced policy they should adopt in a bid to minimise the spread of the disease and deaths over a relatively shorter period of time.

In Pakistan, as we all are aware the debate has been raging between the federal government and Sindh — with the PM for a flexible and mixed approach of opening up businesses and maintaining partial lockdown and the Sindh CM for enforcing a relatively stricter regime until Covid-19 starts to taper off.

The Sindh CM’s insistence that a stricter regime for a few weeks should be implemented otherwise the disease would spread exponentially makes eminent sense. He is a firm proponent of stay-at-home policies for at least a few weeks and expanded testing facilities. It is equally true that relatively strict implementation would hit the poor and low-income groups. But the CM’s contention is that their pain and suffering can be largely mitigated through modest financial assistance during the crisis.

But considering the PM’s passionate concerns for the poor, he is going to address both the safety and economic problems simultaneously. His logic is that if the economy falters, the possibility of street protests and disorder cannot be ruled out. And these would have their impact on the economy and social order.

Notwithstanding that it would not be easy or even feasible to achieve the dual goal of keeping the wheels of the economy moving and saving lives — especially when we are so weak on testing and tracking patients. The danger is that if it does not succeed, it would fail to achieve neither — meaning that it would exponentially multiply casualties and further devastate the economy.

Isn’t the government taking a highly risky route that could endanger the lives of millions of people? The same pressures that the PM is facing will multiply placing all the blame on him. And the lobby promoting opening of the construction industry and other businesses will conveniently shift blame on the government and easily get away with saying that they had suggested opening of the markets and other places with certain caveats — a proposition that we all knew would never be adhered to and was only used as a ploy to get their enterprises opened.

There are several deductions that could be inferred from the proposed decisions. In fact, in every plan of action there is a risk as it compromises on one critical aspect or the other.

A cynical view also prevails: after all, in Pakistan thousands if not millions die of malaria, malnutrition and even road accidents so let this be treated as another calamity.

Religious leaders in Pakistan, contrary to what is being practised in Saudi Arabia and major Muslim countries, want mosques to be opened, to which the government has relented. PM Imran Khan perhaps does not want to invite the displeasure of the clergy. More relevant is how you can keep mosques closed when the construction industry and a host of other facilities have been opened. Clearly, opening of mosques has certain inherent risks in the spread of the coronavirus. The declared aim of ensuring distances while praying may not be possible knowing our social and cultural attributes.

As the virus does not differentiate between religions or colour, the likelihood is that this would aggravate the spread of the virus. It is not surprising that practically major religious activity in mosques, churches, synagogues and temples has been restricted worldwide. Prayers and Friday congregations in Mecca and Medina have been disallowed until the situation improves. In Turkey, Malaysia, Egypt, Palestine and the entire Muslim world, entry into mosques has been banned and people have been advised to pray at home. There are eminent religious scholars like Javed Ahmed Ghamidi who had advised against any premature opening of mosques while quoting authentic Hadiths. But such advices were brushed aside. The pope gives his sermons to an empty Vatican. Temples and synagogues are all closed following a strict regime advised by doctors. So can we take that big risk?

Once we return to normal conditions, it would be useful if religious leaders, scholars and intellectuals engage on the decisions taken during the crisis by Pakistan and other Muslim countries. This should lead to a debate and reflection on the true message and essence of the spirit of Islam. As of now, there is greater emphasis on the adherence to the form and rituals.

According to various Covid-19 epidemiologists, the epidemic in Pakistan has yet to surge to a fairly high peak. The PM has also warned that May and coming months would be more challenging. Meanwhile, let us put up a united front against this lethal virus.

Published in The Express Tribune, April 22nd, 2020.

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