Covid success and Imran’s resurrected political capital

For the non-believers out there, the data is now irrefutably clear

M Bilal Lakhani August 08, 2020

Imran Khan is back from the dead. It was just a few weeks ago that his political obituary was being written by an opposition which smelled political blood around the government’s handling of Covid-19. A hysterical mainstream media took the political temperature to fever pitch: Imran Khan is confused, incompetent and has Covid-19 blood on his hands. This government cannot deliver, a minus one formula is the need of the hour, screamed pundits on TV. One month later, it turns out Imran Khan hasn’t just smashed the Covid curve but staged one of the most spectacular political resurrections in recent memory.

For the non-believers out there, the data is now irrefutably clear, be it the positivity rate, hospitalisations, ventilator usage, cases or deaths. Pakistan has flattened the Covid-19 curve, without any widespread shortages of ventilators, hospital beds or PPEs. External factors — like climate, host genetics or cross immunity — are shared with India, which is struggling to contain its outbreak. This means Pakistan’s success is unique and driven by change in human behaviour and government interventions, including fifty evidence-based policy decisions such as 2,300 smart lockdowns, covering 47 million Pakistanis.

Pakistan hasn’t just delivered on protecting lives but also on protecting livelihoods. For example, exports are up 5.8% in July 2020 versus July 2019, despite a dramatic global slowdown. FBR tax collection is up 8% in July versus last year and beat the monthly target by 23%, signalling a better than expected economic outlook. IMF’s latest GDP forecasts shows Pakistan as one of the most improved countries in the world. The SBP has re-financed a million loans so businesses can continue to pay their employees. The Ehsaas Program has put Rs12,000 in the pockets of 13 million of the most deserving households transparently, reaching one in every three Pakistanis, if you account for household size.

Who should we give the credit to for this dramatic turnaround? Even the secular and liberal critics of Imran Khan would rather attribute this to God’s mercy. While God has indeed been kind to Pakistan, if at the height of the crisis, when the need of the hour was to stay calm and unite, you can lacerate Imran Khan and place all blame on him, it’s important to now share at least a part of the credit with him. Whether you look at South Korea’s success or Brazil’s failure on the pandemic, government intervention is the single biggest driving force between differences in Covid-19 curve trajectories.

On protecting livelihoods though, there’s little debate that Imran Khan was personally the driving force between caring for the poor and not engaging in blanket lockdown policies. In both his public statements, as well as my recent discussions with Asad Umar and Dr Zafar Mirza, Imran Khan made it very clear that Pakistan’s policymaking objective was to save both lives and livelihoods, despite the hysterical shrieks of the upper-middle chattering class, who dominate our public discourse. Imran Khan chose to listen to and amplify the voiceless in our society — the 50% of our people who live on daily wages.

Pakistan’s success on Covid-19 shatters many narratives that the opposition has been trying to champion against the PTI government. First among them is that this government is incompetent and doesn’t know how to do anything. This narrative should now be buried. The real question now is what Imran Khan will do with the renewal of his political capital.

One can already see a more aggressive push on politicking and foreign policy. When it came to get FATF-related amendments passed in parliament, the government took no prisoners and publicly shamed the opposition for wanting to secure personal relief for themselves from NAB in return for support on FATF. This was a high stakes gambit which PTI delivered on beautifully. On Kashmir, Imran Khan has been on the front foot with a new political map and a UN Security Council discussion on the politically explosive date of August 5th.

Imran Khan now needs to leverage his political capital and invest into pushing through the reform that his base elected him to deliver. This includes breaking elite capture of the economy, police reform and enhancing the speed of the justice system. Carpe diem!

Published in The Express Tribune, August 9th, 2020.

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