The coronavirus pandemic is stalking our earth, riding roughshod over boundaries drawn by man on the face of this earth. Op-ed writers, such as this scribe, carry the least burden over the pestilence. They parley with their readers from across long distances. But they never run the risk of being distanced from their readers. Political leaders, the world over, are not blessed with this facility. They have, in contrast to op-ed writers, enormous power but that power comes with a caveat: They are, much as they may despise it, accountable, i.e. answerable to too many for their taste. The poor scribe, on the other hand, is subject only to his editor’s pen.
So leaders all over the world are grappling with options available to them to tackle the monster challenge of how to cope with the Covid-19 gauntlet thrown at them. They don’t have the luxury of too many options to choose from. It is, in fact, an either/or question to them. One option is to throw a blanket over the country and lock it down; the other is to urge their people to show responsibility and keep a healthy distance from one another while pretending to carry on with life’s routines—social distancing without a lockdown.
News reports say that at least 1.7 billion people—out of a total human inhabitation of 7 billion—in more than 50 countries of the world are in a state of lockdown. Their governments have imposed a standstill condition on them, for periods varying from two weeks to a month. More than a billion of this number happen to be the people of India. The Modi government has clamped down in the hope of coming to grips, adequately if not fully, with the scourge by freezing people’s possible exposure to the lethal virus.
Next door to India, in Pakistan, the picture is just as sombre but a lot more confusing and mind-boggling. In empathy for Imran Khan, one should concede this pandemic couldn’t have hit Pakistan at a more inappropriate moment. March 23, Pakistan’s National Day—marking the adoption of the Resolution, on this day in the city of Lahore in 1940, that kicked off the demand for Pakistan in earnest—has fallen a casualty to the pestilence as all celebrations had to be cancelled.
Earlier, the much-hyped Pakistan Super League-5 (PSL-5) had to be abandoned in its last stages because of the corona scare. This cricket gala was being played in Pakistan for the first time since its inception five years ago. All four previous tournaments were played in Dubai and Sharjah because overseas players were reluctant to play in Pakistan. This year they did, overcoming their security concerns. But corona threw a spanner in its wheel at the semi-final stage. It was a colossal disappointment to a cricket-crazy nation of Pakistanis, young and old. One could well imagine Imran’s sense of personal hurt from PSL’s premature termination, given his own illustrious cricketing background. It must be hard on him to drop it. However, he now has bigger fish to fry, with Covid-19 breathing down his neck.
Unlike the Modi government, Imran’s outfit has lesser clarity. Pakistan’s response to the scourge is a chequered picture as of now. The four provinces of the Pakistani federation haven’t crafted a uniform response to the pandemic. The rules of business indeed give them the freedom to tailor their responses according to their own take of the crisis, which this pandemic most certainly has spawned. As of now, there are nearly 1,190 confirmed cases of coronavirus in the country, out of which nearly 40% are in the southern province of Sindh. So, the Sindh government has locked down the province for 15 days. All transport has been grounded. The trains have been halted too. The province, with Karachi, Pakistan’s commercial capital at the heart of it, has been brought to a standstill. In contrast, Punjab, the most populous province, is on a semi-lockdown. So are the other two provinces, Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.
Imran disdains a total lockdown. His logic for not taking that road makes sense, given that 25% of Pakistanis live below the poverty line. He argues it would be hard on the poor, mostly workers who subsist on daily wages for a living; they would be driven deeper into the poverty pit under a total standstill. Nevertheless, the prime minister of Pakistan has come up with a generous package of relief for the poor for the next three months, hoping the pestilence will have blown away by its end. One should wish him well for his optimism. But it still doesn’t answer the question, what should take precedence: saving lives, or shielding against temporary hardship and suffering? Any sage would find it hard to come up with a convincing answer.
Karamatullah K Ghori
Former Pakistani diplomat Email: K_K_ghori@hotmail.com