- Can the country afford a long lockdown?
Ever since the beginning of the onslaught of the coronavirus and its worldwide impact, a debate has been raging about whether it was important to lay utmost emphasis on saving human lives through complete lockdowns or preventing the collapse of the economy because of its unbearable impact on the social and economic situation of the masses.
Some have advocated a strict lockdown like the one employed by China in Wuhan and other areas of the country affected by the virus which has enabled her to successfully contain the contagion. That argument is exclusively premised on the success demonstrated by the adoption of complete lockdown. However that argument completely neglects the fact that a policy and strategy adopted in one particular country in regards to a common challenge cannot be applied lock, stock and barrel in other countries with completely different social, cultural and economic realities.
However there is a consensus on the need for containment through a combination of lockdowns and strategies to keep the economies going to be able to absorb the shockwaves unleashed by the coronavirus. That is the reason different countries, while recognizing the need for such an approach, have applied it with different variations relevant to their own peculiar situations. That is what is called pragmatism.
In Pakistan also, the government has adopted a pragmatic approach in dealing with the situation. Prime Minister Imran Khan, right from the beginning, has been of the firm opinion that the country, because of its fragile economy and the prevailing social realities, could not afford a complete shutdown. He has persistently maintained this position in spite of criticism from different quarters, including his political opponents. The government, while announcing a partial lockdown, made sure that some crucial sectors of the economy were kept going. It also announced a stimulus and relief package of Rs 1200 billion for some sectors of the economy and providing relief to the poor segments of the society like the daily wagers, as well as for those who have lost their jobs due to the closure of certain businesses and industries. The reduction in the petroleum prices also is a welcome step as it would surely help in containing inflation and making the lives of the people less miserable than they are at the moment. The Prime Minister is also rightly contemplating to further ease the situation by opening more industries and businesses.
A number of countries have positively responded to the initiative taken by the Prime Minister in lobbying the rich countries for writing off the loans of developing countries. He must continue to pursue this goal with greater intensity and perhaps it would be advisable to involve the UN Secretary General in this effort. In view of the fact that the Secretary General has already complained about inadequate support to the poor and developing countries by the developed nations, he might be quite receptive to this idea
He is proven right by the fact that even most of the affluent and developed nations which are worst affected by the virus, have also now decided to open up their economies realizing the fact that they could not keep them shut for long periods of time. If they cannot afford to practice even partial lockdowns indefinitely, then how can countries like Pakistan do it? Federal Minister for Planning, Development and Special Initiatives Asad Umar addressing a news conference on Sunday revealed that according to different researches and surveys carried out by PIDE and Gallup, 18 million people may lose jobs and between 20-70 million could be pushed below the poverty line due to continued lockdowns. He also revealed a drop of Rs 119 billion on the revenue collection in just one month. But the dilemma is that the government also cannot completely ease the lockdown as it would surely put lot of strain on our health system. There is therefore a need to strike a balance between keeping the economy going and pursuing containment of the contagion. Probably the strategy of smart lockdown devised by the government is a pragmatic and much needed response.
However the success of this strategy depends on strict observance of social distancing by the people. No policy or strategy of the government can succeed without people cooperating voluntarily in their own and the country’s interest. But it is regrettable to point out that so far the public has not shown the kind of social responsibility and awareness to fight an unprecedented challenge of the century which not only concerns their lives, but also the survival of the country as a vibrant entity. The media is continuously pointing it out and the pictures published in the newspapers depicting violation of social distancing in the markets and public places are really very disturbing, to say the least.
We are lucky that the impact of the coronavirus in Pakistan has not been as cataclysmic as in other countries so far. But the fact is that our health system, notwithstanding the fact that the government is continuously striving to expand the facilities to fight the virus, is yet not capable of dealing with an exponential increase in the affected people. Our economy is also not in a position to bear the costs involved if the problem lingers on for an indefinite period. Even it is controlled within the next six months or so, life will never be the same. It might take years for economies like Pakistan’s, and those of other developing countries, to regain their momentum. Prime Minister Imran Khan rightly has been urging the affluent nations and the international lending institutions to write off the loans of the developing countries to enable them to not only save themselves from the adverse impact of the coronavirus but also to make required contribution to the overall global effort in this regard. I do not think that merely according a moratorium on the payments of loans by the developing countries by G 20, World Bank, IMF and ADB is going to help much in that regard.
A number of countries have positively responded to the initiative taken by the Prime Minister in lobbying the rich countries for writing off the loans of developing countries. He must continue to pursue this goal with greater intensity and perhaps it would be advisable to involve the UN Secretary General in this effort. In view of the fact that the Secretary General has already complained about inadequate support to the poor and developing countries by the developed nations, he might be quite receptive to this idea. His joining forces with the move could help in achieving a positive outcome.