Irrespective of the discussion on whether COVID-19 is a biological weapon or not, we terribly failed to learn and respond to such disasters. Pakistan had enough time to prepare for the pandemic at all levels, but we wasted the space because of lethal delays due to our conventional lethargies, prevalent asystemic approach and the inability to deal with challenging issues. We dawdled due to our negligence in considering multidimensional risks surrounding the pandemic where numerous things can go wrong together including health, the economy and employment.

Widespread asystemic thinking cost Pakistan with such difficulties. We failed to quickly grasp the dynamics of the pandemic despite being part of the crisis with hundreds of Pakistanis trapped into the crisis in China. We failed to develop understanding of the requirements to handle the disease. A glaring example is the establishment of a flawed quarantine centre on the Iran-Pakistan border in Taftan, which opened the doors for the pandemic.

We failed to produce and provide simple safety gear and testing kits. Apparently, the country’s leadership underperformed despite adequate space to keep the nation safe from the pandemic. Four serious mistakes during the current pandemic raised questions on their ability to deal such catastrophes in the future:

The most important aspect of the leadership and the state institutions is to foresee threats to the country. Outright initial denial on part of the top leadership of the country pushed society to the current crisis. Throughout this crisis, we could not observe confidence in Pakistan on even the lockdown as a tool to avert the crisis.

As the Chinese government was waging an unprecedented nationwide campaign against the novel coronavirus, our government did little to brace ourselves for a similar public health crisis, nor did we seem interested in reaching out to our all-weather friend China for its valuable experiences in combating COVID-19 until we were severely caught by the pandemic.

The current government’s mishandling of the coronavirus threat is part of a larger problem in pandemic management. The results of this collective inertia are catastrophic indeed. The first case of COVID-19 was reported on February 26, 2020, till then, Pakistan had enough information about the outbreak. The government appeared inadequately prepared to recognise, let alone anticipate the threat.

Lack of coordination remained visible on several fronts during the crisis. Our leadership was embroiled in a war of words between the Centre and Sindh, which continues. Coordination of institutions with the establishment of a command and control centre was streamlined. However, the lack of coordination on the political front confused main stakeholders of the crisis i.e. the people of Pakistan. It depends on the cooperation and compliance of masses to handle the pandemic, if there are contradictory statements and positions between the Centre and the Sindh then it is very probable that the masses will not comply with the given instructions.

We were unable to grasp events linked with the pandemic that were outside our personal experiences or did not occur in our immediate vicinity. When a threat is temporarily or spatially distant, we fail to correctly determine the risk of the approaching outcomes. Somehow, this is what happened to our response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Sometimes, despite appropriate measures, crisis surprises organisations with new and unique dimensions. Therefore, the experience curve has its place about learning from mistakes made during previous crises. Activities such as scenario analysis and contingency planning have evolved in contemporary management, thought to bring balance through surprise management.

Leadership requires the combination of performance, procedures and principles to protect the nation from devastating outcomes of any crisis. Leaders cannot simply withdraw to the circumstances and expect miracles, they must find ways and means to lead their country to the prosperity and safety. With recent experience we can conclude that some areas need special attention.

Identification of needs – COVID-19 with all its devastations provides an opportunity to learn, and to determine needs to handle a catastrophe of such a scale and nature, to strengthen our ability for a timely response.

NDMA once again failed to exhibit proactive role. They had nothing to present to the country, they were as naive as any other department or institution to perform against the outbreak. NDMA is required to establish a system which can determine disastrous threats to the country and inform all stakeholders to remain ready to handle emergencies with required equipment and facilities.

Capacity building – NDMA was badly exposed in terms of capacity during coronavirus pandemic. Immediate projections of the spread of disease, guidelines to establish quarantine centres, requirements of equipment and protective gears, the ability of the country to meet new demands; all of this had to be presented by the NDMA in January 2020. We need to develop a strategy for capacity building of NDMA and relevant organisations to handle such challenges in the future.

Inventory management – Now is the time when we need to institutionalise inventory management of critical skills and equipment to handle catastrophes including floods, earthquakes, pandemics and any other threat to our existence. Firefighting is indeed a skill, however, in catastrophes of scale only firefighting is not enough. Relevant organisations should be asked to develop a comprehensive IT-based inventory management system with the mechanism to review requirements on regular intervals according to changing dynamics of today’s world.

Awareness and compliance – It is imperative for any initiative to ensure compliance from relevant stakeholders. In the case of catastrophes, compliance of the masses is indeed critical which largely depends on awareness of people about the threat. We need to develop a cohesive mechanism to ensure compliance of masses to mitigate crises.

It seems that in the future, we may encounter such episodes; therefore, all components of the society must exhibit their respective responsibilities to overcome such challenges in the times to come.

Dr Abdus Sattar Abbasi

The writer is the founding editor of the COMSATS Journal of Islamic Finance (CJIF) and Associate Professor and Head CIF at the COMSATS University Islamabad, Lahore Campus.