Disasters and pandemics come with a wisdom of their own. The unpredictable manner in which they strike a country tends to expose the many systematic flaws, previously left unperturbed. Think of it sort of like “shock therapy” – where the system is put under considerable stress to test for its robustness.

In America for instance, the debate on universal health coverage is once again revived. With over a million Americans exposed to the pandemic, and many more unable to afford basic healthcare; this really isn’t anything but a rude awakening for America’s unsustainable health system. The biggest fault line in the American system is indeed its paradoxical nature of being the world’s biggest economy (in nominal GDP terms) and its inability to provide basic affordable healthcare to over half of its populace. Depending on how President Trump manages this crisis, we might see a different health system emerge past this pandemic. Or better yet, make the Americans more susceptible to Sander’s notions of socialist democracy.

The shift in policy outcome for countries worst affected by COVID-19 is uncertain as of now. But if there is anything certain about wars, pandemics and other such disastrous events, it is that considerable human suffering caused by such events leave a permanent mark on human psyche. And it is that psyche that shapes the economic and political discourse of the country in the years to come. It is no wonder that Pakistan’s domestic and foreign policy paradigm has always been tainted with its traumatic separation in 1947. The current world order too has been defined by the most tragic event in human history: World War II. All multilateral organisations, international charters, Bretton Woods system, treaties and code of conduct, have mostly been derived through the distilled wisdom gained during this agonising time period.

World War II also had far consequential effects in redefining the role of the state and its contract towards its people. With over 60 million people dead, many more affected, unemployment on the rise and the economy in shambles, it was the ripe time to redefine the role of the state. The pre-war era was predominated with a state with little or no social responsibility besides tax collection, defence and providing minimal social assistance. The post war world saw the expansion of what we define today as the “modern welfare state”, all over Europe. In America too, the Great Depression of 1930 gave rise to a new strain of thought being practiced to date: Keynesian Economics. Gone were the days of laissez faire economics, that exposed the fragility of the capitalist system. Incoming were the days of patriarchal states; with huge financial bail outs, tax reductions, and monetary and fiscal stimuluses. Without these traumatic episodes in history, the idea of the social contract perhaps may have not evolved to the reflect the modern thinking, discourse, economic and social underpinnings that define us all today.

What will be learned by Pakistan during this testing phase is something time alone can determine. However, the fault lines in our current social, economic and political order have already started to unravel. Years of neglect of the health sector has come to bite us back, like never before. The provincial capacity to deal with an unprecedented issue of this magnitude will serve as a litmus test for the power-sharing distribution between the centre and the provinces. The absence of local government structures will teach us a bitter lesson in governance. Our biggest challenge yet lies with the minimal social infrastructure set up in this country. And this has given the Premier considerable nightmares. Even if funding for this cause is somehow made available, how to document, register and deliver relief to its large undocumented economy remains a grave challenge. While the western world has it easy, having laid the basis of this structure beforehand, Pakistan only laid down its shaky foundations in 2008.

Added to all this is the rude awakening of the fact that our country has never been successful in harnessing its unsustainable population growth rate. Apart from a rare stint in the sixties, this issue has never been identified as a national priority by successive governments. The fact of the matter is that a low-middle income country like Pakistan will never be able to churn up a “reasonable” number of hospital beds, ventilators, jobs, or agriculture produce, when its pace of population growth outnumbers everything else. The statistics are just not in our favour! We have been for long siting on a ticking bomb. And nothing drives this point home better than the current pandemic itself.

The time is ripe to prioritise our health and education above everything else. To churn our huge illiterate labour force into productive and engaged members of the economy. To redefine our social infrastructure; or at least start creating a reliable database to mitigate future nightmares such as this one. To finally reflect population control in our national agenda.

All this requires strategic vision and planning. The question is, do we have that?

The writer is a Senior Research Analyst working for Urban Unit/Government of Punjab. She can be reached at kharalishae@gmail.com

The shift in policy outcome for countries worst affected by COVID-19 is uncertain as of now.