The extended period of nationwide lockdown imposed in Pakistan in the wake of coronavirus outbreak is going to end on 14th April. Prime Minister Imran Khan has hinted at easing such lockdown in the country on this very day. The government has already announced opening the country’s construction sector after offering a big incentive package to construction industry to accelerate economic activity in Pakistan. Simultaneously, the government has also exempted the agriculture sector from lockdown as the wheat harvest season is just around the corner. Now a large number of business leaders and traders’ bodies have also started asking the government to relax lockdown restrictions across the country. As the imposition of lockdown is currently our primary preventive measure against the Covid-19 spread in the country, the government must handle this sensitive issue objectively and cautiously. Nonetheless, there are many reasons why the government should ease or relax lockdown restrictions across the country.

At present, more than a third of the planet’s population is under some form of restrictions. In fact, most countries have only opted to impose such restrictions in the absence of adequate healthcare facilities. Or if they simply have no other option since there is yet no preventive or significant curative care available against this deadly pandemic. Imposing a strict or hard lockdown is obviously a strong preventive measure against the coronavirus spread. At the same time, however, it is necessarily not the only preventive strategy available to contain the spread of the pandemic in the world. There are many countries which, despite having a significant number of reported coronavirus cases, have only opted for imposing some soft or partial movement restrictions from the outset. Similarly, there are also many countries, which previously imposed a nationwide lockdown, are now going to relax such restrictions.

In the absence of any clear roadmap to fight the COVID-19 pandemic all over the world, each country has devised its own anti-pandemic strategy to meet its domestic coronavirus-related challenges. Definitely, Pakistan must also carefully revisit its entire anti-pandemic response strategy keeping in view its domestic needs and compulsions. As I am writing these lines, there are as many as 4970 confirmed coronavirus cases while the death toll has risen to 77 in Pakistan. So, in comparison to other hard hit countries, it is obviously not an alarming situation for a country with more than 220 million population. Luckily, we have also not witnessed any instant surge in the number of coronavirus cases in Pakistan. Therefore, at this stage, Pakistan hardly needs to impose a strict and prolonged nationwide lockdown like Italy or other European countries.       

There is no denying that Pakistan’s economy was not performing well even before the coronavirus spread. It was slowly drifting towards stagflation - an economic condition characterized by high inflation rate coupled with stagnant economic growth. The so-called twin deficits resulted in steep currency devaluation and a phenomenal rise in the country’s accumulated public debt. The COVID-19 outbreak has not only further damaged our ailing economy, but has also had an adverse impact on private businesses in the country. There have been large-scale closures and mass layoffs in the country’s manufacturing, services and retail sectors, rendering millions of people jobless. There are also tens of millions of wageworkers who no longer have any means of subsistence. I am afraid further restrictions would lead to an instant collapse of both our economy and private businesses. Moreover, there would also be a looming humanitarian crisis since almost half the county’s population is currently seeking some kind of financial assistance, and our cash-strapped government is simply clueless about how to provide such assistance to the masses.

It is believed that more than fifty industries and business concerns are associated, directly or indirectly, with the construction sector in Pakistan. Therefore, if the government opens the construction sector, it will certainly also need to open the allied or supporting businesses to keep the construction activities going. Similarly, there would also be a massive human mobilisation in the rural areas during the forthcoming wheat harvest season. The government will naturally have to relax the general movement restrictions to facilitate the construction and agricultural sectors in the country. It is also pertinent here to mention that strict lockdown restrictions are currently being observed only in the large cities while the same are being rarely followed as seriously in the rural areas where the country’s two-third population lives. Now, even in large cities, people have started openly defying such movement restrictions.

Easing or relaxing a lockdown does not necessarily mean we should no longer take the COVID-19 threat seriously in Pakistan or that we are out of danger. It simply means that we should revisit and reformulate our entire anti-pandemic response strategy so as to mitigate its adverse impact on our economy. It would first involve the identification of such sectors of the economy that could be opened without seriously compromising the Covid-19 safety protocols. Thus, there would be a selected and phased resumption of business activities in the country. Indeed, the government can evolve COVID-19 safety protocols and SOPs separately for each sector of the economy. Similarly, such safety protocols can also be enforced through the civil administration in collaboration with the representative bodies of businessmen and traders. Moreover, business hours may also be restricted to 6-8 hours a day.

Initially, the government can consider opening the manufacturing, services and retail sectors in addition to the construction and agriculture ones. At this stage, it is advisable to put some restrictions on international, interprovincial and district-level movements across the country. The government should also continue with its current policy regarding public gatherings and educational institutions provided such institutions make arrangements for online courses for their students. If the government gets some respite, it would be able to focus on improving the country’s healthcare system. It could secure more PPEs for medics, and more ventilators and medicine for the coronavirus patients. It could also establish more quarantine facilities across the country.

Instead of imposing a nationwide lockdown in Pakistan, the government should opt for a policy of enforcing a partial or targeted lockdown whereby only a selected area may be quarantined or cordoned off if a significant number of confirmed or suspected coronavirus cases are reported. It will certainly require a strict vigilance and quick response on the part of enforcement authorities. For this purpose, the institutional capacity of the National Command and Operation Center (NCOC) may be enhanced in addition to constituting anti-pandemic vigilance committees for each district. These district vigilance committees may also be supported by neighbourhood committees or local communities at the grassroots level. Needless to say, if coronavirus situation worsens, the government can switch back to a nationwide lockdown. In that case, Pakistan and its citizens would be in a better position to fight the contagion afresh.

The writer is a lawyer. He can be contacted at mohsinraza.malik@gmail.com.

Easing or relaxing a lockdown does not necessarily mean we should no longer take the COVID-19 threat seriously in Pakistan or that we are out of danger.