As the Chief Minister of Sindh, Murad Ali Shah has been consistently making the headlines for all leading national Corona news features. The tone of his address on the provincial situation has vividly transformed from its initial composure to one of immediate urgency; from citing only five cases of local transmission on March 16th, to a more pressing precursory warning two days later: “If we fail to take strict measures in time it is bound to affect the entire province of Sindh and then our health facilities will fall short to provide medical treatment,” he warned while commenting on the increase in the reported incidents of secondary transmission in Karachi.

In context of the province’s mounting COVID-19 cases, what nature of a provincial lockdown accounts for an adequately strict measure? Why was a timely lockdown policy not devised and implemented within the first two weeks of March to curtail the epidemic coverage of the virus?

Sindh is not only Pakistan’s local epicenter of the viral COVID but also the economy’ respiratory canal that breathes through its port in the South. Rooted herein is the contrasting and marginally conflicting interplay of national and provincial positions over the issue of a ‘lockdown.’

In conversation with PPP senator Sherry Rehman, News analyst Haider Waheed, in his primetime feature, briefly identifies the lockdown of Sindh as a “constitutional issue.” He cites the example of United States of America, where four states have implemented a partial or more effective system of quarantine. Currently, there has been a salient upsurge in the number of states calling for a lockdown – New York, California, Illinois, Connecticut, Louisiana, Minnesota, and New Jersey have already initiated some form of an emergency curfew. The case of US in Waheed’s discussion is meant to emphasize the commonplace Madisonian concern of center-state relationship within a republican power arrangement. Amidst a national emergency, the structure of power sharing can either catalyze a prompt intervention or impede it – especially in case of disputing approaches of the concerned parties and the proceeding back and forth negotiations amongst them. The story of Sindh’s COVID-19 trajectory has unfortunately revealed the tactless oscillation of the key decision of provincial locking down between its provincial and federal authorities. As the number of reported cases continued to alarmingly grow and expand within the past 5 days, the decision to impose an emergency curfew within Sindh has made multiple roundtrips between Murad Ali Shah’s Office and the Center.

Lauded by the World Health Organization for its early intervention in the COVID-19 crisis, Sindh has successfully worked towards establishing 2 special hospitals and 12 screening and isolation facilities. Simultaneously, on a policy front, the government enacted a preliminary form of shutdown – between March 1st and 10th, closure of all academic institutions, restaurants and most spaces of public gathering and entertainment – including restaurants, theatres and wedding banquets – was announced.

The next 10 days of the month, in spite of a steeper gradient of proliferating case counts, were a constant function – a distressingly consistent horizontal line – whereby decision-making was the independent variable. The Sindh government, in contrast to its preliminary response, has been uncharacteristically nonradical in its approach. Despite helming a quarantine policy as an essential immediate response, a more robust model of lockdown was only implemented by the government, once Sindh met the 400 mark – which is not only 60% of the national total but also a staggering 179% increase from the initial 143 cases reported by Senator Murtaza Wahab on March 16th.  

Earlier when the PPP was hastening for an immediate lockdown, PTI’s Karachi representative Khurrum Sher Zaman, (as reported by The Nation) unequivocally opposed by claiming that “…PTI is Karachi’s major stakeholder and the provincial government should take (the party) into confidence when making decisions about the city…”

This is not the first time when stakeholders in Karachi have opposed its provincial shareholders at a critical junction. Unfortunately, for the timeline of COVID-19, each delay and deliberation has consequentially catastrophic results. Pakistan Peoples Party chairman Bilawal Bhutto Zardari has stated this concern in a strikingly apposite expression:

“Pakistan must move towards a lockdown. Every hour, every day that we delay is going to make dealing with the pandemic more difficult. We’re already late, should’ve done it earlier, need decisive action ASAP (as soon as possible) to mitigate this crisis now.”

Despite the chairman’s ill-timed regret, why did the PPP not announce a curfew earlier? As the third week of March rolled on, news of a lockdown in the South continued to make appearances on headlines – however, the exodus of a final decision from its deliberation table did not occur. On Tuesday Prime Minister Imran Khan expressed the Center’s position, also espoused by the PTI opposition in Sindh Assembly:

"We thought that if we shut down our cities, then people are already suffering, … they'll die of hunger…We did consider shutting down cities when we were at 20 cases ... but I want to tell you all that Pakistan does not have the conditions that are in the United States or Europe. Our country has poverty" (Al-Jazeera).

Speaking of the United States, the federal administration of the country has tried to avoid a complete lockdown on account of economic concerns that Khan also cites, albeit in a differing context, for his country. The scientific community of researchers and practitioners, however, is seemingly of a diametrically opposed opinion. Writing for USA Today, Pandemic expert Bar-Yam emphasizes the need for an immediate five-week national lockdown to defeat coronavirus in America.

Earlier Senator Sherry Rehman also tweeted about the forthcoming lockdown – now explicitly stating and implementing her party’s initial position:

Social distancing means a lockdown. A lockdown means only essential services remain open. This is economically tough, but tough choices have to be made. We have to save lives FIRST. This is what govts and citizens must promote.

Sharmila Farooqui has also termed UK and Netherland’s mitigation strategy as a case of “giving up” and referred to Italy and China’s lockdown as the appropriate solution.

Imran Khan’s address to the nation and the centers opposition to an immediate and complete lockdown of Pakistan’s megacity of the South appears to be a case of a reductionist cost-benefit analysis between the lockdown option and the mitigation strategy. The grave question here is if a poor economy like Pakistan, where most individuals’ livelihood is based upon daily wage labour, can afford to lockdown its cities? Sherry Rehman does make a statement on how “saving lives first” takes precedence over the economic costs.

In fact, Pakistani American Economist Atif Mian also recognizes that the socio-economic cost of mitigation tactics are greater than one incurred by a temporary curfew. His tweets give center stage to a national lockdown policy:

Pakistan is on an explosive coronavirus trajectory and needs to take immediate, bold and clear-headed steps to protect its people and the economy. What needs to be done? National lockdown.

Another question that begs attention is of the timing of this lockdown. Why was it not implemented earlier? What explains the inadequate preparedness of this lockdown?

Overall, the preceding week has been testing and taxing for authorities at Sindh. The corresponding stance and policy on shutting down the province has reflected more chaos than cohesion. As emphasized by numerous party leaders, PPP has to work with the Center on a uniform, organized front, especially on a policy level to offset COVID-19 in the South. The question of lockdown calls for clarity on its meaning, duration and line of action. What needed deliberation and consensus was the radicality of this lockdown and week 4 has finally revealed the confident tenacity of the PPP authorities, who have at last announced a thorough emergency curfew for fourteen days.