The global community is currently facing the most dangerous challenge of the century in the form of COVID-19 which, due to its exponential spread across the world, is quite similar to the influenza pandemic of 1918-29, estimated to have claimed 30-40 million lives in North America, Europe, Asia, Africa, Brazil and the South Pacific.

At the moment, it is really hard to predict how long it will take to get rid of the coronavirus and how many lives it will consume across the globe until an effective vaccine could be developed against it and made available to all the affected countries. As things stand at the moment, experts believe that the best weapon against the spread of the virus is ‘containment’ through social distancing and lockdowns depending on the severity of the problem.

China has shown the world how the spread of the virus could be contained. Nevertheless, in spite of the success achieved by China in controlling the virus – at least for now – it is also believed that the Chinese strategy could not be replicated in other countries lock, stock and barrel.

However, following the logic of containment, European countries are using extreme social distancing and home quarantines in varying degrees to contain the spread of virus. USA and European countries, in spite of their economic strength and state-of-the-art health facilities, have not gone for complete lockdowns like China as it involves enormous social and economic costs which only a country like China can afford to implement. Developing countries like Pakistan neither have the capacity to enforce complete lockdowns nor the resources to defray the costs involved in dealing with the consequences of such actions. They will surely need help from the affluent global community to confront the challenge.

Prime Minister Imran Khan has rightly and justifiably asked developed nations to write off loans given to developing countries. His contention of not enforcing a complete lockdown or curfew also has considerable merit. Forty percent of our population lives below the poverty line. Such an action would make the lives of daily wage earners, labourers and the indigent extremely difficult. The government, in spite of its willingness and commitment to mitigate the suffering of this section of society, simply does not have the resources and the administrative capacity to fulfil its obligations in regards to reaching out to all the people needing help and relief.

However, it is pertinent to point out that it was not lacking in the commitment to save the lives of the people. It has taken all the required administrative measures, mobilised the health service and facilities at its command to contain the virus, set up an effective mechanism to update the people on the emerging situation and is continuously putting out instructions regarding preventive measures that the people need to take to supplement the efforts of the government.

Conscious of the fact that a partial or complete lockdown would have a wide-ranging impact on poor segments of the society as well as different economic sectors of the economy, the government has also announced a stimulus and relief package of Rs1200 billion comprising reduction in the oil prices by Rs15, provision of Rs3000 as monthly stipend to 12 million daily-wagers for four months, Rs200 billion worth of special incentives for exporters and concession on payment of gas and electricity bills. Also included is an additional Rs50 billion allocation to Utility Stores Corporation, Rs280 billion for the procurement of wheat, Rs50 billion for the procurement of medical equipment, reduction in taxes on import of food items such as pulses and palm oil, allocation of Rs100 billion for emergency relief in the wake of emerging situation and a provision of Rs.25 billion to NDMA. To supplement the government’s initiatives, the State Bank of Pakistan has also reduced the interest rate by 1.5 %. The government, as revealed by the Prime Minister, is also contemplating unveiling a special package for the construction sector.

The multi-sector package announced by the government and the reduction in the interest rates is surely going to have a positive impact on inflation, nudging vitally needed economic activity in the right direction, improving purchasing power of the poor sections of the society in addition to providing relief to daily wage earners and the general public. Considering the overall economic situation of the country, the announced package is a welcome initiative. Those who are criticising the government for doing too little and too late either have a cynical view of the situation or are playing politics at a time when the nation needs impregnable unity. The character of a state is tested in times of adversity. It is an evolving situation and the government can review its responses to deal with the issues related to the spread of the virus and further relief if required, depending on availability of resources from international sources. The IMF has already announced assistance of $1 trillion for developing countries. The global community is also aware of the situation and is determined to fight the virus collectively.

There is no denying the fact that the efforts of the government can succeed only when the people extend full cooperation to them. They must follow the preventive measures being disseminated by the government and take the challenge with the seriousness that it warrants. It is indeed a very precarious situation but as the Prime Minister has repeatedly advised there is no need for panic. The challenge can be met collectively with unwavering determination to fight it out. We must stand united with steely determination to mitigate the impact of corona related devastation.

The situation in Pakistan, though aggravating with every passing day, is not as bad as in European countries as rightly pointed out by the Prime Minister and does not warrant a complete lockdown right now as being suggested by different circles. But God forbid if the situation deteriorates like in European countries, Pakistan will be left with no choice but to go for complete lockdown which would become an inescapable eventuality.

In case that situation really arises, it would be extremely difficult for the government to reach out to each and every person and family which needs financial or other assistance. My suggestion is that in anticipation of such an eventuality emerging, the best way to deal with the situation would be to mobilise and motivate the masses to form committees at the level of their localities to identify the deserving people who would need help during the period of lockdown and also take care of them using the resources generated through donations and even Zakat by the affluent people of the locality. This community participation will lessen the financial burden on the government to a considerable extent and also free the administration for other tasks required to be performed in regards to fight against the virus.

Malik Muhammad Ashraf

The writer is a freelance columnist.