Today, evolving an inclusive and viable national response strategy to effectively contain the spread of COVID-19 is indeed a formidable challenge faced by Pakistan, like most other countries in the world. As of March 29, there have been as many as 1495 confirmed coronavirus cases while the death toll has risen to 12 in Pakistan. A lockdown has been imposed, though with varying degree of movement restrictions across the country, as a primary preventive tool. The troops of Pakistan Army are actively assisting the civil administration in carrying out preventive and relief operations across the country. A brave young Pakistani doctor Osama Riaz has also laid down his life in the line of duty while courageously treating coronavirus patients in Gilgit-Baltistan.

There has been an extensive movement of people between Pakistan and its two neighbouring countries – China and Iran. Thousands of Pakistani students are currently studying in China while thousands of Chinese nationals have been working on various CPEC-related projects in Pakistan. Similarly, tens of thousands of Pakistani pilgrims also travel to Iran every year. Since China and Iran are the two worst-hit countries by the coronavirus pandemic in the world, Pakistan is probably more vulnerable to this global pandemic than any other country. Indeed, a number of factors, poor sanitation conditions and a broken healthcare system just added to the country’s vulnerability. The government was criticised largely for its inaction and delayed response over this issue. Many concerns have also been raised about inadequate healthcare facilities, especially the non-availability of medical ventilators and testing kits, and insufficient protective gear for medics and paramedics in the country.

For a week or so, our national discourse on coronavirus pandemic remained centred on the contextual and conceptual interpretation of the term “lockdown”. Prime Minister Imran Khan has been explaining the various modes of ‘lockdown’ after distinguishing it with a ‘curfew’. He also shed some light on the relative effectiveness and implications of imposing either a ‘hard lockdown’ or ‘soft lockdown’ in the country. He was obviously not in favour of imposing a strict lockdown or curfew in Pakistan. On the other hand, some politicos and a section of the media have been pressing the government to impose a curfew to effectively cope with the COVID-19 in the country. So finally, there is somewhat a ‘hard lockdown’ in Sindh province while rest of the country is currently under a ‘soft lockdown’.

It may not be advisable to impose absolute movement restrictions in the form of a curfew since such restrictions are very likely to trigger a sort of humanitarian crisis in the country. At present, one-fourth of the country’s population is living below the poverty line while almost a similar number of people also sometimes find it difficult to make ends meet. There are a large number of wageworkers who just maintain their food supplies on daily basis. The government is certainly in no position to provide food to such a large segment of the population in the wake of a curfew. Rigorous restrictions may also jeopardise the country’s food security. Moreover, there are hardly available adequate human and material resources to impose a curfew across the country. At this stage, imposing a soft lockdown in the country is the only viable option available to the government. Also, such policy of the government appears to be successful since there has not yet been any spike in coronavirus cases in Pakistan. It is a fact that a large number of countries are still adhering to the policy of imposing a soft or partial lockdown as a preventive measure against the pandemic.

Initially, the government didn’t take the pandemic threat seriously. This may be reason we hardly witnessed any significant preventive measure against it in Pakistan. There were no international travel restrictions or screening measures at the country’s airports. Hundreds of Pakistani pilgrims returning from Iran were improperly quarantined at Taftan near Pak-Iran border. And there has been no screening of pilgrims at all who were coming inside Pakistan by air. So, the government didn’t take any concrete steps to prevent the spread of the global pandemic. Special Assistant to Prime Minster on Health Dr Zafar Mirza has been spearheading the country’s so-called anti-pandemic drive until mid-March when coronavirus cases started rising sharply. First, PM Imran Khan constituted a “team” comprising a number of his cabinet members to tackle the issue. Later, a “National Coordination Committee on Coronavirus” was formed to include the provincial chief minsters in the consultative and policymaking process to synchronise all campaigns against the pandemic in Pakistan.

There has been no proper coordination and synchronisation between the federal and provincial governments when it comes to making crucial decisions, including the decision to impose a lockdown, to containing the spread of COVID-19 in the country. Since Pakistan is a federation where federating units are constitutionally autonomous, the federal government can’t impose its decisions on the provinces. In fact, the recently-constituted so-called National Coordination Committee on Coronavirus is not a legal decision-making body but simply a consultative forum. The provinces are by no means bound by any decision made by the NCC. Moreover, the opposition has no representation in the NCC. Opposition parties must be brought on board at this time of national crisis. The federal government must forthwith establish the National Disaster Management Commission (NDMC) under NDM Act, 2010. Thus, the provinces and the opposition will become part of the formal consultative process. There will certainly be an effective legal forum in the form of NDMC helping us make important decisions in our fight against the pandemic.

It’s now time to fully enforce the NDM Act, 2010 to improve decision making, and take effective preventive and relief measures in Pakistan. Probably in line with this Act, the PM has also announced the formation of a ‘Corona Relief Tigers Force’ to carry out relief operations across the country. I believe providing relief to needy people will be the most daunting part of the entire anti-corona drive in the country. There are a large number of people who are currently looking for government assistance. It is certainly not an easy task to first identify the deserving people and then prioritise them for such assistance in the face of scarce resources.

District disaster management authorities and the representatives of the local bodies would be the most suitable for relief work. But unfortunately, there are no local bodies in place in Pakistan. Regardless, the government can encourage local communities and the former representatives of defunct local bodies to form relief committees at each Union Council across the country. These relief committees should carefully identify individuals deserving of financial assistance. They should also be encouraged to raise local funds for this purpose.

Stabilising the country’s trouble economy would be even a greater challenge in post-corona Pakistan. Therefore, PM Imran khan should lead from the front and emerge as a statesman and national leader out of this national crisis. It’s high time our politicos should rise above their political prejudices. It’s time to minimise political distancing. It’s time to disinfect our poisonous politics. And it’s time to be a nation. But, obviously, there’s only a little time to do these things.

The writer is a lawyer and columnist based in Lahore.mohsinraza.malik@ymail.com

@MohsinRazaMalik

Rigorous restrictions may also jeopardise the country’s food security.