In developed countries, there are institutions, not personalities, with the mandate to guide the nation in crises: a layout map for actions to be taken, timeline of these actions and metrics for the success or otherwise of these actions. The job of the existing political leadership is to debate and implement these plans as the executive authority rests with them. These institutions then update/revise their SOPs/procedures after each crisis with feedback from all stakeholders. Furthermore, these institutions also take feedback or actively participate in disaster/crisis when they take place in other countries, which further helps these institutions to test and update their SOPs/procedures. Thus, these institutions are in a continuous learning cycle.

In the case of Pakistan, political intervention over the decades has to a large extent affected the efficacy of its bureaucracy and thus its capability to deliver whenever the country is confronted with a crisis. Therefore, in time of any crisis, the army is called to the rescue as civilian institutions created to deliver against such crisis fail in their mandate. Our elitist political system is personality-biased, for whom weak institutions are a blessing but the inherent deficiencies of this status-quo becomes apparent as soon as country is faced with a crisis.

The present COVID-19 crisis glaringly exposes the malaise which besets every other institution of our country. In our neighborhood, the epic-centers are China and Iran; therefore, prompt executive action could have been to quarantine people coming from these two places to protect the entire population of Pakistan. Failure of implementing such a step, for one reason or the other, has exposed the entire nation to COVID-19 virus. Concurrently, at the institutional level, the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA), with its mandate to respond to national emergencies, should have prepared a national plan for approval by National Disaster Management Commission (NDMC), of which PM is the head and Chief Ministers are members. Later, NDMA could have coordinated with concerned ministries and provincial authorities to implement the approved plan. At present, it would be encouraging if the statements released to public are approved only by the PM and CMs, as envisaged through a national/provincial plan. Everyone wants facetime on the media but nobody wants to answer the initial lapses in containment of COVID-19 virus such as spread of suspected/affected population all over Pakistan, and failure of national/provincial institutions to urgently formulate a national policy.

Pakistan should also thank its stars that COVID-19 is an international crisis; thus all national and provincial institutions took cues from countries hard hit by COVID-19 and took steps accordingly. But what about diseases which do not have international attention but are present in our country such as hepatitis C, TB, polio, mother mortality during child birth or malnutrition? How many deaths are recorded daily in our country from such curable diseases? What have our concerned institutions and leadership done to control/eradicate these diseases? And what are the metrics evolved to gauge the performance of concerned institutions? However, these questions cannot be answered by any incumbent government but how each successive political government contributed to the eradication of these pandemics by strengthening relevant institutions.

Thus, Pakistan could be best described as a reactive country lurching from one crisis to next with each incumbent government tackling the onslaught of a crisis with borrowed, half-hearted reactions. At the end of each crisis there is no report compiled by relevant institutions on lessons learnt, steps taken to stop recurrence of crisis, and what and where mistakes were made. Therefore, while the world fights to overcome this epidemic, our political elite will wait and pray for it to blow over and smugly wait for another crisis to happen; and sleep over our local pandemics which do not get international or local media attention.

Ahsan Munir

The writer is a freelance columnist.