The coronavirus pandemic has thrown the world and Pakistan into a state of social, political and economic crisis the likes of which the world has not seen in decades. The prospect of worldwide infections, mass deaths, mass unemployment and global economic breakdown is now increasingly likely as world leaders scramble to contain the virus. Many states and societies, fooled by rumours of the ‘low’ mortality rate of the virus (of ‘just’ 2-3%) failed to act in time – not knowing that this was one of the most infectious viruses ever discovered, which quickly and exponentially spreads across vast tracts of the population in mere weeks, with mass casualties the inevitable outcome.
In Pakistan, as in other countries, the virus has utterly exposed the brittleness of the weak political, economic and health systems that govern us, systems emaciated by years of neoliberal policies that exacerbated inequality and severely hollowed out public infrastructure. These systems are now crumbling under the pressure imposed by the pandemic and their laissez-faire and individualist values are being exposed for their utter uselessness in dealing with this crisis. Countries that have not managed to contain the outbreak in time, like Iran and Italy, have now been brought to their knees, facing tens of thousands - even millions – of deaths and a total collapse of their economies. The only ones that have succeeded in some containment – like China, South Korea and Taiwan – have done so through lockdowns, mass testing and massive collectivist measures for social distancing. Countries like Iran, whose leadership at first repressed information about the virus, kept religious mass gatherings going and didn’t lockdown because of a perceived threat to the economy, are now asking the IMF for emergency relief of $5bn and raising the prospects of millions of deaths of their citizens. The situation in the US, UK and Europe is also rapidly spiralling out of control, with their health infrastructure likely to be overwhelmed in weeks. Experts indicate that, at best, it will take 18 months for the vaccine to develop, during which drastic measures will have to be taken.
If Pakistan, with its brittle economy and even weaker healthcare infrastructure, is to survive this crisis without complete social, economic and physical breakdown, it will require drastic, radical and – most important – timely measures that are commensurate with the scale of the crisis, and that protect our people, in particular the most vulnerable– including the elderly, the sick and the poor – and the most vital – particularly health workers – from the devastation that is likely. We cannot afford to act with indecision or to limit our imagination. All the old certainties and beliefs we had followed for years are being put into question. Countries like Spain have nationalized all healthcare facilities overnight and even capitalist economies like the US are talking about instituting universal basic income to support people in this crisis. We too must not waver, not get encumbered by old ways and old frameworks of thinking, and act rapidly and decisively before it is too late.
We have outlined an emergency plan, including containment public health measures and economic impact mitigation measures for the federal and provincial governments to cooperatively implement that we think offer our best chance of containing the virus and limiting the damage.