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Editorial | PM Khan’s Address To The Nation Was Yet Another PR Exercise

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Many commentators have expressed doubts about Imran Khan’s capability to steer the country out of the coronavirus crisis. PM’s address to the nation on Monday confirmed all such apprehensions. It is evident that he is earnest, driven by good intentions and has found faith as an anchor in his political life. But that’s not enough given that millions in Pakistan face the prospect of disease and economic hardship.

In his address, PM Khan rightly expressed his concern for the poor, those who live in slums or those who might be inaccessible for the state relief efforts. Unlike the past, he has accepted that this is a battle against a deadly virus against which the human species has limited or no immunity. His emphatic position should be welcomed. Having said that PM inspired little hope that the federal government and his leadership were ready to give a concrete policy agenda for the months to come.

First, the continued reliance on flawed information is worrying. Millions heard the PM saying that older people were more vulnerable to COVID-19 infection. That may be so but increasingly data from across the globe including Pakistan suggest that this is no longer the accepted ‘truth’. Young people have been dying in advanced countries and as of now many cases of infection within Pakistan have been detected in the younger age-group. The first Pakistani doctor who died due to this infection was in his twenties! Above all, WHO has warned that young people are not invincible.

Secondly, despite the fact that provinces are under lockdown, the PM continues to oppose them. He even quoted Indian PM Modi out of context suggesting that Modi was regretting the national lockdown. But that’s not all. When people are given the message that the majority are not that vulnerable, it defeats the idea of social distancing. Many will continue to leave homes and interact with others under the belief that COVID-19 only affects the old and sick.

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Third, the creation of a ‘tiger force’ is baffling. Social mobilisation and volunteerism are good ways to deal with crises. But in the absence of an informed policy framework, such mobilization will not work. PM’s idea can end up risking more lives, specifically of young volunteers who will be launched in the field without training (for that needs time) and protective gear to fight a pandemic that has proved to be lethal even for the health workers and police force across the world.

Fourth, religion and nationalism are morale boosters but its policy and resources global pandemic. ‘Power of faith’ was cited as the greatest strength of Pakistanis. That may be so but that cannot take away the need for state policy, resources and coordinated action to handle this crisis. Politicians and military dictators in Pakistan have been periodically using this line of argument and PM Khan is testing the age-old formula. It might work now but a few months or years down the road people will remember what the government actually did for them.

Fifth, philanthropy is vital at this juncture but once again, charity is not public policy. People of Pakistan are well within their rights to ask what happens to all the indirect and direct taxes they pay, and how come government functionaries live in luxury while ordinary people are asked to look for philanthropy! The resources are there but they have been allocated to areas that do not serve public welfare. If PM Khan was actually changing reshaping governance, he should have applied cuts to the non-development expenditures and protected the public by increasing cash handouts, health expenditures, and ensuring effective lockdowns enable the government to prepare and handle this crisis.

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Lastly, the use of Ehsaas Programme’s Facebook page was also announced by the PM as a way to connect the poor households with philanthropy efforts. Data show that there are 37 million Facebook users in Pakistan as of February 2020. The obvious question: is that enough to connect with poor families? In addition to Facebook, other methods need to be employed and there is nothing better than local government system and community based organisations.

Time is running out. PM Khan must invite the opposition parties, build a national plan and have everyone on board. Council of Common Interests should be activated and resource diversion should happen as a national emergency especially for mass testing and social protection. Donor funding can supplement this effort but national commitment is best expressed as to how and how much the ruling class is willing to spend on the poor in real terms. Finally, the suspended local governments need to be revived and that will require executive orders.

For all of this to happen policy must take precedence over public relations exercises.

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Naya Daur