Acceptable Losses & Sacred Interests: Who Is Pakistan’s Coronavirus Strategy Designed To Protect?
Nothing casts existing social and political relations in sharp relief like a massive global crisis. With the deceptive fig-leaf of ‘normal’ times being blown away, rulers and ruled alike are forced to confront the true nature of their relationship with each other. This moment has revealed much about deeply unequal and harsh arrangements in countries such as the United States, India and elsewhere. It has also demonstrated which capitalist models are still somewhat capable of a halfway serious attitude protecting their citizenry – European social-democratic ‘nanny’ states (for all their struggles to sustain themselves) and East Asian state-led growth-oriented polities (with their various mixes of public and private enterprise).
Like many other peoples of the world, Pakistanis are also learning lessons about their value as human beings. These lessons will guide those of us who survive the virus and its economic devastation as we look upon our rulers in the future.
There should be no confusion on one point: the Coronavirus pandemic will not result in any slowing down of the brutal class war being waged by Pakistan’s super-rich against its working people. One of the most important strategies in this war by the country’s political and economic elites is weaponized neglect. Nothing solves the problem of ‘excess’ population (as our policymakers see it) like taking away all opportunities of improvement in the lives of common citizens, forcing them into overcrowded conditions and policing them brutally if they step out of line – even as Covid-19 sweeps through the country.
At their most vulnerable moment, when millions of Pakistanis are desperately looking towards the state, all they will get is a litany of excuses for its lack of capacity and helplessness. Ever efficient at rubbing out critical thinking and crushing alternative visions for the country, our state authorities raise both hands in despair when they must take responsibility for those who they rendered desperate.
The Coronavirus strategy of the Pakistani rulers boils down to denial of the scale of the problem, postponing an actual response and beseeching international financial institutions to allow some fiscal breathing room to deal with the coming economic crisis.
Never in living memory has the world’s status quo been in such profound shock. Perhaps those alive today will not see the engines of global capitalism grinding so abruptly to a halt again. In any case, policy-makers throughout the world are proposing bold measures which would have sounded like utopian fantasies just two months ago.
In Pakistan, we are given to understand that those in charge cannot afford to take a single step against the three main business interests in the country: favoured economic elites, institutions of state and the religious lobby. The views of these business interests will drive any lockdown measures, economic stimulus plans or future budgets – as they have before. The third business interest mentioned here, religious leaders with their uncompromising fanaticism and irrationality, serve as a convenient cover for all the others. None of them is willing to foot the bill for Pakistan’s fight against the Coronavirus pandemic, even though they have done well for themselves.
The fanaticism and irrationality of religious leaders is but a metaphor for the ultimate violent dogma in Pakistan: the determination of rulers to prolong the economic and political status quo. As the mullah would rather see thousands at risk from a potentially deadly infection instead of changing his approach to religious congregations (his source of earning), so, too, would our rulers risk millions of lives and many more millions of families’ earnings rather than modify anything about how we do business. The existing social contract cannot be meddled with, just as the mullah’s interpretation of Islam is sacrosanct.
In dealing with the Coronavirus crisis, Prime Minister Imran Khan’s government operates on a number of assumptions which could prove ruinous to millions of Pakistanis. Let us go over these briefly.
First, the government imagines that there is some sort of trade-off between an effective lockdown and keeping up employment levels. The idea is that the government can either ‘flatten the curve’ of the spreading pandemic, or secure the livelihoods of people. This is an assumption that will fall apart the moment casualties exceed a certain level. If the country’s tottering healthcare system collapses – and it will not take much to make that happen – a government that is already hyper-sensitive to urban ‘public opinion’ will take even more abrupt and harsh measures to ensure a lockdown. The pandemic requires policy-makers to deal with the fact that the economy will not be saved by ‘saving’ it. A new approach is required which considers the needs of the Many and not the Few. Such thinking is unimaginable in the corridors of power – given the current balance of class forces in Pakistani society.
Second, the government has given us to understand that we should not ask for the Moon in the middle of an uncertain and destructive time such as this. We are not capable of the measures that rich countries can take to protect their populations. This simple statement of facts, unfortunately, could not be more misleading in these circumstances. The fundamental economic imperatives of dealing with a pandemic are the same everywhere: the question is merely one of logistics. Two steps were needed right away: widespread emergency legislation to prevent employers from laying off workers throughout the country, and second, the guarantee of food and a basic income to all citizens (or at least, as many as possible). Can we afford this? Those asking this question should consider the costs of getting an economy back on its feet after the wave(s) of devastation pass. Closed enterprises and laid off workforces coud take years to get back to some semblance of their pre-pandemic levels. There is a reason why European social-democratic states are willing to pay through the nose to keep employment locked in as far as they can: and it is not merely the goodness of their hearts. The costs of getting back on the feet greatly exceed those of staying on them. Pakistan could consider special wealth taxes on its super-rich alongside its existing efforts to negotiate a better deal with its international creditors.
Third, we are given the idea that the only way to keep the economy running and eventually raise growth rates is by acquiescing to every demand of business lobbies. This is a mistake. It is not simply the willingness of a few favoured business elites to do their business that keeps an economy going. A population is necessary which is willing and able to consume. While in their meetings with government officials, various commercial interests might pretend that the current difficulties are the last straw for them, the fact is that the government can do nothing better for the economy at this point than ensuring downward transfers of wealth and boosting aggregate demand.
Fourth, the private healthcare sector continues to be treated with kid gloves. Renowned pro-people economist Yanis Varoufakis has correctly pointed out that in this whole healthcare-centered crisis, all expectations are towards the public sector to provide healthcare. Nobody is even thinking of asking the private healthcare providers to step up and do their bit. The failure of private healthcare providers to make available their vital services to people at this critical moment suggests that the entire edifice of private healthcare was never anything more than an excuse to make massive profits off human misery even in the ‘better’ times. Even in Pakistan, the callousness of private hospital owners has been revealed once again, like so many crucial everyday truths of our life. Countries around the world are taking steps to directly nationalize their healthcare services – or at least measures which are the equivalent of nationalization for the duration of the Coronavirus pandemic. Pakistani authorities ought to have considered such steps, rather than sitting with healthcare profiteers and listening to their list of appalling excuses.
State authorities have a great deal of logistical and coercive ability to take the approach described here. Heavy state intervention in the economy and healthcare is now a reality in a world reeling from this fierce virus.
What is lacking in Pakistan (and in many other cases in the world) is the political will to put the interests of the Many above the Few who can well afford to pay the bill but prefer to resist as long as they exclusively have the ear of policy-makers.
The author is the Features Editor at The Friday Times.