The coronavirus crisis in Pakistan has laid bare the weak leadership in the country and the incompetence of the incumbents in charge of national policy coordination. Prime Minister Imran Khan’s constant attempts to downplay the severity of the pandemic makes the situation even more disturbing. Not only did the PM belittle the pandemic by opposing a lockdown despite all four provinces announcing the same, but he also appears to be ill-informed about the severity of the outbreak.
In an interaction with a group of journalists last week, the PM had strongly opposed imposition of a lockdown in the country as a measure against spread of the virus, saying that the poor will die of hunger if the cities are shut down and that the situation in Pakistan is different from Italy and Iran. Further, he told the journalists that things might soon be back to normal. “Some doctors say that the spread of the virus will mitigate in Pakistan’s hot weather”, he said.
It has been clarified by health experts umpteen times that high temperature has little to do with the spread of coronavirus. In fact, the World Health Organisation (WHO) has listed it as one of the myths in the ‘myths-buster’ section of its website after this false information began to do the rounds on social media and whatsapp groups. “From the evidence so far, the COVID-19 virus can be transmitted in ALL AREAS, including areas with hot and humid weather,” the WHO advisory says.
That the PM shared a false piece of information about coronavirus says a lot about the government’s preparedness (or lack thereof) to handle the pandemic. Worse, it may also mean that those at the helm of affairs and responsible to handle the crisis get their information from whatsapp forwards.
And when NayaDaur reported the PM’s misleading statement about hot weather mitigating the spread of coronavirus, an army of trolls was unleashed upon the editors of the outlet, accusing us of misquoting Imran Khan and spreading ‘fake news’. All Naya Daur did was report what the PM had said, but instead of asking their leader to do better and read up on the issues that he wishes to publicly discuss, the PTI supporters immediately begin targeting journalists on social media for merely reporting his statements.
This cyber bulling by pro-government trolls is hardly surprising given that their party leadership not only condones these attacks on opponents, but also encourages the trolls by publicly badmouthing journalists critical of the government’s policies.
Two days later, the PM repeated the no-lockdown mantra in another session with the journalists and called on the provinces to review their decision to impose a lockdown, which he described as an ‘extreme step’ taken to contain the outbreak. Once again downplaying the pandemic, he said that the situation in Pakistan was not too serious. “Humaray haan slow chal raha hai kaam.” (Things here are unfolding slowly. Meaning: Coronaavirus in Pakistan has not killed enough people yet). PM Imran Khan’s views about the lockdown are at best highly ill-informed. This is why even the provinces led by the PTI found themselves unable to act upon the prime minister’s advice. All four provinces of Pakistan are currently under lockdown despite Prime Minister Imran Khan’s announcement that the country does not need a lockdown. Need I say more?
There is a political cost of a lockdown, one can understand. But observers have mentioned that the PM stubbornly oppose a lockdown because the measure was first taken in Sindh – a province ruled by the PPP. The PM, it seems, would rather put the lives of the citizens at risk than do something that may serve to vindicate his opponents. What this goes to show is that the prime minister’s pettiness knows no bounds. It’s crises like these that expose the level of statesmanship or capacity a leader possesses – and PM Khan appears to be failing this test. Many expected that he would rise to the occasion but he has disappointed even many of his supporters. In his addresses to the nation on coronavirus and media talks, the message from Imran Khan to the people was clear: you are on your own.
Meanwhile, the government’s capitulation in front of the mullahs and its reluctance to issue a clear order against mass prayers in the country is another one of its many failings. On Thursday night, Federal Religious Affairs Minister Noor ul Haq Qadri had announced that Friday prayers would not be banned completely and mosques will remain open. The decision was announced after a series of consultation with top clerics of the country. The clerics remained adamant that the mosques cannot be shut down. But just a few hours after the federal minister’s announcement against cancellation of Friday prayers, the Sindh government announced that no congregation or mass prayers would take place in the province. Sindh once again took the lead in enforcing a crucial preventive measure by banning jummah prayers.
After the Sindh government’s decision, Balochistan also announced cancellation of Friday prayers and restriction of the gatherings at mosques to 3-5 people. And finally in a last-minute decision taken on Friday, the Punjab government also announced banning mass prayers and Friday congregations, but the announcement came just a couple of hours before the jummah prayers. This delay in announcing the ban affected its implementation as there were reports of people defying the restrictions and holding mass prayers in mosques. The same decision could have been jointly announced much earlier in order for it to be properly enforced.
This lack of coordination among the government and provinces reveals that there is practically no strategy in place to effectively contain the outbreak of coronavirus. An improved coordination among the stakeholders is vital to ensure effectiveness of the preventive measures.
Moreover, the authorities must answer as to what, if anything, is being done to enhance the capacity of the healthcare system amid the lockdown. Doctors continue to work under tough conditions without access to adequate protective gear. These issues must not remain unaddressed. If the government continues to delay its actions, the crisis may worsen in the days to come.
The author is News Editor at Naya Daur. She writes on counter-terrorism, human rights and freedom of speech among other issues. She tweets at @AiliaZehra and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org