Help us, Darwin!

Help us, Darwin!
In an extraordinary statement in front of a youthful, middle-class audience at a state university, Prime Minister Imran Khan has claimed that “the elite locked down the country” bemoaning the plight of tens of millions below the “poverty line”, especially daily wage earners. But the facts tell a contrary story.

Gallup Polls prove that an overwhelming majority of the propertied business classes (the elites) remain opposed to lockdowns and over 85% even continue to pay salaries to their workers during partial lockdowns. In fact, it is the PM himself and the four provincial chief ministers (three of whom answer to the PM) who have taken all decisions in this matter. Is he saying he is not in control of national COVID policy – including the nature, extent and scope of lockdowns? Is he saying he was pressured to set up the National Command and Operations Centre and a three star general to head it was thrust upon him by some “elites”?

The truth is that the PM and his 50 federal ministers, state ministers, advisors and special assistants, aided and abetted by three chief ministers and their similarly bloated armies of ministers, state ministers, advisors and special assistants have collectively botched the war against COVID and plunged Pakistan into unprecedented confusion and hardship. Starting from the crisis at the Taftan border last February that was bungled by the Balochistan government in consultation with the federal government –  as testified by a letter from Dr Zafar Mirza, the PM’s major domo, to the provincial authorities laying down the course to follow – to the Tablighi Jamaat Ijtimah in Raiwind authorized by the Punjab government in March and the 20 non-enforceable SOPs for hundreds of thousands of mosques sanctioned by PTI President Arif Alvi, it has been a tale of wanton, continuing disregard of established best practices in such emergencies.

From the outset, the confusion – to lockdown or not — lay in the mind of Prime Minister Imran Khan. He was infected with the same bug as President Donald Trump and Prime Minister Boris Johnson. No leader wanted to lock down the country (read economy, stupid) not because they were worried about what would happen to the poor but because they were worried what would happen to their business elites and their profits and what consequent burden would be put on government finances and budgets to look after the poor.

Thus Imran Khan remained immobilized. This compelled the Miltablishment to step in, take charge, announce a lockdown policy, set up NCOC and lean on the PM to sanction a COVID relief package for the needy.

Still, the PM refused to fully get on board. The “relief” for the poor was cunningly packaged by juggling with approved budget allocations for the BISP and Ehsaas Programs and throwing in some peanuts for Utility Stores. To date, only half of the Rs 200B earmarked for this purpose has been doled out. The relief for the elites, however, was more manifest in the form of unprecedented and objectionable incentives for the construction industry and soft loans and deferred debt payments for the rest. Consequently, three months down the line, there is no national lockdown to speak of and there is no palpable relief for the needy.

A decisive and intelligent leader would have enforced a national emergency lockdown at the very outset in February and quickly delivered a relief package for the poor. By end-March he would have flattened the curve at a low level. Or, like Trump and Johnson after making the initial mistake, swiftly U-turned in March when the error was apparent. That would have slowed down the infection and enabled the government to find the time and tools to start the return journey back to normal by end-April, as demonstrated by several countries like China, South Korea, Hongkong, Norway etc. Instead, prevarication and confusion by its leaders have led Pakistan into the worst of all possible worlds in which late and incomplete lockdowns are now being further eased in May precisely when the infection is threatening to break all barriers.

The big lie is in the statistics bandied about by Islamabad and the provinces. Only a fraction of infected people has been properly tested, partly because not every infected person is reporting the infection because of cultural or religious factors and partly because there aren’t enough proper testing kits to cater for every suspicious case. Nor are all COVID deaths being properly notified or recorded. Unfortunately, this false and concocted data is being used by local and international experts to extrapolate Pakistan’s recovery much sooner than may be the case. Meanwhile, the PM is assuring everyone that the demographic youth bulge will protect Pakistanis until the summer heat along with a new vaccine finally put paid to COVID.

Adding insult to injury, Imran Khan has now invited Maulana Tariq Jamil to explain how the dastardly media is to blame for spreading panic while sinful women demanding social freedoms have incurred the wrath of Allah. So help us, Darwin!

Najam Aziz Sethi is a Pakistani journalist, businessman who is also the founder of The Friday Times and Vanguard Books. Previously, as an administrator, he served as Chairman of Pakistan Cricket Board, caretaker Federal Minister of Pakistan and Chief Minister of Punjab, Pakistan.