As the globe reels from the COVID-19 attack, economists and political scientists are already weighing in with projections of adverse socio-economic consequences far and wide. The most common refrain is that “the world will change forever” in so many unimagined ways. The impact of prolonged worldwide lockdowns on rich and poor societies will devastate the global economy by disrupting manufacturing, diminishing trade, travel and tourism, and overwhelm health facilities. Indeed, even if the virus is “controlled” in due course, quite apart from diminished disposable incomes, consumer demand for a variety of goods and services available in shopping malls, stadiums, cinemas, theatres, hotels, restaurants, holiday resorts, airplanes and such like will not pick up for some time because of a lingering fear of catching an infection in crowded places.

In short, the world economy will shrink significantly in the next year or so, with consequent steep rises in unemployment, poverty and inequality in developed and less developed countries alike. In some cases, this could spill over into mass discontent, triggering regime change or revival of narrow nationalisms, racisms or radical reform of political systems veering towards authoritarianism. The new world could be, in the short term at least, more fearful, more circumspect, more distrusting of the “other”.

The outlook for Pakistan is definitely depressing. In the midst of this unprecedented crisis which requires a national will and ability to overcome, the country remains bitterly divided. The Civil-Military Establishment, that includes the judiciary and organs of “accountability” like NAB, Election Commission, etc., have abandoned all pretext of political neutrality; the “selected” prime minister and ruling party are still focused more on hounding the opposition than tackling the challenge of COVID-19; the rich are demanding new perks and privileges to offset their “losses” through lockdowns even as the poor multitudes are scrambling to eke out two bare meals a day. The philosophy of poverty that defines the health of a nation is abysmally lost in the poverty of philosophy of the ruling classes.

Imran Khan admits that 25% of the population, or over 50 million Pakistanis, barely survives below the “poverty line” of Rs 300 per day per person. Yet, in the last budget, he was only willing to allocate a pittance to their welfare – his government’s various poverty alleviation and employment generation schemes didn’t practically amount to more than Rs 200 billion (less than 3% of total projected tax revenues) – while he was happy to fork over as much as 40% for “national security” (which doesn’t include health, education and social welfare), “because we live in a tough neighborhood”, never mind the mass squalor and deprivation across the country that challenge old notions of “national security”.

Now Mr Khan has rustled up a “relief package” to offset the hardships triggered by COVID-19: an additional Rs 250b or so for the lockdown unemployed and an equal amount in refunds, incentives, drawbacks and soft loans to the fat cats of business and industry who have been compelled to shut shop. Indeed, he remains opposed to any significant national lockdown to protect the populace from spreading the infection only because, he says, it will hurt industry and daily wage earners, never mind that a Lockdown Strategy is a globally accepted preventive measure precisely to ensure that people, rich and poor, industrialists and workers, can go back to “business as usual” as early as possible after “containing” the virus!

To be sure, Imran Khan’s misplaced concreteness is all too evident in other policies too. He now expects expatriate Pakistanis to donate hundreds of billions to the COVID-19 Fund, quite ignoring the fact that they too are now so disillusioned with his leadership that they didn’t even cough up more than a few billion to his much vaunted Dam Fund. Worse, he seems to disregard the mounting plight of hundreds of thousands of Pakistani workers in the Middle East – the primary source of over USD20B in annual home remittances – who are facing layoffs and deportations and are in no position to give donations for his causes.

A national leader of substance would have risen to the challenge by formulating a strategy of national sacrifice and survival. He would have abandoned the path of political victimization of opponents and invited them to share a platform for a national consensus on the way forward. He would have sat down with provincial administrations to chalk out a robust and coordinated effort to deal with the situation. Together with these political representatives, he would have invited other stakeholders of the state – religious, judicial and military – to make appropriate “adjustments” in their institutional outlooks, concerns and financial demands in line with the urgent requirements of the situation. Finally, together with all these state organs and stakeholders, he would have leveraged national power to exhort the rich to dig into their pockets for the sake of the poor, not just for now but for the future.

Alas. We can go on wishing but nothing, it seems, will change the fallout from Mr Khan’s ego-driven, rigid and severely limited vision.

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.