Ralph Lauren Jumper in Times of Lockdown

Ralph Lauren Jumper in Times of Lockdown
In a televised address Prime Minister Imran Khan said on Tuesday that the lockdown had been extended for another two weeks, but certain essential industries and businesses were allowed to reopen. The speech came after a meeting of the National Coordination Committee on the same day.

Reports suggest that while there was a general consensus on broad issues at the NCC meeting, Sindh still has reservations over easing restrictions at this point. The PM has indicated that the provinces can implement their own policies where needed. The PM did not tell us how he would prevent his own leaders from undermining the authority of Chief Minister Murad Ali Shah, but I guess that’s a minor detail for the PM.

There’s also the additional problem of the religious lobbies and the impending arrival of the month of Ramzan. Clerics and people have already caused headache for governments despite a ban on congregational prayers in mosques. After the PM’s speech, clerics from across the country declared that the five daily prayers and the Friday prayers would be held in the mosques from now. While the announcement said that mosques will take precautionary measures as advised by the government, it remains unclear how such measures will be implemented and by whom.

Given the list of “essential” industries earmarked for reopening, the previous lockdown has been all but lifted. This is like the sluice gates going up. In other words, if we see a surge in cases, it will be very difficult for the federal government to clear the streets again. The opponents of diluting the lockdown are fuming; the proponents say there is no other way but to reopen and restart economic activity.

As I have written in this space before, it is somewhat naive to fall fully on either side of these positions. A lockdown is basically meant for two reasons: one, to restrict the spread early and two, related to the first, get the time to help detect the prevalence of the disease and find curative methods. If one cannot do the second, the first cannot be sustained beyond a certain point.

When do we reach that point is debatable. Is morbidity the benchmark or the number of infected cases? Should we worry if the number of infected goes up as testing capacity increases, or should we only worry if a rise in the number of infected cases also results in a rise in morbidity? So far, the morbidity in Pakistan is much lower than in Western Europe or the United States. Is that cause for complacency? Experts — mathematicians, epidemiologists, economists — themselves are divided on the best course of action.

Then there’s the problem of the economy. The Great Lockdown is likely to shave off nearly USD 2 trillion from the global economy. The International Monetary Fund has warned that global economy is headed towards the worst recession since the Great Depression. The IMF also estimates negative 1.5 per cent growth for Pakistan. The World Bank agrees.

How does one balance this equation? On a personal note, the world’s experts are scratching their heads like I used to as a schoolboy while trying to figure out how to balance chemical equations!

The first casualty in all this should be certainty of positions. But it’s not. Most of us do not have the expertise in any of the fields that are useful to make informed assessments about this crisis and its trajectory. So we rely on what Tversky and Kahneman called heuristics and biases, the system one analysis for fast thinking, which is also what most people are predisposed to. For instance, if I am fearful of disease transmission and I do not have a job that forces me into physical contact with others, there’s a strong chance that I will fall on the side of a lockdown. Someone who has to earn to put bread on the table and can do so only by going out and working will have to balance the risk of getting infected with the risk of going without food and money.

But there’s an even bigger problem, the division among experts. They too, for the most part, are looking at the elephant blindfolded and putting out their presumably system 2 analyses by describing the elephant according to the body parts they are touching. Even so, they are likely to have their own biases impacting their informed analyses. The laymen among us are cherry-picking those analyses based on our own heuristics and biases.

Corollary: we are all, including governments, groping with a problem with complex interplay of forces.

In 1936, sociologist Robert Merton argued in an article, The Unintended Consequences of Purposive Social Action that: “Although no formula for the exact amount of knowledge necessary for foreknowledge is presented, one may say in general that consequences are fortuitous when an exact knowledge of many details and facts (as distinct from general principles) is needed for even a highly approximate prediction.

“In other words, ‘chance consequences’ are those which are occasioned by the interplay of forces and circumstances which are so complex and numerous that prediction of them is quite beyond our reach.”

My idea here should be obvious by now. We are dealing with a novel threat and a complex interplay of forces and circumstances. We are certainly better off today in terms of scientific knowledge and tools than the world was in 1918 when children skipped rope to the rhyme: I had a little bird,/ Its name was Enza./ I opened the window,/ And in-flu-enza. And yet, the virus offers new challenges in a glocalised, highly interconnected world.

In other words, we must be careful in both our criticism and our heuristics when holding forth on the threat and our responses to it. Certainty in such situations, to reverse the phrase the best is the enemy of the good, is the locker room buddy of worse.

That said, the PM might want to reconsider wearing a Ralph Lauren half-zip jumper while addressing the hapless nation. A non-serious-looking leader is the icing we can do without. So help me Darwin!

The writer is a former News Editor of The Friday Times. He is certain of only one thing: uncertainty. He reluctantly tweets @ejazhaider

The writer has an abiding interest in foreign and security policies and life’s ironies.