In a recent statement, the WHO and IMF chiefs said that saving lives was a “prerequisite” to saving livelihoods in the coronavirus pandemic — a crisis they called “one of humanity’s darkest hours”. World Health Organization director-general Tedros Ghebreyesus and International Monetary Fund managing director Kristalina Georgieva said getting the COVID-19 virus under control first was necessary to revive economic activity — though they admitted it was difficult to strike the right balance.
There is a needless controversy going on in the media and political circles on the subject of saving lives vs saving the economy. We have to save both lives and the economy and there can be no two opinions about it. In this backdrop, what the government is trying to do is to strike a balance between the two. As in the rest of the world, the government imposed a lockdown on the country in the third week of March for 14 days and then further extended it in order to control the Covid-19 infection.
However, an equally urgent need is to provide food and other relief goods to people confined to their homes due to the lockdown. To discharge this responsibility, the government later decided to partially lift the lockdown for certain essential sectors of the economy. To this end Prime Minister Imran Khan three weeks ago announced the exemption of construction, chemical and export-oriented “low-risk” industries from the ongoing coronavirus-related restrictions and an extension in the nationwide partial lockdown for another two weeks.
Briefing the media after a meeting of the federal cabinet, which approved the decisions of the National Coordination Committee which met earlier to deal with the situation arising out of coronavirus pandemic, the Prime Minister said that although Pakistan recorded far fewer number of cases as compared to the global trend and local estimates, it would be unwise to lower the guard against the contagious disease.
He pointed out that although restrictions would remain in place for educational institutions, sports activities, cinemas and other public places for the next two weeks, the government had decided to open certain selected industries after a detailed consultation with all four provinces. However, in a wise move, showing flexibility, the federal government has allowed the provinces to take their own decision in the matter.
The resumption of construction activities is of special importance as it is the second biggest source of employment after agriculture. According to a Moody’s report, construction is among the top “low-risk” industries when it comes to the coronavirus threat. The industries which the government has opened, besides construction, include chemical, glass, paper and packaging units, e-commerce and software development, cement factories, fertiliser plants, mines and minerals, and agriculture instrument manufacturing industries.
Essential services like plumbers, carpenters, electricians, dry cleaners, laundry, horticulture, veterinary services, software and programming, glass manufacturing and books and stationery have been opened, while the remaining industries would be opened in phases. Agricultural activities have also been allowed to facilitate wheat harvesting to ensure sufficient availability of the staple crop in the country. Under the new directives, the takeaway service from restaurants would also remain closed, whereas home delivery of the food services would be allowed to continue. Religious congregations and gatherings of people at religious shrines have been disallowed during the current phase of lockdown. All public transport would also remain shut during this period.
At the same time, the government has launched the Ehsaas programme to mitigate the sufferings of poor segments of society affected by lockdowns and other virus restrictions. Under cash relief initiative, millions of jobless and needy families are being provided emergency relief.
However, the government has clarified that as the threat of COVID-19 spread has not subsided, the opening up of different sectors and businesses will be subject to strict adherence to safety protocols. The standard operating procedures announced by the authorities include social distancing among the employees, workplace cleanliness, regulations related to visitors and customers, transportation of human resource, goods transportation and other safeguards to minimise the risk of COVID-19 spread.
Needless to say, the government must keep refining its policies to strike the right balance between containing the coronavirus from spreading and ensuring economic activity, with special focus on those sections of facing hardships due to the lockdown. A welcome development is that the government is now better prepared to deal with the epidemic as it has mobilised all its resources, including medical staff, equipment and essential medicine supplies.
As the pandemic is now receding in Italy, Spain and France, normal life has begun to return in these countries. Given that in Pakistan, too, the situation is by and large under control, the concerned authorities in their respective domains should draw up short and medium term plans to resume normal life in a phased manner. But for the government plan to succeed, it is essential that members of the public too fully cooperate by strictly adhering to safety measures until the virus threat is completely over.