Pakistan’s Khan Botches Pandemic Response

Politics, not policy rules reaction

By: Aftab Alexander Mughal

It is increasingly clear that the government of Prime Minister Imran Khan has massively mishandled the Covid-19 coronavirus, with more than 28,000 coronavirus cases confirmed in Pakistan and 636 deaths, probably a fraction of the real number given one of the lowest testing and tracking efforts among major nations.

With Khan unconvinced of the necessity of lockdowns, provinces dominated by his Tehrek-e-Insaf Party reluctantly delayed announcing restrictive measures. Without strict constraints, infections are drawing deep concern. Even without strict enforcement, Khan on April 30 announced that the government would ease the restrictions as cases were exceptionally low. The result has been an explosion of new cases. How many is unclear, because at last count only 1,222 people per million have been tested. Health experts believe at least 60,000 tests per million people are necessary to gain a true picture of the situation.

Since Khan came to power in 2018 and has ruled Pakistan in a blunder-filled administration that tends to prove the rule politics should be left to the politicians rather than to former playboy cricket stars. He has stepped away from so many campaign promises that he has earned the nickname “U-Turn Khan.” He has been forced to devalue the currency and to return to an onerous arrangement with China in the massively indebted China-Pakistan Economic Corridor after vowing to quit. Hs second wife, Rehan, fled Pakistan in 2018 after receiving death threats for speaking out about her former husband. He has antagonized the press and largely ignored Parliament.

For instance, critics charge that he failed to call Parliament into session over the coronavirus, that no measures have been taken to combat the pandemic and that he has largely failed to show leadership, instead starting a negative campaign against the opposition Pakistan People’s Party, headed by Bilawal Bhutto, which controls the Sindh government and which has earned widespread praise including even from opposition media, for taking strict, prompt measures in the attempt to save people’s lives. Bhutto has expressed concern that the central government’s opposition is costing lives.

 Health professionals have issued public demands that the national government enforce a strict lockdown, including shuttering mosques for prayer services. The government, however, removed restrictions on congregations after coming to an agreement with Muslim religious leaders to follow 20 rules for prayers at mosques. That didn’t work. According to the Pattan Development Organization, a human development NGO, 80 percent of mosques in Punjab, the country’s biggest province, ignored the agreed procedures during prayer services.

Many independent analysts have criticized the government’s decision, describing it as against the public interest, given that most Muslim countries across the world have stopped religious congregations after many were hit hard by the coronavirus. Christian churches have largely closed in reaction to the pandemic and instead have initiated televised or online Sunday services. 

In contrast, Tablighi Jamait, a Muslim religious organization, continued missionary work, holding an annual gathering of as many as 250,000 male worshipers in Raiwind during the second week of March. They are believed to accelerate the spread of the virus as many Jamait’s members have tested positive.

Journalist Naila Inayat writes in The Print that more than 27 of percent cases in Pakistan stemmed from the Jamait gathering. However, during a televised show, Maulana Tariq Jameel, an influential leader of the Jamait, instead blamed the media and “immodest women” for the pandemic, charging it was Allah’s wrath over increasing nudity, vulgarity and immodesty in society. Maulana is a close ally to Imran Khan, who did not oppose his controversial views.

Due to the lack of enough personal protective equipment, many doctors, nurses, paramedics and sweepers are performing their duties under difficult circumstances. About 500 health workers have contracted the coronavirus, and at least five have died. In a bid to get the government’s attention, doctors and nurses set up hunger strike camps in Lahore, demanding enough protective kits for the exposed frontline staff. 

The coronavirus is a potential catastrophe to the most vulnerable. Millions of people, especially those who live below the poverty line and are in the informal labor force, face insecurity and risk of starvation as the economy has been hit badly and food prices have begun to soar. According to the Anadolu Agency, around 75 percent of the country’s labor force of 65 million are unregistered and living on daily wages. These people are struggling to survive and need immediate help. The government has announced financial support and the money is distributing under the “Ahsaas program.”

The Pakistan Army has distributed more than 350,000 food parcels so far to the affected people. Still, the need is huge. Humanitarian organizations and churches are doing their best by providing food items to poor families across the country. However, a collective fight is necessary. It is time for national unity and looking after each other. The rich members of society must come forward to offer support to those who are struggling with daily bread.

The situation is grave and there are difficult times ahead. Therefore, the Daily Times warns that the Covid-19 pandemic tells a lot about a country’s ability to handle the current crisis, and also deliver valuable lessons on what certain countries need to work on once this pandemic is over. 

Aftab Alexander Mughal is the editor of the Minority Concern of Pakistan. He won an International Award for Women's Issues by ICOM, Geneva, in 2013.