Spiralling Cases in Pakistan
In South Asia, Pakistan is possibly facing the worst onslaught of the coronavirus. The first case in the country was reported to have detected on February 26 in Karachi when a pilgrim returning from Iran wasdiagnosed withtheCOVID-19 infection. In less than a month, Sindh province became the hotbed of infections in the country. Other provinces too followedas more and more cases were detected.A conservative estimate suggests that the nation has more than 2,370 confirmed cases with at least 32reported deaths.The most populous Punjab province has now taken the lead with 914cases followed by Sindh (761), Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (276), Balochistan (164), Pakistan Occupied Jammu & Kashmir including Gilgit Baltistan (196), and the national capital Islamabad which has reported 62 cases.Given the nature of COVID-19 infections, the number could substantially go up in coming weeks. With a broken healthcare system, Pakistan is not in a position to handle the situation by its own.
The Art of Negligence
The ruling Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) from the beginning did not take the COVID-19 outbreak seriously not giving serious thought to preparations required to deal with a crisis of this magnitude. At a time when the whole world was in the midst of an acute health emergency and looking for ways to tackle the crisis, thePakistani leadership remained complacent and did almost nothing to minimise the loss of human lives.On January 25, 2020, the Field Epidemiology & Disease Surveillance Division of the National Institute of Health (NIH) issued an advisory on apneumonia outbreak due to novel coronavirus in theChinese city of Wuhan. The advisory categorically stated that the situation required urgent attention of the “neighbouring countries to enhance their surveillance and vigilance for response in case of detection.” It also clarified that the “objective of this advisory is to alert and sensitize the health staff at border posts as well as in healthcare institutions of Pakistan to stay vigilant about any suspected cases coming from affected areas for an early detection.”
The advisory by a prestigiouspublic health institution in the country literally fell on deaf ears and not much action was taken by those at the helm in Islamabad. Despite clear advisories and warnings by national and international media, Pakistan did not take the matter seriously and mishandled pilgrims returning from Iran and Saudi Arabia. This cost Pakistan dearly as the number of infected persons started growing significantly. Many of those returning from pilgrimage from Iran were put in makeshift quarantine facilities in Taftan in Balochistan. In the absence of adequate facilities, the infection spread rapidly. The Sindh Chief Minister Murad Ali Shah on record criticised Islamabad’s approach in (mis)handling the situation. On March 16, he categorically accused the federal government for offering “zero help” to the Balochistan authorities who were supposed to put pilgrims in quarantine.
As the nation was struggling to fight the disease and every other country in the world was keeping a distance from China, President ArifAlvion March 16, 2020 embarked on a two-day visiton an invitation of Chinese President Xi Jinping.This was, optically at least, a most insensitive decision on the part of Pakistan’s leadership. At a time when everyone was advised at home to maintain personal hygiene and do not shake hands with anyone else, a picture of President ArifAlvi shaking hands with President Xi Jinping’s appeared in the media.Evidently the message going out was that strategic ties topped all other considerations including a pandemic.
Provincial Pressures for Lockdown
With the daily spike in the number of cases, the demand to follow the national lockdown approach grew louder. A section in Pakistan was expecting Prime Minister Imran Khan to take decisive stepsin this regard. However, Imran Khan convened a meeting of National Security Committee (NSC) to discuss the ways to tackle the impending health emergency in the country.After the meeting on March 13, 2020 the Pakistan Army geared up in part reflecting thecivilian government’s inability to deal with the issue.
As the federal government was half-heartedly looking for ways to address the issue, the provincial governments were however taking measures to tackle the crisis ontheir own. The Sindh government, headed by Murad Ali Shah led the way and this was soon followed by other provinces. However, Prime Minister Imran Khan disappointed again when in his first address to the nation on the issue on March 22, 2020, he not only refused to impose a lockdown but also termed panic as being more dangerous than the coronavirus. He went on to state that situation in Pakistan was not as bad as in France, Italy, America or England. He justified his approach of not going for a national lockdown on the basis of prevailing poverty in the country andexpressed his inability to offer food to all the poor people in case a lockdown wasimplemented. It seems his criticism of the idea of lockdown was precisely aimed at Pakistan People’s Party’s Sindh government thathad announced the closure of the province.It was also naïve on his part to compare the present crisis with the nation successfully sailing through the 2005 earthquake and 2010 floods. The situation and context between those catastrophes were quite different when compared to the COVID-19 outbreak.
With no concrete plan or help coming from the federal government, the Sindh provincial government requested for deployment of army to maintain law and order. The Punjab and Balochistan governments also joined Sindh in requesting the help of army in containing the outbreak of coronavirus. The request was approved by the federal government on March 23 after which Sindh government imposed a complete lockdown in the province for 15 days. Punjab, Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa,and the Balochistan provincial governments as well as Pakistan occupied Jammu&Kashmir including Gilgit-Baltistan took measures to lockdown their territories respectively and in effecta provincesled countrywide lockdown came into force.
Leadership Crisis and Administrative Failures
To its critics rarely has the federal government appeared asso helpless orbehaved so irresponsibly asin the present situation.At a time when social distancing and lockdown is considered to be the key to contain the spread of COVID-19, the Pakistani President travelled to China and Prime Minister Imran Khan refused to lead from the front in imposing a nationwide lockdown. Instead, he peddled arguments against it and absolved himself of any responsibility whatsoeverby not putting his political weight behind the measure.In his second address to the nation on March 30, 2020, Imran Khan again tried to justify his decision not to go for a national lockdown so that he could protect the interests of the downtrodden sections of the society. He reiterated his view that the lockdown could not succeed because Pakistan does not have the ability to provide food to everyone during the lockdown period. Instead of addressing the gravity of situation in his own country, he went on to say that India’s experience showed the inadvisability of implementing a nationwide lockdown. Prime Minister’s anti-lockdown approach reflects the leadership crisisand,administrative disarray thataggravates the ongoing confusion in the country.
In order to fight the COVID-19 outbreak, Imran Khan suggested a two-pronged approach. First, he asked the people of the country to follow Quaid-e-Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah’s motto of Iman(having faith in Allah). Second, he announced the formation of Corona Relief Tigers—a force of young Pakistanis who would take it on themselves to deliver basic needs to the people living under lockdown in the country and make people aware of the disease and ways to prevent its further spread. Besides, he asked most of the people to go for self-quarantine at home in case of witnessing any symptoms as hospitalisation is only needed in case the patient is old and suffering from other medical complications.
Pakistan’s federal government led by Prime Minister Imran Khan seems to have surrendered before the coronavirus as it is not taking any meaningful step to deal with the crisis. Despite no concrete support from the federal government, the provinces are trying hard to minimise the impact of the pandemic.The Chief Ministers, in particular in Sindh, have displayed greaterleadership qualitiesand their initiativesresulted in a province-led lockdown in the country. In this they have been greatly facilitated by the 18thConstitutional Amendment which gave provinces a greater role to take hard political decisions. With the deployment of the military in aid of the civilian administration to maintain the law and order situation, albeit at the request of the provincial governments, now the most urgent need is controlling the spread of the coronavirus and flatten the rising curve. Pakistan’s broken healthcare system is in no position to cater the needs of the people at this crucial time. It would not be an exaggeration to say that without outside help, Pakistan might not win this battle against coronavirus. Much will depend on the help extended by the world in general and Pakistan’s all-weather friend—China in particular.
*Dr. Ashish Shukla, Research Fellow, Indian Council of World Affairs.
Disclaimer: The views expressed are that of the Researcher and not of the Council.
 NIH (2020), “Advisory on Pneumonia outbreak due to novel coronavirus, in Wuhan City, Hubei Province, China,” No: F.1-22/Advisory/FEDSD/2020, Islamabad: National Institute of Health.
 “Coronavirus: Is Pakistan taking COVID-19 too lightly?,” retrieved from https://www.dw.com/en/coronavirus-is-pakistan-taking-covid-19-too-lightly/a-52824403
 The Dawn (2020), “President ArifAlvi leaves for China today,” March 16, 2020.
 The Dawn (2020), “China will always stand by Pakistan, says President Xi,” March 18, 2020.
 The National Security Committee (NSC), the top consultative body, was chaired by Prime Minister Imran Khan and attended by services chiefs including Chief of Army Staff (COAS) Gen. Qamar JavedBajwa, Director General Inter-Services Intelligence (DG ISI), Lt. Gen. Faiz Hameed. For details, see The Express Tribune (2020), “Pakistan's top security panel to discuss Covid-19 action plan today,” March 13, 2020.
 Hussain, Zahid (2020), “Hard times ahead,” The Dawn, March 25, 2020.
 Shehzad, Rizwan (2020), “PM Imran approves provinces’ request for army deployment amid COVID-19 outbreak,”The Express Tribune, March 23, 2020.
 Yousaf, Kamaran (2020), “Army called in to fight pandemic,” The Express Tribune, March 24, 2020.