Is team Imran Khan bungling it? As positive covid cases pile up and the country oscillates between lockdown and relaxing lockdown, there is a cacophony of diverging and ineffective messages emerging from the highest public offices, rather than a cohesive, well-thought out crisis communication plan where the entire federation is on one page. This has led to uncertainty amongst masses about the sheer gravity of the situation which in turn has led to a false sense of security amongst the publics which has in turn led to lax precautionary measures (physically distancing, wearing masks etc.) which has in turn led to an outbreak that could very likely have been assuaged.
While it is true that whatever knowledge that has been accumulated on the coronavirus across the world has been a work in progress, and so much is still unknown—the government has done a tremendously poor job of communicating even that which has been known for a while. From playing down and trivializing the risks of the virus to the large populace, to denying a lockdown would help, to drawing ill-fitted and incorrect comparisons between coronavirus and traffic accidents (read more: “Apples, oranges and spurious correlations”, May 6, 2020) or coronavirus and the common flu, to wrongly associating the coronavirus to the elderly to citing its low mortality rate as evidence of its mildness.
The center also remained in loggerheads with provinces. This discord added to the uncertainty about the dangers of the virus itself that already loomed the country. A by-product of this has been the rumor mill churning dangerous news and conspiracy theories to the masses through various communication channels which also tempered the urgency and need to physically distance (read more: “Rumors can be lethal!” April 22, 2020)
Arguments for and against lockdown both have merits. The government has argued that lockdown would kill the economy which would adversely affect the poor. Something that the economy has already seen unfold despite not completely going into a lockdown scenario. The pro-lockdowners have argued on the other hand, that the public health machinery will collapse if the spread grows and the potential loss of not locking down is far worse and (more dangerously) unknown. Ultimately, both are a gamble.
It is also true that public policy in times of a pandemic never been seen across the world is not easy—which is why the government should be afforded a chance to make mistakes. Many governments across the world have made mistakes and are now working on rectifying them. What should be unforgiven however is not being transparent and truthful about the known dangers of the coronavirus and unequivocally crafting a mass country-wide communication plan with provincial authorities on board on how to curtail the virus—keeping political differences aside. When the dust settles, forgiving a government fanning conspiracy theories unsupported by known scientific facts or drawing false comparisons to undermine the risks of this deadly virus will be a big ask.