It would immediately force a very severe lockdown all over the country. The economy would be shut down again and a very large number of jobs would be lost. Daily wagers, whose interests forced the ‘smart lockdown’ novelty out of the prime minister, would almost certainly be pushed over the edge. And the economy just doesn’t have the kind of fiscal depth that would be needed for another relief package right now. Right next door in India, which normally has a far more resilient economy than Pakistan’s, the finance ministry is reportedly stunned in the face of the worst contraction in almost half a century caused by nothing but the government’s inability to control the virus. Such figures go to show how quickly things can spiral out of control in countries that have very high numbers of poverty and population growth.
Pakistan needs to learn from experiences of other countries and take steps to stop things from getting worse immediately. If people choose to behave irresponsibly despite the enormity of the threat, then they must be made to pay for it. The government must also bolster the health care sector so it can deal with large numbers if the need arises. And since a fair amount of trade has resumed since lockdowns were lifted, it would be a good idea to stock up on all essential medicines as well.
The government must also do whatever is necessary to control runaway inflation and provide relief to people. These are times when people are struggling to keep their jobs and most companies are having an even harder time providing salaries to the employees that haven’t yet been laid off. Nothing can hurt the working, and of course lower, classes in such an environment like high prices, especially when it comes to essential items including staple food. Besides, persistent failure to arrest prices could push the state bank into a premature decision to raise the interest rate and discourage whatever little private sector credit offtake that is finally taking place. The country is standing at a crossroads. If people behave responsibly, we will continue to make the headlines for all the right reasons. If they don’t, the country, at least the economy, might not be able to fully recover from all the damage that will surely be caused.
ARSHAD GILL (LAHORE)
Copyright Business Recorder, 2020