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EDITORIAL: The federal government has notified five working days Eid holidays - Monday 10 May 2021 to Friday 14 May 2021 - sandwiched between two weekends giving a total of nine holidays. This is unprecedented when compared to other Muslim countries with Bangladesh notifying three holidays (13 to 15 May 2021 with 16 a Sunday so a total of four consecutive holidays), Malaysia and Indonesia two holidays each (13 and 14 May which when combined with the weekend gives a total of four holidays), and Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates four days each (11 May to 14 May) but with weekends falling on Thursday and Friday in these two Arab states the total number of holidays is 4.

So why did the Khan administration deem it appropriate to give nine holidays when: (i) the country’s newly-appointed finance minister is struggling to energize productivity; (ii) Federal Board of Revenue is under pressure to meet the revenue targets agreed with the International Monetary Fund; (iii) exporters provided a life line due to diversion of orders from India coupled with significant monetary and fiscal incentives provided by the Pakistani government at some cost to the treasury to ensure that they are able to meet their orders within the contractually agreed timeframe been subjected to a nine-day holiday; requests for a revisit to the number of holidays by exporters and other sectors have so far fallen on deaf ears; (iv) the cessation of all commercial activities (barring food and medical supplies) which usually witness a spike in sales during the Eid holidays; and (v) services sector which accounts for the largest portion of the GDP.

Could the answer lie in the spike in Covid-19 cases and the rising government concern that a national lockdown under the guise of the Eid holidays is the best way forward as it does not undermine the Prime Minister’s repeated claims that he will not lock down the country as that would be tantamount to labour/daily wage earners going hungry? This argument also falls by the wayside as Bangladesh has a lockdown till 16 May 2021, Malaysia and Indonesia have locked down communities where there has been a spike in cases (termed as smart lockdown by the Khan administration) and while domestic restrictions of movement are being lifted in Saudi Arabia and the UAE yet those restrictions will continue on incoming passengers. However, in this instance a comparison with Pakistan is simply not merited because the number of doses given to their people by the other countries is not comparable to Pakistan.

Latest data available on the net gives country-wise number of vaccine doses as in end-April to early May: Saudi Arabia around 9.8 million doses, the UAE 10.7 million, Indonesia 12.6 million, Malaysia 914,663, Bangladesh 8.93 million (with 1.9 percent of the population fully vaccinated), and India 158 million doses with 2.1 percent of its population totally vaccinated. Pakistan’s 2.1 million doses with a population of 216.6 million people has covered less than one percent of its population. However, this low coverage by itself should not be used as a yardstick for using holidays to contain the virus and instead strict enforcement of the standard operating procedures must be the preferred way.

What is significant is that while the number of holidays announced is unprecedented in terms of the rest of the world equally if not more disturbingly it is also unprecedented in Pakistan’s context. Last year, in May, during the first wave of the pandemic the government notified four holidays for Eid including the weekend. One would hope that better sense is allowed to prevail and the government revisits the matter.

Copyright Business Recorder, 2021