Democracy is a messy affair; a noisy one too. Unless a democratic society surrenders its freedom and gives more powers to the state in a time of crisis, expect people to hold expectations of government accountability, transparency, and a continuous dialogue that meet the hallmark of clear and effective strategic communication. Which begs the question, whether the federal government has been found wanting in its management of COVID-19 so far?
Although PM Khan’s first address to the nation on corona came a little later than desirable, he did send across a few key messages, of which the one that resonates the most is stability. Stability and security are the supreme concepts of civil society, and first order of the day for any state.
Whether or not Pakistan should go for a complete lockdown, which the PM calls a curfew, is another question, answering which requires a wider set of information that BR Research is in the process to collate.
One would have thought that the government has already done its research through all its various arms and departments. But so far, it has not been able to present a coherent set of arguments beyond saving livelihoods of the poor and raising fears that the curfew may be an unsustainable solution given poverty levels in the country and state’s fiscal constraints.
Perhaps, the most important messaging to the public (and the army of media experts) was made during the PM’s press conference on March 24, when he stressed, at least twice, that this is a dynamic situation.
He emphasized that evolving nature of the crisis warrants daily monitoring. No one can say what’s going to happen, and there are no straight answers, or no tried and tested formula, as even the developed world is engaged in a heated debate, the PM said. And while he rejected the idea of imposing a curfew immediately, he acknowledged that “who knows we may have to impose curfew two weeks later” depending on how the pandemic pans out in Pakistan.
This uber-important message should have been made upfront and sent across in PM’s first speech. But better later than never, and kudos to the PM for being honest about it. One of the fundamental facets of reality ignored by most in governments across the world, in the private sector, and the economist community is ‘how little we know’. This disregard is understandable, but it cannot be justified.
It is understandable because politicians, bureaucrats, corporate leaders, and independent experts are hard wired into making people believe that they know what they are doing or saying. That they have a handle on things. Few like to display the spirit of Pyrrho; if they have one. Quite frankly, nor do the masses like to listen to a leader who displays doubt; surety is mistakenly seen as a sign of confidence and leadership in this society, and others.
But these are no ordinary times. This is the first time in world history that so many people living under representative forms of governments have been simultaneously affected by a pandemic in a world that is immensely interconnected. This fact alone makes COVID-19 far more difficult to handle than any other pandemics in the past.
Behind every policy and action thereof, are assumptions and scenarios about what may or may not happen. To paraphrase Friedman, the laws of physics and geometry are always at the back of the mind of a snooker player, even if she has not studied those laws per se, and even if she is not consciously aware of those laws.
But in a time like this, one cannot reasonably come up with assumptions and scenarios, and calculate their odds. Variables relevant to managing this pandemic – both its public health aspect and its economic and social impact – are still unknown. And when the relevant numbers and information is unknown, it’s all hypothetical.
The pandemic may end tomorrow, and the ill might heal overnight. But as the matter stands now, the predictability of infection rate, fatality rate, health recovery, how long will corona loom large, its second or third wave, its treatment etc – is all guesswork at best.
This has two implications. One, the disregard for collective human ignorance, and the failure to publicly appreciate that ignorance, is not justifiable. Leaders, public or private, must learn to communicate that to the public while still preserving their sense of authority, simply because this is not 1920. Second, the appreciation of this ignorance must manifest in government policy decisions, even if one cannot assign probabilities to various scenarios.
This implies that instead of giving a one-time blanket package to exporters, industrialists, or even welfare packages, the goody bags must be tailored to specific groups for specific needs, with imbursement made conditional to certain outcomes. It also means that the government must present its scenarios for the pandemic, and actively engage various research clusters within the country.
Without first mapping the needs for managing public health crises and its timelines, stimulus packages are made out of thin air; if the economy is being determined by public health crisis, then it’s important to understand that animal first, and address it before getting fixated on economic growth. Such engagements have not been initiated in some cases, whereas in other cases the exercise has been later than warranted, such as government’s engagement of private hospitals.
Lastly, it is heartening to note that the federal government has taken stock of the food situation to ensure food supplies and is working in close coordination with the provinces to continuously evaluate food supply chain. But the fact that it has not even yet called the Council of Common Interests to deal with myriad aspects of ongoing emergency does not speak well of its crisis management. Health may be a provincial affair, but the nature of the crises requires close coordination, even if it is just to give a signal to the people that the whole of the state is looking after them with all powers combined.