Renowned American historian Jon Meacham is alarmed that COVID-19 has become a partisan pandemic in the United States. Sadly, America is not alone when it comes to politicization of national responses to fight the biggest crisis of the century yet. In several countries, including in Pakistan, political bickering is on the rise over how to fight this fatal menace. As a consequence, valuable time is being lost every day.
Here at home, the severity of the crisis, which by some measures is still in its infancy, demands that the ruling party and the opposition defer their political differences, shed their mighty egos, and coalesce behind a national response to save lives. By the middle of March, the political leadership had come to a fork in the road, and there was hope that some kind of an understanding would be reached.
But things turned south (literally) when the federal government’s ambivalence or prevarication forced Sindh to go it alone and lock down the province on March 22. As if on cue, the PM started opposing this strategy in his national addresses. Around the same time, Shahbaz Sharif returned to Pakistan, setting tongues wagging that he must have been tasked by the powers that be to help out Punjab in this crisis.
Yet, over the past fortnight, the federal government didn’t respond well to the opposition’s entreaties for a unified response. It didn’t help that the PM walked out on Shahbaz during a parliamentary video-con just as the latter’s turn came to speak. And it certainly muddied the waters even more when the PM later branded Shahbaz and Bilawal “looters” and suggested he wouldn’t break bread with them.
As a result, the opposition has started criticizing the federal government’s strategy to fight the virus, including the creation of the corona relief tiger force. This state of affairs is the last thing that this country needs. As political parties hold sway over their followers, rising political infighting will leave the masses divided and affect the efficacy of already-questionable top-down federal strategies.
Despite the absence of political consensus, the opposition will do well to engage in constructive criticism and not undermine the federal government. Otherwise, it will be seen as an insensitive and opportunistic bunch that is out to score political points amidst an ongoing tragedy. But the bigger responsibility lies on the PM’s shoulders – he must understand that he cannot cross this Rubicon alone.
While it still isn’t too late, it seems that the political class has wasted another opportunity to establish its governance credentials. There is a perception that lockdowns in Punjab, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan had blessings of Rawalpindi, even as PM inexplicably remained focused on precisely defining what a lockdown meant. This impression that there is someone else on the driving seat will be hard to shake off, regardless of how many politicians are put in front of the camera.