Covid-19 presents textbook definition of dilemma: the challenge of having to choose between two seemingly equal unfavourable options. But as trade-offs go, one of the options is eventually reasoned to be more unfavourable than the other. Pakistan, like many other countries, is hard pressed to make that choice.
Let’s look at the two baskets of choices, based on current available information. Basket 1: choose strictly enforced shutdown ala China or military curfew until pharma solutions appear on the table, with only food/health industries allowed to be operational, along with businesses critical to smooth operations of food/health industries. Basket 2: open up everything, let herd immunity kick-in while expanding the capacity of hospitals and graveyards.
In Basket 1, a huge number of lives will be saved but save for health and food, economic activities will come to a halt leaving millions jobless and vulnerable to hunger. In Basket 2: huge number of Pakistanis may die, and an even greater number will need to be hospitalised. Until such time the weak and vulnerable die and the strong become immune, the economy will contract leading to substantial joblessness, before growing at snails’ pace for months after the storm has passed. This is on the assumption that if death numbers soar as projected, then consumer spending should flop, unless one also assumes insensitive and uncivil citizenry.
In Basket 1, there is statistically unknown estimations of deaths that may be caused by shutdown-led famine. While Pakistanis are known to be a charitable lot, public spending to feed the poor, and the collective display of private sector charity has not been tested in times as severe as these – the test of altruism, of availability of resources, and administrative capacity to cover nearly all those in need. In contrast, Basket 2 has statistically known estimations of death (0.7 million by one estimate) in the country and intensive care hospitalisations, which also risks mayhem and instability.
If life itself is the treasure in Basket 1 (regardless of the quality of life), in Basket 2 quality of life is paramount, even if there are far less resources to enjoy that quality of life. However, in Basket 2 exists a potential for relatively higher household savings and inheritance receipts as a consequence of deceased dependants. In Basket 2, there is also potential for increasing export market share (albeit of a much smaller global trade pie), provided Pakistan’s competing economies remain in lockdown.
In both cases, the poor who don’t have enough savings (for food, medicines and lodgings) will be worst hit requiring handouts from the rich (charity), and from the government. The latter will sooner or later also come from the rich in the form of taxation of various types. Also, in both cases, fiscal and monetary endowments to businesses will prove to be of little consequence (save for addressing immediate liquidity concerns). Both if the economy halts in Basket 1 or if it contracts and later grows slower than snail pace in Basket 2, businesses will eventually lay off workers, and they would be well within their fundamental right to do so.
This begs the question why should the state give them endowments (beyond perhaps immediate liquidity management needs) at a time which seems to be the start of a prolonged crisis, when they will come back for endowments again and when in fact eventually the state will have to tax them back to fill up the fiscal kitty. If businesses are claiming endowments on the premise that they provide employment, then legal instruments should be used to peg endowments to conditions of employee retention rather than layoffs.
Back to lockdown choices! There could of course be a middle ground between the two baskets; a smart lockdown whose public imagination is not clear. However, it requires a quantum leap of faith over state performance. Markets are interconnected; for instance, even pharma sector cannot be opened without opening paper, bottles and packaging markets. In other cases, markets are connected across the country requiring whole of the federation to decide rather than unilateral provincial or federal decision. Then there are lobby groups, each of whom deem themselves essential to be let open, and to receive endowments from the state.
Smart lockdown, ergo, requires a strong, effective state independent of interest groups. Pakistani state knows how to be strong, admittedly a limited definition of using sticks, if need be for Basket 1. But it doesn’t have other traits to make smart lockdowns successful.
A smart lockdown, therefore, will invariably become Basket 2. Even if it doesn’t morph into that, it is still important for people to choose strictly between Basket 1 and Basket 2 to gauge their intellectual, ideological, and moral leanings needed to inform the form and extent of smart lockdown. A relaxed version of smart lockdown will be supported by those who support Basket 2, whereas a stringent version of smart lockdown will be supported by Basket 1 advocates.
Who then gets to decide between the two baskets at a time when public health experts are not 100 percent sure about how the epidemic will pan out in Pakistan? There are those who present doomsday scenario, which informs Basket 1 advocates. And there are those who propound theories about inherent immunity in Pakistanis; the milder strain of virus in Pakistan; and pandemic coming to an end very soon -- all of which are cited by Basket 2 supporters.
While both camps of public health experts initially express their opinions with confidence, they end up adding caveats. Naturally, neither would ever be willing to take public responsibility for taking or advising wrong decisions, and for its disastrous consequences. In times of uncertainty where both options lead to extremely unfavourable situations, it is better to err on the side of caution, especially if one treasures life (Basket 1) over the quality life (Basket 2).
Or, take a consensus decision and live with it, however hard its outcome may be. In either of the choices, one may never know which person/s might die and whose lives might be saved. When life and deaths are just reduced to numbers, a dispassionate analysis of aggregate life and death numbers, therefore, can perhaps help approach the issue less dramatically and more straightforwardly by tallying public opinion over the two choices: Basket 1 and Basket 2.
Such a consensus should not merely be the cabinet’s. Given the nature of the problem, it should be the collective decision ascertained through various channels. The choice between the two baskets should be put to vote in Pakistan’s seven assemblies (federal, provincial, GB & AJK), for a two-third majority decision.
The assemblies should be informed by similar voting at every association, business chambers, and labour unions, whereas with nearly 80 million unique cellular and internet broadband subscribers each, a digital referendum of sorts is also possible: inform the people about the choices, the risks and rewards associated with each choice; and ask them to have their say. This is after all a PAN-demic, affecting all and sundry. And while these are not best means of representation, it’s better than taking the decision unilaterally without representation, and paying economic and political cost of it, especially if in hindsight the decision comes out wrong.