It’s poor timing to be scoring political points during a pandemic. But this is what has been evident in the month since the coronavirus-induced lockdowns, of varying degrees, went into effect across Pakistan. For some odd reason, the federal government and the Sindh government continue to be at loggerheads. Hardly a day or two go by without verbal volleys flying between Karachi and Islamabad.
There have been news reports that suggest that behind-the-scenes there is a good degree of federal-provincial coordination to manage this crisis. The creation of the National Command and Operations Center (NCOC) late last month has helped. While there is room for improvement, the NCOC is the closest the country has to an inclusive platform, holding regular meetings and updating the public. The challenge is to undertake massive testing, contact tracing and quarantining – one hopes that NCOC will rise up to it.
What is counter-productive is that the talking heads of PTI and PPP continue to spar over handling of this crisis. And the sparring is political in nature. The hitherto under-fire Sindh government has been earning plaudits for its crisis response, providing a blueprint to others. This has apparently not gone down well with the center. As Sindh checked most of the boxes, it left the PM publicly equivocating over how best to deal with the emerging crisis. He ended up inviting both criticism and friendly fire.
A degree of political competition is inevitable, as this pandemic has the potential to create new leaders and diminish existing ones. Thus, it is inherent that there will be tensions between central and regional governments over the nature, speed and scale of relief measures. The most striking form of such discord is evident in Donald Trump’s fiery (and must one add, futile) daily press conferences. Politicians feel the need to be seen to be doing something; but they can do so without undermining others.
If fighting coronavirus is akin to waging a war, then leading politicians should do what wartime leaders do: reach across the aisle, bury political differences and unite the country. That’s not an easy thing to do. But then, FDR or Churchill did not leave the legacy that they did by being hyper-partisan or by hounding opposition into jail when the last great crisis knocked on the civilization’s door. They were politically magnanimous and focused on preparing for what was to come.
Latest COVID-19 numbers suggest that Pakistan is still trekking up along what may turn out to be a steep mountain. A smooth descent on the other side of the peak will require political maturity. Why? Because political discord may come in the way of crisis management, threatening provision of essential medical and food supplies, making the masses confused over which government to listen to, and eventually causing avoidable deaths. Onus is on federal government to show a big heart and take everyone along.