Bitter political play in Pakistan has dampened COVID-19 containment
During the last nine months, the details and extent of playing politics right in the middle of the pandemic are different in different societies, but political considerations have continued to dominate almost all multi-party democracies including Pakistan.
The mode of playing politics, however, is different during the currently intensifying second wave of COVID-19 in the country.
During the first wave which peaked in July this year, COVID-19 politics had two main aspects.
First, the federal government led by PTI and the provincial government in Sindh led by PPP strongly differed on almost all aspects of COVID-19 policy from lockdowns to no lockdowns to smart lockdowns, the provision of test kits and protective gear to provinces, the number of tests conducted each day, the availability of hospital facilities etc.
Each day media spokespersons both from federal and provincial governments gave their separate opinions on television as the pandemic raged through Pakistan.
Fortunately, a multi-tier consultative and decision-making structure was created by the federal government during an early phase of the fist wave. National Coordination Committee, headed by the Prime Minister, was at the apex with all provincial chief executives and Chief of Army Staff as its members. The heart of this structure, however, was the National Command and Operation Centre (NCOC) which had daily interaction with the federal and provincial governments.
If the government is able to successfully convince a large portion of the population through its communication strategy that rallies are bad for public health, the attendance at the rallies could be affected and put pressure on the opposition leaders to defer.
Ahmed Bilal Mehboob
A number of senior military officers manned the centre. This arrangement, aided in no small measure by the presence of senior military officials, was helpful in dampening the effect of political polarization on strategic decision-making.
Despite the reported consensus reached within NCOC, both federal and Sindh governments, through their articulate and not-so-articulate spokespersons, would give their respective interpretations on the decisions reached at NCOC every day. This exercise was more in the form of a blame game than any logical critical examination of policies adopted to address COVID-19 and its ramifications.
A second aspect of the politics during the first wave was not as successful as the NCOC. This aspect was related to the oversight of government policies on COVID-19 by various relevant parliamentary committees such as Committees on Health, Education and Finance etc.
Sadly, these committees both at the federal and provincial level did not play any meaningful role in scrutinizing the government’s COVID policies. Even a special joint committee on COVID-19 formed by the speaker of the National Assembly was not effective mainly because of the bitterness in relations between the government and the opposition.
Politics during the current second wave of the pandemic is taking a more dangerous turn. The opposition parties’ alliance, Pakistan Democratic Movement-PDM, has already launched a public agitation with the aim of displacing the present government. Currently this agitation is in the form of large public rallies in major cities of Pakistan. Already, three such rallies have drawn larger crowds than were anticipated by the neutral observers leading to the conclusion that public following of the opposition was increasing. A long march on Islamabad is also planned for early next year. All these activities involve thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of people.
The government is not granting permission to hold upcoming rallies arguing that a crowd of such a large size will be a potential source of spreading infection. But the opposition is adamant that it will hold rallies as planned. The opposition perceives that the postponement of the rallies will break the momentum of the PDM campaign which it has built with a lot of effort. If the government forcibly stops the rallies, violence is likely to erupt, leading to further protests.
On the other hand, if the government is able to successfully convince a large portion of the population through its communication strategy that rallies are bad for public health, the attendance at the rallies could be affected and put pressure on the opposition leaders to defer.
No matter what direction things move in, one thing is certain-- politics is going to affect COVID and COVID is going to affect politics in Pakistan in a substantial way for some time.
*The writer is the president of Pakistan-based think tank, PILDAT; Tweets at @ABMPildat