By Wajid Shamsul Hasan
Imran Khan Government is in total quandary. It can’t make up its mind to decide its best options for combatting the pandemic Co-Vid19. Having opposed lockdown since the day Sindh government decide to use it to minimise the surge, lateust decision from Khan is so-called ‘smart lockdown’ in places where the surge is more severe. By the time of writhing this piece death toll has nearly 3000 and spread of infection has hit more than 100,000.
Since the situation has become more threatening, the World Health Organization has warned Pakistan of dire consequences. In its latest directive WHO has asked Pakistan to implement “intermittent” lockdowns to counter the surge in coronavirus infections that has come as the country’s prime minister opted for loosening restrictions pertaining to lockdown.
Ever since the discovery of Co-vid19’s presence with a pilgrim from Iran’s presence and the start of outbreak in Pakistan in March, Prime Minister Khan has been emphasising against lockdown measures adopted by Sindh government and other provinces arguing the impoverished country could not afford massive unemployment due to it four provinces ordered a patchwork of closures, and last week Khan said most of these restrictions due to lockdown would be lifted. That decision as such has came as Pakistan found the worsening of the surge across all of South Asia, which until recently had lagged Western nations in virus tolls.
WHO officials said last week they had recorded a total of 108,317 cases and 2,172 deaths – though with testing still limited, real rates are thought to be much higher. “
As of today, Pakistan does not meet any of the pre-requisite conditions for opening the lockdown”, the WHO said in a letter to Punjab’s provincial health minister Dr Yasmin Rashid recommending an intermittent lockdown cycle of two weeks on, two weeks off.
WHO believes that 25% of tests in Pakistan come back positive for COVID-19, the WHO said, indicating high levels of infection in the general population. Hospitals across the country say they are at or near capacity, and some are turning Covid-19 patients away.
In a panic reaction the Health Authorities in Islamabad have identified and sealed off nearly 1,300 coronavirus hotspots across the country to contain the surging trajectory of new infections. The sealing of high-risk areas comes as government’s Covid-19 portal reported 6,472 new cases in the last 24 hours, the country’s highest single-day total.
Pakistan has reported 132,405 confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus, including 2,551 deaths since its first case emerged on Feb 26.
After initially imposing a countrywide lockdown, the government has now eased restrictions, saying it was necessary to save the country’s economy, but it has caused a surge in infections.
Prime Minister Imran Khan has resisted demands from medical experts to reinforce the lockdown, citing its economy going bankrupt. Authorities, however, are now using the term coined as “smart lockdown” to close shops and markets and force people to stay home in areas where confirmed cases have increased in recent weeks.
According to Radio Pakistan smart lockdowns have been imposed in certain virus hotspots around the country. As per government record, the smart lockdown has been imposed in 844 areas in Punjab, seven neighbourhoods in Sindh, 414 localities in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, 12 locations in Azad Jammu and Kashmir and five places in Gilgit-Baltistan which is anticipating a general election in September this year.
Some residential areas were also sealed in Islamabad to contain the spread of the virus. Islamabad Capital Territory (ICT) administration sealed two sub-sectors in G-9 from Friday night after the number of Covid-19 cases there reached 300.
According to Islamabad Deputy Commissioner the decision was taken in response to the District Health Office’s recommendation to seal G-9/2 and G-9/3 along with the sector’s Markaz, commonly known as Karachi Company.
People will not be allowed out of their homes during the lockdown except to buy essentials, he had said, adding: “All activities, including weddings, events and gatherings, majalis and mosques will be suspended.”
The police, army and Rangers have been asked to cordon off these areas in order to ensure public safety and contain the spread of the coronavirus.
Total failure of IK government’s anti-Co-vid19 policies has justified the generals to be back in front seat in control in Pakistan — though there is no official declaration of martial law. Until last induction of officers up to the rank of Lt. Generals in civilian cadre, there are now more than a dozen former and current military officials in prominent government posts such as running the state-owned PIA, the power regulator and the National Institute of Health, which is leading the country’s pandemic response. Three of those appointments happened in the last two months.
The military’s heightened profile induction as the real effective rulers has rendered Prime Minister Imran Khan’s presence as civilian prime minister in control as anorchous. Obviously IK is fully aware that powers that be have clipped his wings prim and proper. His influence has undermined due to collapsing economy, galloping consumer prices and grave law and order situation. He feels that his same page partners are stabbing it in the back on the quiet. Recent findings of anti corruption investigations exposing mega corruption by his close aides is a clear indication that noose is tightening around his neck with army’s role as same page partners being rendered into a veneer. Army’s support was considered as mainstay critical together for a government that relies on several smaller coalition partners who are believed to be puppet on Establishment’s chain to stay afloat.
Developments as such are not new. One can find similarities now and the previous governments when powers that be took over gradually with subtle moves. It must be remembered that the military has always been Pakistan’s most powerful institution and has directly ruled the country for most of the part of its seventy years independent existence. It is a cry in wilderness to claim itself as harbinger of change or m to be the prime minister by powers that be.
It is clear that by appointing an increasing number of current and retired military officials in key positions, the government is ceding what little space civilians had in developing and executing policy in the country,” The experts apprehend that “military’s overt and covert role in governance continues to grow.” They could see shift in the government’s virus briefings on state television, in which uniformed army officers are seen assisting the government’s pandemic response. Retired Lieutenant General Asim Saleem Bajwa who was until his retirement Corp commander Southern Command in Baloochistan is now Khan’s communication adviser and also oversees the implementation of about $60 billion in Pakistan investments as part of China’s Belt-and-Road Initiative.
The fact that at least 12 ex-army officers find themselves in the hard core of rulers instead of elected civilians as much as General Pervez Musharraf’s loyalists. Among IK’s key ministers is Interior Minister Ijaz Shah named by Martyred Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto as a person involved in the conspiracy to kill her. The other key Minister is Finance Minister Abdul Hafeez Shaikh.m— finance minister in GPM’s and later PPP’s government. What is most ironic is that these military men are hand and glove and are supported by civilian advisers such as Zaigham Rizvi, member of Naya Pakistan Housing Program taskforce in charge of running Khan’s main economic project of building low-cost houses. Two army officers were appointed to the body last month.
These crucial appointments carry the impression that by rewarding key position to the ex military personnel, it was aimed at that “by giving the majority leadership to the army was recognition that the army has a good system,” says Rizvi, who had previously worked at World Bank for 10 years as an housing expert. According to a report PPP’s renegade Nadeem Afzal Chan, took assignment as spokesman to the Prime Minister, evaded to comment while Information Minister Syed Shibli Faraz didn’t respond to journalist’s query.
If one were to recall Khan has never disputed army’s role as his collaborators in power and that he had always claimed army to stand by it and believe in PTI’s manifesto. Opposition has not conceded him to be an elected prime minister but selected by the Establishment and that he had always been too close to the the military. It may be mentioned here that in 2017 ahead of his election he was well exposed to be an army stooge and an active player in the “bizarre conspiracy to keep PPP and PMLN out of the electoral race. His being in the pocket of powers that be has seen him claim that “the army is standing with me.”
Reluctance to increase substantially in the defence budget and the uncertain cost due to pandemic have added tension to an otherwise an ideal partnership! Inadvertent economic pressure due to pandemic is again raising tensions. According to experts Pakistan is the most infected nation in Asia after India, with more than 108,000 coronavirus cases and nearly 3000 deaths.
The economy is in a worst ever with the State Bank expecting the economy to shrink 1.5% in the year ending June. Indeed, this will be a bad situation.
Questions over the army’s role in running the government came to the fore when the virus started escalating in March. While Khan addressed the nation and urged citizens not to panic, it was the army spokesman who announced the lockdown the next day. Most of the press statements from the country’s virus nerve center, chaired by Planning Minister Asad Umar, are produced by the army’s ISPR– complete with its byline and logo.
It was in March 24 differences between Khan and military came out in the open when reporters asked him “who is in charge here?” Although there was no reference to the military, he threatened to leave abruptly. Then in late May, his aviation minister, Ghulam Sarwar Khan, defended the national carrier’s performance and its military leadership following a passenger plane crash in Karachi. “It’s not a crime to appoint people affiliated to the military,” he said.
Khan’s hold on power would continue to diminish as current and retired army officers, as well as army-backed political appointees such as Interior Minister Brig (R) Ejaz Shah assume more executive authority, according to Arif Rafiq, president of New York-based Vizier Consulting, a risk advisory firm focused on the Middle East and South Asia. He claims that Khan will come under further pressure as Pakistan’s economic challenges would continue to mount. He and other expert analysts believe
“The army has signalled its dissatisfaction with Khan’s handling of the coronavirus lockdowns — there are also indications that the army has not been happy with the handling of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor as well as governance in Punjab, the largest province,” Rafiq said. “We’ve seen the chief military spokesman openly push for a tougher lockdown and a retired army officer assume roles as a government spokesman and top CPEC administrator.”
Experts say the military last year had already begun taking a more active role in policy making beyond foreign and national security policy, with Army Chief Qamar Javed Bajwa meeting top business leaders privately to find ways to boost the economy. It was considered total surrender to military when country’s Parliament was made to adopt a law in January giving Bajwa a three-year extension starting from November 2019. He was also made a member of government’s economic board.
No doubt many democracies appoint retired military officers to senior government positions; it becomes embarrassing if the civilians assume to be lame ducks in power with military calling the shots. According to Michael Kugelman, a Washington, D.C. based South Asia senior associate at The Wilson Center. “And herein lies the risk to democracy,” he said. “If retired generals are more influenced by their former bosses than by their current bosses, then democracy is not being properly served”. Indeed, its deliberate undermining of democracy.