EDITORIAL: Prime Minister (PM) Imran Khan has announced the reopening of the tourism industry after a meeting of the National Coordination Committee (NCC) on June 1, 2020. The argument offered to justify the decision is the hardship being caused and likely to be caused to people in the tourist areas in the north and the Galliat that only have a narrow window of 3-4 months to earn their living for the whole year. All overseas Pakistanis, especially labourers, have been allowed to return home provided Covid-19 patients amongst them adopt self-quarantine. Both decisions of course run risks of further exacerbating the spread of the coronavirus pandemic that is showing signs of accelerating as a result of the loosening of lockdowns. As far as tourism is concerned, it is obviously aimed at reviving in-country visitors since inward bound international flights are frozen and in any case, even without the pandemic, our northern areas and Galliat received hardly any foreign tourists. The PM, while addressing a press conference after the NCC meeting, reiterated his stance of being opposed to a strict lockdown as some 25 million people in Pakistan are poor or daily wage/informal economy earners who would starve, unlike the rich. Despite his view, the PM said, after the 18th Amendment all the provinces were free to take their own decisions in the matter. Imran Khan's disingenuous argument that the rich adhere to the Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) outlined by the government while the poor simply cannot because of overcrowding in their modest homes and lack of clean running water, etc., is a statement of undeniable fact. It is, therefore, possible to partially agree with the PM that lockdowns are not a cure for the pandemic, but, as he himself admits, can merely help to reduce its incidence and flatten the curve of cases. It is also possible to agree with his forecast that we will have to learn to live with the pandemic until a vaccine is discovered (which may take 1-2 years), clinically tested and declared safe (perhaps another 1-2 years). But that should not be interpreted to mean, even impliedly, that the fond hope of ‘herd immunity' is aimed at.
A major reason why the people at large have not adhered to the SOPs whenever lockdowns have been loosened is the failure of the government from day one to launch a public awareness campaign to educate people about the coronavirus and the dos and don'ts it imposes. Now the perceived intent of the government to incrementally loosen the lockdowns further by extending waivers to one industry or the other is likely to increase the incidence of the affliction (if it is not already showing signs of doing so). The debate still revolves around the lives versus livelihoods binary, except that an inconsistent policy outlook threatens to result in us falling between the two stools and ending up with the worst of both worlds. As it is, an experts' report on the unreported incidence of coronavirus cases in Punjab, particularly the main hotspot Lahore, appears to have been suppressed by the Punjab government so as not to cast its performance in combating the virus in a poor light. According to the report, there may be more than 670,000 cases of asymptomatic patients in Lahore alone. One shudders to contemplate what the situation might be in the province as a whole, let alone countrywide. Yet the Punjab government in its wisdom is following the lead of the NCC decisions mentioned above to allow shops to remain open five days a week (as opposed to the previous four) and for longer hours (10:00am to 7:00pm instead of the previous 10:00am to 5:00pm). This extension in opening days and timings could cause our worst fears of an exponential explosion of cases to come true.