Frank Islam (Washington DC): At this point in time, on March 25, the only thing that can be said with any certainty regarding the Coronavirus pandemic is there is no certainty about how and when it will end or what its exact impact will be for Pakistan, other nations and the world.
There are observations, however, that can be made regarding the pandemic’s impact to date, the responses that have been made to it; and, what actions will be necessary in its aftermath.
Overall, the novel coronavirus has put the whole world into an economic and health crisis mode. With the hundreds of thousands of citizens sick and over ten thousand dead, millions of businesses closed, and hundreds of millions of students out of class because of their schools being shut down, the pandemic has already had a devastating effect in nations around the globe. That’s the bad news. The worse news is that in most nations the pandemic is still accelerating.
As examples of the acceleration, consider the following: On March 23, using data from Johns Hopkins University, the BBC reported that “It took 67 days from the first report of Covid-19 to reach 100,000, 11 days for the second 100,00 and just four days for the third 100,00. When I wrote the first draft of this column near the end of last week, the number of confirmed cases in the U.S. was 15,219 with 201 total deaths and the number of confirmed cases in Pakistan was 329 with several deaths. As I submit this column, the number of confirmed cases in the U.S. is 50,206 with 637 total deaths and the number of confirmed cases in Pakistan was 803.
This explosive situation has evoked a variety of responses from the nation’s leaders. Some of them began by trying to strike a balance between carrying on with business as usual and implementing some preventive health care measures.
Boris Johnson, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom initially had the U.K. change virtually nothing because of the virus but by Monday, March 23 after the death total in the U.K. hit 422 Johnson announced a virtual lockdown of the entire country.
Imran Khan, Prime Minister of Pakistan’s starting position was that he didn’t want any shutdown because of the negative effect it would have on the working poor. By March 22, Khan reconsidered and had banned all international flights and instituted a full lockdown in Sindh province.
From January 22 to early March, President Donald Trump of the U.S. minimized the scope and consequences of the coronavirus. By middle March, he appeared to be taking the pandemic and the advice of his healthcare professionals more seriously. Then, in a press conference on Monday, he declared that “The cure can’t be worse than the problem “and hinted that he might end the shutdown shortly.
In contrast to Trump’s action, on Tuesday, March 24, India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi took a page from China’s President Xi JinPing’ playbook who had completely shut down the Wuhan province after the coronavirus was discovered there. On Tuesday, March 24 Modi decreed a 21-day lockdown of the entire country of India. In initiating the lockdown, he stated, “If you can’t handle those 21 days, this country will go back 21 years.”
While the responses have varied from nation to nation and from leader to leader the one close to constant across all countries is the closing and shutting down of borders. International flights into most countries have become virtually extinct. Pakistan has closed its border with Iran in the Sindh province.
The U.S. has reinforced its border restrictions with Mexico. And, in the U.S., the governor of the State of Florida has initiated a process at the state’s airports that require domestic travelers from the state of New York – the epicenter of the coronavirus in the U.S. accounting for more than one-half of its cases and deaths to date – be screened before being allowed to enter the state and to be quarantined for fourteen days before being allowed into the general populous.
The enormous impact on the coronavirus on nations’ health care systems have found most of them underprepared and insufficiently equipped to manage a pandemic of this scope and severity. It has also necessitated finding new means for communicating, educating, and doing commerce. This has precipitated innovative approaches and an expanded use of emerging technologies to enable a modicum of coping with these terrifying conditions. These include;
Artificial Intelligence and robotics being used for the programming and delivery of healthcare services in highly infectious settings. Telehealth and teleconferences taking place to allow remote consultations and diagnosis of virus employing 5G technology
Online teaching apps and platforms opening a new avenue of learning for kids and their parents, with millions now subscribing for various free and paid services.
- A boom in E-commerce. Walmart experienced a significant increase in online orders in China during the outbreak. A surge is also expected in Pakistan with platforms like Daraz having capacity to expand their 50,000 orders daily average to a much higher new level. Online ordering of food for delivery or pick-up has already increased exponentially in the U.S. And, in the U.S., Amazon is adding more than 100,000 new drivers for deliveries of ordered goods and services.
- Internet consumption increasing by many times because all family members are using multiple devices for professional and entertainment purposes, thus multiplying profits of internet companies.
These innovations should be included as part of two plans that will be needed to enable a nation and its citizens to rebound from this pandemic. The first which is needed immediately is a short-term coronavirus recovery plan. The second which should be developed and put in place for full implementation after the recovery has taken place is a long-term national health care and economic systems development plan.
Most nations are in the process of implementing measures to react to the health care and economic consequences of the coronavirus pandemic. In Pakistan, the government has approved a National Emergency Plan for Coronavirus Control of $558 million to come from the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank to address medical and health care needs. And, non-governmental organizations and the social media are raising funds to address those with economic-related needs.
These are necessary activities. But to have the maximum benefit for the country and its citizens they need to be organized with other essential initiatives into a centralized, coordinated and integrated short-term coronavirus recovery plan that is managed and monitored by an independent group established and organized through the government.
A short-term recovery plan would allow a nation to move from purely isolated, independent and reactionary actions to begin the process of returning to a state of normalcy. What should be understood, however, is that for most nations including developing nations such as Pakistan and developed nations such as the United States a state of normalcy would be insufficient for moving forward into a promising future.
That is the case because as the coronavirus pandemic has highlighted, both the healthcare systems and the economic systems in many countries are woefully inadequate for addressing the needs of the vast majority of a country’s citizens. Massive inequality is the order of the day.
The health care and economic system development plan should be developed and used as the framework for reducing that inequality and to create systems that are better and fairer for all.
That plan should be created and its implementation is overseen by an independent commission based upon a complete situational assessment of the economic and health care conditions of citizens pre- and post- coronavirus. It should establish measurable goals and defined strategies for achieving them within a specified time period. It should be the 21st century equivalent of the Marshall Plan.
The importance of a national health care and economic system development plan cannot be overstated. Inequality has been on the rise in many nations around the world for most of the 21st century. If it is not confronted and reversed now, it will only get worse.
The coronavirus pandemic is definitely a curse. In a strange way, however, it is also a blessing.
It provides a singular opportunity for nations and leaders around the world to do the right thing. If they do through their plans and deeds, we will all be the beneficiaries. If they do not, we will all suffer the consequences.
(Frank F. Islam is an Entrepreneur, Civic Leader, and Thought Leader based in Washington DC. The views expressed here are personal)