April 13 was Easter Monday, an everlasting testimony to the resurrection of Christ after his crucifixion and its symbolic assertion that there is life after what is perceived as death. In the midst of a somewhat stifling home confinement in fear of the ubiquitously merciless and relentlessly marauding novel coronavirus, somehow the day and its symbolism was comfortingly reassuring.
Yesterday, the IEDCR also officially admitted that we had transitioned to Stage Four of the pandemic. The government has stepped up efforts to contain the spread of the virus as best as humanly possible. The Prime Minister has stepped up to the plate and announced a slew of measures, not only to bring the health services to a modicum of preparedness as the disease steadily marches on, but to put into place social safety nets and measures to offset the unexpected economic fallout, with grim consequences particularly for our huge informal economy; for our masses of daily wage-workers unexpectedly without jobs because most infrastructure activities have ground to a halt; for industrial workers, suddenly laid off with their factories closed because of the lockdown and necessity for physical distancing; for the farmers and workers in the agri-sector where crops and produce have been harvested or are ready for harvesting but cannot be transported to their markets. These are all wise and well-thought out measures, announced none too soon.
How long will this lockdown last? Well, we have been in a sort of "lockdown" that has not quite been a total lockdown. We have been on an extended "public holiday" (a gross misnomer that gave the illusion that people could afford to ignore social distancing from each other, with unhappy, even deadly consequences) since the second half of March, extended twice to date until April 25. It has been by now almost universally demonstrated that until we find a vaccine (that could take 18 months at least), the only effective way of stopping the advance of this virus is by effectively sealing off, progressively, all avenues and carriers spreading from a confined area or locality. As we have just entered the fourth stage of the pandemic spread, I suspect that now we shall have no option but to extend this quarantining measure and be far stricter—perhaps even with draconian measures—in enforcing it. This is a challenging task, because how do homeless people stay quarantined at "home"? How, or where, do daily wage earners without wages earn money to buy daily essentials to survive? How do the hungry go out, and where, to forage, beg, or somehow get something, anything, to eat?
History teaches us that a pandemic like this, the last being the so-called Spanish Flu, comes in waves. We must expect and be prepared for a second wave that could be more virulent than the first if we let our guards down. Just as you cannot forestall the successive wave and dynamics of a mega-tsunami, you cannot wish the second wave away. So, there are, and will be, complex and difficult questions for the government. The answers to all those would require carefully weighed in, politically mature and sagaciously balanced decisions.
In my humble view, and I hope to God I am woefully wrong, we appear to be still worryingly unprepared, as much for the disease as for the socioeconomic fallouts that will very likely impact politics as well. The real test will come in the ability to implement wisely the policies that have been announced. I am neither an economist by training, nor a policymaker now by vocation—just an ordinary but concerned citizen, ignorant of much, not privy to many things. I have no desire to try and be Monday-morning quarterback here. But I dare venture, from my hole of ignorance and well of idleness, to share a few thoughts, hesitantly venture a few suggestions, for whatever they are worth. At the very least, they will help me get a few things off my chest!
These are extraordinary times and call for extraordinary measures. Without a shot being fired or a missile launched by any state against any other, the entire world today is assuredly engaged in a global war more massive and widely embracing than either of the previous two World Wars. Let us not mince words: we are, all of us, fighting World War III, now, today. Our common enemy is this novel coronavirus, which has displayed the ability to jump from bat to mammal to humans, mutated with each jump to adapt and multiply in its new host. It has hopped across regions, oceans and continents, mutating into several varieties (three to date), adapting to each new host environment. It has been several steps ahead of our human efforts and capabilities (to date) to out-think us and out-match our fire power.
Perhaps governments will now, necessarily, have to be cruel to be kind to the peoples they govern. They may have to call in the armed forces in massive support of civilian administration, and delegate oversight and enforcement of curtailed movement within strictly defined parameters; requisition all available stocks of food grain in government and private godowns (the latter at fair compensation to millers); arrange setting up of TCB/ration shops (reminiscent of war time eras earlier) and oversee distribution of essential food grains, edible oil, sugar and salt, and even milk, eggs and daily farm and orchard produce, at fixed prices and in rationed quantities per head. Eggs, fresh milk and other perishable produce should be purchased directly from producers at fixed prices in the first place, harnessing the massive logistical capacity of the armed forces to augment the paramilitary and civil administration capacity, requisitioning trucks and buses from the private sector (again at fairly determined compensation), so that farmers and producers have steady incomes and incentives to keep producing. There must be continuous patrolling of all neighbourhoods, because these are also times when desperate or unscrupulous elements may try to take advantage of the situation.
Industrialists and manufactures may be coopted and enlisted, and commissioned into this "wartime effort", to retool their lines of production to produce essential, life-saving equipment like oxygenating respirators, PPE required by health care personnel and hospitals, lifesaving drugs and such experimental prophylactic drugs as may be currently in use to fight the disease. In normal times, their production could be scaled down, but they could still remain an auxiliary line of export and sale to domestic, regional and global markets. There have been numerous reported cases of people entrusted (and they include party-workers, elected officials and bureaucrats) with distribution of relief goods who expropriated them for personal gain. Such people should be summarily tried and appropriately punished by special "war-time" tribunals. This is also a time when all parties, irrespective of their ideological or political differences, need to come together, at least for this great but existential battle of our lifetime.
And yes, the industries, particularly our export-oriented industries, who have been severely jolted by reneging on the part of their overseas purchasers now refusing to pay for orders through enforcement of force majeure clauses—they must be offered a stimulus to enable them to keep their workers on the pay-roll (at reduced wages if necessary, but at incomes deemed necessary for their survival). It is important that a contract be worked out with all factory owners that they too must bear a fair size of the state's burden, with extraordinary taxes levied for a specified time. In other words, government must govern, judiciously, wisely, for the greater good of all, eschewing the interests of vested-interest groups, in order to enable all to survive, for society to endure and heal, and for social order to remain intact and be resurrected again. Government must at the same time endeavor to protect and reshape contractual obligations between buyer and seller in the global marketplace—which may appear daunting at first sight, but the vulnerability of all countries and governments to the socioeconomic impacts of this pandemic are by now quite starkly evident and felt everywhere. We all have to help and enable each other to survive, whether within the domestic and national sphere, or between peoples in the region, across regions or across the globe.
Restoration of human values, societal discipline and healthy respect for civic responsibilities, privileging them over the current metrics of profit and loss that have been so all-pervasive, needs to be reasserted once more. We need to inculcate an abiding awareness among citizens—through revisiting educational curricula at all levels—of their individual and collective responsibility to society and the ecosystem in which we live, comprising both the natural habitat as well as the manmade industrial add-ons that flow incessantly from man's ingenuity and ability to create. The new order that we start shaping now must be founded on our acknowledging and respecting that ecological equilibrium needs to be maintained for all its components—humans, other species, flora, fauna and pathogens—to coexist and flourish, and symbiotically nurture each other. The new order shall rise from the ashes of the old.
Tariq Karim is a retired ambassador and currently Senior Fellow at the Independent University.