It is a truism that the real test of leadership comes during times of national crises like the present coronavirus pandemic. In such unprecedented situations, leaders have to realistically envision the looming danger, adopt a clear-cut policy after mature consultations, bring together the entire country, despite political differences, and create a national will and confidence to overcome the crisis.
The Covid crisis thus was, and is, an opportunity for Imran Khan to prove his mettle. Has he risen to the occasion?
The simple answer has to be no.
To begin with, Imran Khan’s messaging has been terrible. In his first address, he said the virus was like the flu and that 97 per cent of those infected recovered. Did he even realise the scale of 3 per cent in a country like Pakistan, with a population of 220 million? In another address, he said only the old and sick were in danger. This was incorrect and contradicted by the PM’s special assistant on health, Dr Zafar Mirza, who said a majority of the confirmed cases in Pakistan were of the young people. Then, of course, was his blatant lie to justify not imposing a lockdown, saying that the Indian PM had to apologise for doing so. The fact was that PM Modi had apologised for the hardships that the people had to face during the lockdown, while emphasising that it was absolutely necessary.
Messaging apart, Imran Khan’s approach to tackle the crisis has been tentative. Ignoring expert views that without physical distancing, the infection is likely to spread exponentially, he rejected a national lockdown, saying that it would adversely affect the 25 per cent poor who would lose their livelihood and food.
The argument had merit, except for the fact that in case the virus spread due to there being no lockdown, the poor would be the first to suffer due to the lack of medical facilities. Instead of a full lockdown, he appealed to the people to self-quarantine themselves while closing educational institutions, sporting events, etc. However, construction industry and some other sectors were to be opened in phases.
The strategy could still have worked if the provinces had followed suit. However, ignoring the PM, the Sindh CM took the initiative for a province-wise lockdown. Punjab, KPK and Balochistan belatedly followed suit, though not calling it a ‘lockdown’ in deference to the federal government. The army chipped in by saying it would enforce the lockdown. Imran Khan was thus left red-faced. The uncoordinated manner of ‘locking’ down of different provinces would make the situation even more chaotic. Known for his U-turns, it would be interesting to see if and when he declares a full lockdown.
Despite the crisis, Imran Khan has not given up the path of political victimisation of opponents. Instead of developing a national consensus on the way forward, he has refused to listen to the opposition, let alone work with it. As a result, the country remains bitterly divided.
An interesting aspect of Imran Khan’s leadership style is his dependence almost entirely on his unelected/unaccountable friends and technocrat advisers and special assistants. It is suspected that it is they who have advised against a full lockdown so as not to have their factories closed.
Though Imran Khan claimed that his government swung into action as early as January 15, much before the first case was reported in Pakistan, in reality, the National Security Committee (NSC) only met on March 13 to discuss the pandemic. By this time, there were already two dozen cases in Pakistan, infected pilgrims were streaming in from Iran via Taftan in Balochistan and the massive Tablighi Jamaat congregation had taken place in Raiwind, Punjab. Imran Khan’s government simply failed to assess the magnitude of the problem.
His poor leadership led the NSC to constitute a National Coordination Committee (NCC) to evaluate the situation on a day-to-day basis. Within days, the NCC set up a National Command and Operations Centre to act as its implementation arm. Not surprisingly, a serving army general was made the convener.
While all provinces have restricted congregations in mosques to five or less, prominent ulemas have rejected this, declaring that daily prayers would be held in mosques.
Imran Khan’s skills will be tested in tackling this potential confrontation, especially during the forthcoming month of Ramzan, though it is obvious who will blink.
The one initiative that Imran Khan has taken is to announce the formation of a Corona Relief Tiger Force, comprising young volunteers to help the government in its relief efforts. He has also put together a ‘relief package’. Both these are, however, yet to be operationalised.
It is feared that Pakistan is sitting on a coronavirus time bomb, with government’s estimates that over 50,000 people could be infected by April-end.
Imran Khan needs to heed the warning of the Chinese medical team in Pakistan that the outbreak could be far bigger than the confirmed numbers showed, since shortage of testing kits may be masking true numbers. A Pakistani doctor perhaps summed it up best when she said: ‘We’re likely to have a very big outbreak no matter what we do now. And we will not be equipped to handle the numbers.’
Pakistan, like the rest of the world, is faced with a huge calamity. Whether the pandemic overwhelms Pakistan or not will largely depend on the ability or otherwise of the government to provide leadership, unify the country and take the hard measures required. So far, Imran Khan has shown a paucity of such leadership traits.
Views are personal
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