COVID-19, Killing The Economy?

COVID-19, Killing The Economy?

While COVID-19 for most of us is trying to find a way to kill time at home, there are bigger problems the world is grappling with. The effects of this pandemic are predicted to last longer than the malady itself.

So what exactly are the challenges the government is up against? They are not exactly limited to one sector. It has raged havoc with multiple disciplines and areas. One significant field, whose fall everyone will be affected by, is the economy of the country. Pakistan’s economy, before the corona horror, was not something to brag about. Onerous tax policies and sky-rocketing interest rates had adversely affected industries and construction sectors. The rising inflation had created discontent among the general public.

Then came an unexpected task the government had to tackle, the Covid-19 pandemic. Experts say that the only way to stop the infection is to adopt social distancing. To accomplish this, there are lockdowns on a massive scale throughout the world. Although this was a measure to reduce the burden on our health infrastructure, lockdowns have proven unfavorable for the economy.

The effects on the economy are manifesting on two levels. First is the international aspect. Our imports and exports have been disturbed. Industries have shut down and production has fallen to zero. They can no longer meet the needs of their foreign buyers. If the production is ongoing, there are difficulties in their transportation and movement. People have been directed to work from home. This model can work for IT and service-based companies but not all kinds of business and trade can be handled without human resources. The lockdown has diminished the consumption of petroleum products a great deal, which has resulted in the partial closure of refineries.

Secondly, on a national level, schools, offices, markets, factories, all kinds of businesses have halted.  Unemployment, bankruptcies are predicted on an unprecedented scale. The middle and lower-income groups are laboring for necessities. According to PIDE (Pakistan Institute of Development Economics), there will be losses of jobs in the millions. Around 2.4% of the Annual GDP will be lost due to COVID-19, which is enough to send the country into a spiraling recession.

It is not that these difficulties are hidden from the eyes of the government. They are known to them as much as any other person in the country. But the government is avoiding to take any radical decision while addressing people in vague terms of the future strategies, for they know that in critical times like these, any incautiousness would lead to masses of problems and pure hysteria in the near future.

There is no denying that the damage is not ignorable. There has been a meager reduction of 75 basis points in the benchmark interest rate to 12.5%. Mr. Khan himself admitted, “This is a joke with the nation. This is simply ignorance about what is happening on the ground. It shows non-seriousness of the government in an emergency.” However, these touchdown situations in many sectors are also paralleled by the positive measures that are being taken on the country level as per the policies of the government of Pakistan.

A plan of around Rs.30 Billion has been unveiled for the construction industry. New tax exemptions and relaxations regarding the source of income have been announced, to pave the way for investments. Naya Pakistan Housing Scheme has been introduced to engage daily wage workers. This will partially help them in these times of financial uncertainty until the lockdown persists. All these policies have been unveiled so that the economy does not come to a stand-still.

The Pakistani government has also asked for donations to help that worst-hit from this ongoing disaster. Similarly, relief efforts are being supplemented with cash hand-outs to people with low socioeconomic status to alleviate their financial hardships. Around 10 million families are being given subsistence. The Prime Minister has announced a tiger force as a volunteer body. This force aims to supply food and provisions to the poverty-stricken. Approximately 7 hundred thousand have already volunteered to be a part of it.

The Government of China has also assured of its assistance in financial as well as technical matters. 500 ventilators have been delivered to hospitals across Pakistan and more are on their way. Extra facilities like expo centers are being converted into quarantine centers to cater to the rising number of patients.

As per Section 245, the Army has been summoned to take part in the war against corona and restrict its spread across Pakistan. A national command and control center has been established to coordinate the response to COVID-19 cases in their quarantine and contact tracing. All these measures are the need of the hour, although some of them have increased government expenditure largely. That is why, these days, the government is partially putting the lid off the lockdown, as a call for all big and small institutes of the country to support themselves.

One such example is of the government of Punjab which has taken the pressure from the business community, traders and shopkeepers concerning their economic suppression, and have allowed the opening of Phase-II of the construction sector, i.e. businesses of steel and PVC Pipes, electric appliances, manufacturers of steel and aluminum equipment, ceramic and paints industries, sanitary, and hardware stores. All hair salons, barbershops, and gymnasiums will also be allowed to open. This is all subject to the adoption of SOPs or guidelines issued for industrial units and sale points.

The postal and courier services, for pick and drop from or at doorsteps and its relevant inter-city, the inter-provincial vehicular movement will be allowed from 9 am to 5 pm, all week.

Retail shops except for large shopping malls, subject to the adoption of SOPs and guidelines, would operate for four days a week. A complete lockdown would be observed for three days every week. All this vigorous policy-making on part of the government is to restore the economy, which deteriorated a lot during the past few months. Let us remember that Pakistan’s economy is no stranger to troubled waters. Let us hope that the government has the competence and discipline to steer us out of this storm.

Leaping from this issue, we must discuss how this corona outbreak has involuntarily drawn a comparison in our minds between COVID-19 and an epidemic that broke out 100 years ago and lasted for a whole of two years: the Spanish flu. But how are the two epidemics comparable? The two diseases are respiratory infections with common symptoms such as a runny nose and fever, though they belong to different families of viruses.

Another fundamental difference lies in the amount of knowledge at our disposal. At the time of the Spanish flu, people did not know the influenza pathogen, and without this knowledge, they couldn’t create a vaccine. Although our knowledge about disease and pathogens is far advanced now, the coronavirus is still an enigma for us. Efforts for developing a vaccine underway but we are yet to see an effective vaccine on the market. It is predicted it may be available by the end of the year.

The coronavirus is also more threatening to different age groups from those who were hit hardest by the Spanish flu. The former affects the elderly and those with pre-existing medical conditions most severely. By contrast, the latter was most deadly for young adults – a rare phenomenon that continues to fascinate epidemiologists.

The Spanish flu killed more people in 24 weeks than HIV/AIDS killed in 24 years, hitting countries ravaged by the Great War, as it accelerated to become an epidemic. The disease spread like wildfire in overcrowded army camps and hospitals, and then spread to the rest of the world after raging through Europe. 

The corona pandemic presents a daunting challenge that is unique to the history of our country. It is a testing time for our leadership and people. Conclusively, it can be said that it is the pressing priority of time to lift the economy from the trenches with the best efforts of everyone. We are undergoing a precarious time in which we have to make the best of our abilities and grasp at the possibilities. Never so poignantly has the world felt the insistence of the attitude, carpe diem, which means, seize the day!

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Post by: Arzoo Rahim

Arzoo Rahim is a medical student at King Edward Medical University, Lahore. She is a former student of Lahore Grammar School and Kinnaird College. Her interests include literature and writing.

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