Asia Briefing N°162 - Pakistan’s COVID-19 Crisis

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A federal government misstep – lifting a lockdown too soon – has placed Pakistan among the twelve countries hardest hit by coronavirus. Nor has the economy recovered as intended. Authorities should let provinces make more health decisions and focus on helping citizens in need

What's new? Hoping to mitigate COVID-19's economic toll, Imran Khan's Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf government lifted a countrywide lockdown in May, leading to a spike in cases. August could see another surge since the public, misled by the clergy and mixed messaging from the government itself, may disregard precautions during religious festivities and ceremonies.

Why does it matter? Climbing infection rates could overwhelm ill-equipped health systems and hinder economic recovery. If citizens are denied health care or adequate aid as the economy contracts, public anger is likely to mount, potentially threatening social order. Militants could take advantage, as they have in the past.

What should be done? The federal government should guide provinces on pandemic policy and help reinforce their health systems but also permit them to devise their own local strategies guided by medical experts. It should work with the parliamentary opposition on its response, particularly on providing a safety net to vulnerable parts of society.


On 9 May, the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf government almost completely lifted a nationwide lockdown it had imposed in late March to counter COVID-19. Pakistan subsequently saw a surge in cases, placing it among the top twelve pandemic-affected countries worldwide. The government justifies the easing of nationwide restrictions on economic grounds; indeed, the lockdown's toll on the most vulnerable, workers and the poor has been brutal. Yet signs of economic recovery since it was lifted are few, while the virus threatens to overwhelm ill-equipped and under-funded health systems. Rising anger and alienation among citizens could threaten social order, potentially giving militants an opening to gain support. The federal government should revise its approach. It should seek consensus with political rivals on its coronavirus strategy, pay greater heed to public health experts, if feasible step up aid to families unable to get by and give the provinces more leeway to lead local efforts to deal with the public health crisis.

The government’s mixed messaging and misinformation from some religious leaders mean that many Pakistanis disregard public health advice. Prime Minister Imran Khan’s initial downplaying of the pandemic’s health risks led to widespread public disregard for social distancing procedures. The removal of restrictions on communal prayers in mosques also increased the risks of new virus clusters. Many clerics advocate religious practices that undercut physical distancing and other preventive measures; they tell worshippers that piety alone, and not health practices, will determine their fate. The federal government’s easing of lockdown measures, despite warnings by the political opposition and medical professionals that transmissions would surge, and the further lifting of the lockdown, on 9 May, encouraged public complacency. Though the government now urges people to respect social distancing rules, these calls are largely ignored. Many believe that the pandemic is over.

The federal government’s adoption of what it calls a “smart lockdowns” strategy may not be enough. The strategy entails removing restrictions in specific areas within cities or regions where the authorities assess that case rates are relatively low and imposing them where they are high. But poor data and low testing rates have hampered efforts to “track, trace and quarantine”, which involve identifying and isolating virus carriers and their contacts and placing hot-spots under quarantine, and are essential to curbing the virus. With COVID-19 spreading in densely populated cities such as Karachi, Lahore and Peshawar, limited closures are unlikely to prevent contagion. While city hospitals are better prepared to deal with the pandemic than some weeks ago, they could again be overwhelmed should cases surge in August, particularly if citizens ignore precautions during Eidul Azha celebrations and the month of Muharram, when large mourning processions are held. The virus has also spread to rural regions, where the health infrastructure is even weaker.

The federal government’s centralised decision-making has often made things worse. It has refused to share authority, even though the constitution grants the provinces responsibility for the health sector. Islamabad’s pandemic policies, devised by the top political and military leadership, have prevailed over provincial preferences, with court rulings strengthening centralised control. The Pakistan Peoples Party’s government in Sindh, the sole opposition-led province, has promoted rigorous restrictions, for instance, but has been unable to implement them in the face of Islamabad’s resistance. The federal government has also been reluctant to work with parliament or main opposition parties to forge a united response. The acrimony is rooted in contested mid-2018 elections, though the opposition has repeatedly offered to assist the government in containing the pandemic.

The public health crisis and economic downturn could be devastating, particularly if people feel it is mismanaged. Anger at the government and social tensions will mount if citizens sense that the government is not adequately looking after their health and wellbeing. In the past, militant groups have exploited such opportunities to gain local support.

While COVID-19 leaves Pakistan’s government few good options, some steps could minimise harm to lives and livelihoods. The prime minister’s fears about the toll of lockdowns are well justified. Yet the economy is unlikely to start moving unless the authorities can keep the virus at bay. Adapting the smart lockdown strategy might avoid the pain of a prolonged lockdown while still saving lives. This could mean allowing provinces, if medical experts so advise, to lock down entire cities and urban districts for short periods, instead of limiting them to partial closures. More broadly, the government should guide the country’s response but give provinces leeway to devise policies tailored to local needs. Bolstering the provinces’ health capacity – particularly testing – should remain a top priority. Emergency assistance to families that fall under the poverty line and unemployed workers remains critical. Prime Minister Imran Khan’s – and the country’s – interests would also be best served by working with the opposition to forge consensus on managing the consequences of an unprecedented and potentially destabilising health crisis.