AnalysisPakistan’s military pressured to withdraw support for Imran Khan as Covid-19 cases soar
- The South Asian country’s problems range from coronavirus infections to a potential locust infestation, soaring inflation and food shortages
- Opposition politicians say Khan’s government has become a liability for its sponsors but neither can the military shield itself from blame
From fewer than 100,000 confirmed infections at the beginning of June, the number of cases is expected to hit 300,000 by the end of the month and over 1 million by late July or early August, planning minister Asad Umar – who chairs the joint civil-military committee overseeing Pakistan’s response to the pandemic – said on Sunday.
With mass outbreaks under way in 20 cities, the country’s public health care system has been overwhelmed in recent weeks. People have been turned away by hospitals in many major cities, and laboratories are buried under a backlog of tests.
The first of what doctors fear will be two infection peaks in Pakistan will coincide with the onset of the monsoon season. Officials anticipate it will trigger the worst locust infestation in 25 years, while meteorologists have forecast widespread flooding, potentially compromising national food security and displacing millions of people.
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This will pile on the misery for the millions of informal sector workers that the government said were rendered unemployed by the imposition of a piecemeal nationwide lockdown in April. According to the International Labour Organisation, the informal sector generates more than 70 per cent of the country’s employment outside agriculture.
Since the army ushered Khan’s administration into office two years ago amid widespread electoral irregularities, Pakistan’s gross domestic product growth rate has nosedived from 5.8 per cent in 2017-18 to negative 0.38 per cent in the financial year ending this month, according to the Ministry of Finance, while the inflation rate has soared into the double digits. Despite economic stimulus measures, it remains stuck there because of food-item shortages created by the lockdown of the supply-demand chain.
The World Bank in a recent report said Pakistan and the rest of South Asia would account for two-thirds of the 176 million people expected to be pushed into poverty by the pandemic.
Some analysts and opposition leaders fear the country is headed into chaos.
“Just look at, heaven forbid, a scenario where the absolutely pathetic handling of the Covid-19 threat is now ballooning into a grave crisis and in the coming weeks and months people in the grip of the virus are turned away from hospitals and, say, die on the pavements outside,” Abbas Nasir, a London-based analyst and former Asia-Pacific executive editor for the BBC World Service, told This Week in Asia.
“Replicate this horrendous scenario across the country and you have the spectre of unprecedented civil unrest as people are already frustrated with inflation, and the repercussions of jobs and incomes of the sharply shrinking economy. I shudder to think what may happen then. All this could seriously destabilise Pakistan.”
Opposition politicians in parliament this week attacked the Khan administration for its mishandling of the pandemic, but laid the ultimate responsibility for its failings at the door of the military.
Bilawal Bhutto, chairman of the Pakistan People’s Party, said his party had repeatedly warned about the consequences of imposing a civilian proxy administration, and said the solidarity of the federation was under threat.
Former defence minister Khawaja Mohammed Asif, of ex-prime minister Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz party, said Khan’s government had become a liability for its sponsors.
Their sentiments were echoed on Wednesday by Akhtar Mengal, a former chief minister of Balochistan province, after he pulled his Balochistan National Party-Mengal out of the ruling coalition, reducing its majority to seven. Speaking on television, he said Khan “pretended” to run the government but was not making any decisions.
But neither Bhutto, Asif nor Mengal actually named the military, because both parties know they cannot return to power without its support, and because it remains widely respected and popular within the broader population.
Nonetheless, it has become increasingly difficult for Pakistan’s military to shield itself from blame because it has become more openly active in domestic policy in recent months, according to Michael Kugelman, South Asian senior associate from Washington-based think tank the Wilson Centre.
“It would be wrong to suggest that Pakistanis would view this as a failure of the military. But certainly, there is the possibility of a reputational blow to an institution that has traditionally sought to stay above the fray and behind the scenes during periods of civilian rule, in order to avoid being blamed for domestic policy failures,” he said.
On the pandemic front, the signs are ominous.
The average infection rate for the more than 900,000 Pakistanis tested for Covid-19 has risen to 22.6 per cent, the World Health Organisation (WHO) reported on June 14. This reflects Pakistan’s consistently low level of testing, driven by a policy of only checking people manifesting symptoms.
Currently, the average daily testing rate stands at about 4,400 per million population – about the same as India, which has a population six times bigger than its neighbour.
The WHO recommends 15,000 tests per million population, and has advised governments not to lift lockdowns until the positivity rate stays below five per cent for at least 14 days.
The death rate of infected patients in Pakistan is 13 people per million, compared with seven in India, which is on track to overtake the United States as the world’s most infected country.
Adjusted for population, Pakistan’s daily infection count, which has risen to about 6,000 from 1,000 during June, is on par with Britain and six times that of Germany.
This compelling data, alongside mathematical models developed by overseas universities, including Imperial College London and the University of Washington, suggests that the actual number of cases in Pakistan could be anywhere between three to 10 times higher than that registered by the government.
So-called smart lockdowns have this week been imposed in the worst-hit parts of 20 cities across the country.
However, the government has flatly refused to take responsibility for initially downplaying the threat posed by the novel coronavirus when infection clusters first appeared in March.
When his administration lifted most restrictions on public movement before the Eid ul-Fitr festival in May, Khan said it was up to the public to take the government’s recommended precautions. When the public predictably failed to do so, Khan said it was their own fault.
Despite the prime minister’s shortcomings, the military remains “unrepentant” in its support for his administration, said analyst Nasir, who is also a former editor of Dawn, Pakistan’s top English language daily newspaper.
But it might be forced to reconsider if Pakistan’s economic recession deepens and public unrest breaks out, he said.
“Western funds are drying up so the military will need to refocus itself and support a democratic government that has the wherewithal to deliver economic growth,” Nasir said.