Crises like the Coronavirus pandemic don’t create weaknesses so much as they reveal the existing weaknesses; nor do they create inequalities and divisions so much as they exacerbate and accelerate the already existing ones.
What the crisis does, or at least should teach us, is humility. After all, for all of humanity’s achievements, we were brought low by a microbe too small to be seen with the naked eye, a virus that doesn’t even classify as a living entity.
Once you wrap your head around that fact, it follows that there can be no truly conclusive analysis or sweeping statement made that can provide the perfect template for predicting and managing future crises of this nature. All such analyses and statements must be tempered with that same humility, and despite the compulsion to sum up a complex situation in a single sentence or headline, we must understand that the devil, and the way to deal with the devil, is always in the details. And that those details are always changing.
Not Going Hungry
With that caveat out of the way, let’s start with supply chains and the disruption caused to those by COVID. In the early days of the pandemic, news coverage was inundated with images of empty grocery stores in the West as panic buying of toilet paper spurred by the fear of shortages in fact made those shortages worse.
While you can live without toilet paper (and in this part of the world, toilet paper is fairly pointless), you cannot live without food and one thing that the COVID pandemic has taught us is that food security is of paramount importance.
Luckily in Pakistan this wasn’t a huge concern as we so far remain largely self-sufficient in food production and thus have gone through the pandemic without any serious disruptions on that front. Another advantage, we can put it this way, was that rising import duties (a process that began before the current government came in) had increasingly put imported food products out of reach, and the pandemic only increased that trend while also diminishing the purchasing power of the Pakistani consumer, in keeping with global trends.
On a micro level, what we saw as a result of import choking is the rise of industries (cottage and more large-scale alike) to fill in the gap. Many entrepreneurs have started producing cheese varieties domestically to cater to the market left unserved by shortages of imported cheeses (for example). On small scales we have seen innovative setups put into place to deal with the shortages of other such items as well, such as sauces etc. However, we have yet to see whether this will result in a long-term and sustainable effort to scale up production and facilitate import substitution.
On a macro level, as mentioned earlier, we survived the worst because we remain a primarily agricultural nation, blessed with a variety of crops, including wide ranges of fruit and vegetables. We also have a robust cattle and poultry industry which, combined with the fisheries sector, at the very least ensure that we have sufficient supplies of grains, greens and protein. The disruptions that we see in these supplies coming sectors are largely due to bad planning and lack of regulation, as in the recent wheat and sugar crises, and not necessarily due to fundamentals.
But at the same time there are worrying trends that do not augur well for the future. Despite constant rhetoric that agriculture is the backbone of Pakistan’s economy we have seen the production, and even the acreage, of major crops decline over time. As input prices, and thus the cost of production, rise and yields remain static or decline, agriculture becomes an unprofitable profession and this in turn exacerbates the already ongoing process or arable land being sold to make housing societies. Now, one understands that there is certainly a need for housing given our ballooning population, but we must be under no illusion that if this trend continues unchecked we may soon be unable to feed that very population. Thus, it is imperative that this trend be rationalized and, more importantly, we adopt the kind of innovative and efficient techniques that can maximise our yields and this includes, but is not limited to, vertical farming and greenhousing as well as promoting water-efficient technologies and techniques that will take on existential importance as climate change further degrades our water supplies. The cost of agricultural production must be brought down in order to ensure the sector remains profitable otherwise, sooner than we think, Pakistan will no longer be a food-secure nation and when the next crisis hits (or even if no crisis hits) we may well go hungry.
Flexibility and Resilience
Due to the largely undeveloped nature of our economy we avoided the kind of supply shocks that caused problems for the ‘developed’ world. Economies that were reliant on a complex network of suppliers, and especially those relying on ‘just-in-time’ deliveries of raw materials or finished goods, did indeed see major disruptions and are now looking to diversify both their suppliers and their markets along with increasing their ability to store and warehouse raw materials in order to insulate themselves against future shocks. However, doing so is usually beyond the reach of smaller manufacturers and retailers so it does seem, on the face of it, that the only players that will be able to build such capacity are the bigger ones. In the absence of that, what does make sense is to ensure that one does not place all eggs in one, or even two baskets. For Pakistan that means that our export markets must be diversified to the extent that a blockade in one region does not result in an economic crisis at home. This is, of course easier said than done but it is also the key towards building resilient and diversified economies that can not only survive, but thrive in the future. Now this doesn’t just involve keeping one’s options open, but also keeping one’s eyes open because, as we know well, in crisis there is opportunity. Take the textile and garments industry for example, which actually managed to step up and fill gaps that had emerged in the global supply chains. More specifically, after the initial COVID outbreak, when the world went into lockdown there was a sudden demand for facemasks, PPEs, hospital sheets and so on. Now, while Pakistan also initially went into lockdown, a sage decision was made to allow certain industries (such as textiles) to function while observing SOPs. This then allowed Pakistan to reap some benefits by producing and exporting these products. Although, while one cannot predict what the next such global crisis would be, it does show that the diversification of your product and services line allows you the flexibility to be able to evolve and adapt to not just insulate ourselves from shocks due to future crises, but in fact take advantage over them. At this point one must note that investment in technology, be it manufacturing or information technology is absolutely crucial and will be a deciding factor in any possible future.
The Myth of Self-Sufficiency
Reading all this, one may be tempted to proclaim that only complete self-sufficiency is the answer but that is a pipe dream and absolutely not feasible; there will always be countries able to produce goods of a higher quality and at a lower price than others, which is the essence of the economic concept known as competitive advantage. Moreover, in the absence of a crisis that cuts off international trade, there is no way any country can prevail upon consumers to purchase locally made good that are of a lower quality and higher price than the comparable imported items.
The Perils of Populism
When it comes to handling crises, one thing is clear and that is this: leadership makes all the difference. To see the proof of that, we need look no further than the way COVID-19 initially swept across the UK and USA when the respective leaders of those countries displayed incredible negligence in dealing with the initial outbreak. The same was seen in Brazil, and perhaps the most devastating example today is of India, where a mixture of arrogance and arbitrary decision making has led to a catastrophe. Here we see that overconfidence in declaring the virus defeated (in order to reap political rewards) has led to the highest number of deaths and infections in the world, laying bare the weaknesses that plague the healthcare system and as of yet, no end seems to be in sight. This also shows us that image management alone is pointless in the face of gross neglect and incompetence; when the bodies start to pile up no amount of spin can hide that.
In India we also see the dangers of media too deeply tied to the ruling party and state apparatus: with no inclination for balanced, factual reporting most of the media was found busy singing praises of the ruling party and demonizing critics to be able to report on the facts on the ground; those outlets that did warn about the growing cases of COVID were in fact shouted down, with the result that the public at large was unaware of the catastrophe that loomed. This is contrary to the popular perception that always exists in an overzealous segment of any society that only a ‘positive’ and controlled media can serve a country best; the fact is that such a media can only give the impression that ‘all is well’ even when it is not. And when a false image comes crashing down in the face of brutal reality, the shock is usually greater than a country can stand.
The Virus of Minsinformation
On that note, it is crucially important that the virus of misinformation also be kept in check; pseudo-science and conspiracy theories have wreaked havoc along with the Coronavirus, leading people to believe in quack cures and insane theories about microchips being implanted through the vaccine. While this has been seen in just about every country in the world, we saw that the greatest damage was done when political leaders themselves joined the bandwagon, as did Trump in the United States and several BJP and BJP-affiliated leaders in India. For Pakistan this is a great danger as it is at least partially due to such conspiracy theories that polio has not been completely eradicated so far. While some sporadic efforts have been made to check this disinformation, a great deal remains to be done and on that note, one thing that has been proven to be helpful is not just engagement with local community leaders, social networks and ulema, but also prominent personalities. Take the example of Iraq, where there was great reluctance in getting vaccinated until Muqtada al-Sadr himself got the jab and called on his many followers to follow suit. And they did, arguing that if he said it was safe, they would believe him.
Communication and Cooperation
Another lesson is that when it comes to dealing with major crises like the COVID pandemic, political cooperation within states is also crucial, and it does not help at all to try and score political points at the expense of public safety.
Luckily, in Pakistan while there was initially some conflict between the government and opposition on how to manage the pandemic (some sniping continues even today), this was not allowed to derail overall efforts. Here the role of the NCOC is praiseworthy, providing as it did a forum where all stakeholders could meet, discuss, and jointly formulate strategy while also allowing for the flexibility to craft localized solutions and measures. In fact, the NCOC in many ways provides a template for cooperation in other fields as well, and is a body that should indeed be retained and replicated.
Ultimately, It’s About Resources
In conclusion, while we saw poor leadership initially wreak havoc in countries like the USA and UK, the situation there is now very different and all the previous challenges are being overcome due to one simple fact: they have more money and resources than others. The way the infection graph is going down in the USA and across Europe is a testament to not just the efficacy of the vaccine, but also the ability of these states to rapidly procure and provide vaccines to their public. With the efforts in the developing world lagging behind those of the rich, industrial and post-industrial world, we are seeing an era of viral apartheid begin, with the vaccinated world restricting the entry of people from the ‘less’ vaccinated world. As stated in the introduction of this piece, the virus is thus accelerating inequality as on a global level, countries with fewer resources are naturally slower in dealing with the virus than well-resourced countries. The same is true within states, as it is naturally the poorest, most marginalized and most insecure groups and communities that face the greatest damage from the ravages of the virus and its economic fallout.
The writer has worked extensively in Pakistan's print and electronic media and is currently hosting a talk show on a private TV channel. E-mail: [email protected]
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