Corona Virus and political economy

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RAASHID WALI JANJUA

WHAT is the linkage between Pakistan’s political economy and Corona virus pan demic? The virus’ virulence and the government’s ability to mitigate it is a clear pointer towards the skewed spending priorities of the government wherein it spends a lion’s share on debt servicing and government’s administration while forcing the health sector to operate on a shoe string budget. Before analyzing the factors behind a proelite political economy of the country it is appropriate to take a stock of the country’s health care sinews. Pandemics are fought with national resolution and resources. Resolution sans resources is akin to human rights abuse as the tough measures necessary to fight a pandemic would hurt the people and caregivers with equal ferocity. Pakistan is woefully unprepared for health emergencies as is evident from the example of twin cities including the capital Islamabad. Rawalpindi and Islamabad host a population of 3.4 million as per 2017 census. The total number of functional ventilators, a most vital equipment to cure Corona affected patients, in twin cities is a little close to 100. A comparison of population density of twin cities ie 2000 per square km with that of Lombardy ie 420 per square km, the worst affected city of Italy, shows that we are more vulnerable to the spread of disease than Italy if precautions are not taken. A major shortcoming is the non-availability of protective equipment for the doctors and paramedical staff. Most hospitals do not even possess the right kind of masks ie N95, what to talk of the protective suits being worn by doctors in advanced countries. The Prime Minister himself acknowledged in his address to the nation on 17 March that the country’s medical infrastructure was not configured to combat a pandemic like Corona. That was a very honest and candid admission and if the pandemic acts as a wakeup call for us we as a nation would have learnt a most important lesson to protect our future generations. Why did we come to this sorry pass? The reason lies in our political economy that is heavily tilted in favour of the elite who have captured the state resources. This has resulted in allocation of national resources to all those sectors that cater to the needs of the elite at the cost of vital development sectors ministering to the human security needs of the population. Do we understand the nature of the horror visited upon the hapless populace through neglect of health and education sectors? Pakistan’s per capita health care spending is $36 which is much lower than WHO’s benchmark of $86 for low income countries. Pakistan has been spending only 0.6 to 0.8% of its GDP as compared to the WHO recommended bare minimum figure of 6% of GDP. Now why is it so? Pakistan’s political economy has been hijacked by a political elite with feudal, business and industrial linkages. As per research findings of Ayesha Ghaus 1% of the population owns 22% of the agricultural land while the income tax penetration of the country is not more than 1% of GDP which as per Akbar Zaidi could easily be taken to 6%. A tax and corporate exemption regime for powerful cartels and monopolies costs this poor country a whopping sum of 2.9 trillion annually or 8% of GDP. This is the cost of concessions the privileged elite extracts from the poor country. The reason for above as per Akbar Zaidi and other political economy scholars like Dr Adeel Akhter lies in poor governance, elite interests, weak parliamentary oversight, a perennially disturbed security environment, dysfunctional national institutions, and a lack of people centred development orientation of the state. Pakistan’s evolution as a national security state fixated on internal and external threats like extremism, terrorism and Indian aggression has kept the country focused more on military centric notions of security rather than development centred human security. The result has been a political economy influenced by IMF due to a need to bridge the frequent balance of payment gap to meet our vital defence and development expenditures. The remedy as per above scholars lies in tough economic decisions to be taken by the civilian politicians for equitable distribution of wealth and generation of revenues as per the true tax potential of the country. The military has been a dominant partner in politico-economic decision making in the past and for a country like Pakistan where the political elite has been stultifying the equitable economic development initiatives regularly, there is a need for the army to help the political government take tough decisions to steer the political economy away from the predatory elite. There is a need of regime or system change instead of mere change of faces in Pakistan to change the extractive nature of our polity and governance. The elite capture of Pakistan’s economy is supported through a collusion between the internal as well as external stakeholders like IMF and its sponsors who extract a geopolitical advantage every five years or so. It is time our political and business elite is incentivised and pushed into making tough political and economic decisions in the interest of an equitable political economy by the most puissant institution of the country ie Pakistan Army to improve the country’s human security indices. — The writer, a Retired Brig, is a PhD scholar at NUST, Islamabad.