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Is NCOC our Covid-19 miracle?

At the beginning of the summer, the Covid-19 pandemic was rampaging through countries like South Korea, Italy and Iran at a pace that caused intense anxiety amongst many of us about the impact similar infection and fatality rates would have on Pakistan.

As the containment and suppression measures that were put in place through the nationwide lockdown imposed in mid-March began to be relaxed, there was real concern about how fast the coronavirus pandemic would spread here and the havoc it would wreak. Indeed, on this very page on May 12, I wrote: “Easing containment measures and reducing efforts at suppression will almost certainly cause a spike in infections and fatalities. May God bless us all with the miracle it will take to avoid that spike”.

When infections peaked at 5,830 (daily average by week) during the week of June 14, it seemed as though the worst predictions made in these pages, and indeed pages everywhere, about how bad the crisis may get, would end up coming true.

The literal opposite has happened. Fatalities peaked at 123 deaths per day (daily average by week) during the week of June 21. Positive Covid-19 tests as a percentage of total tests conducted peaked at 22 percent during the week of June 7th. Fatalities (daily average by week) fell to just 10 as of the week of August 23. Positive Covid-19 tests as a percentage of total tests conducted fell to just two percent. It seems God had blessed Pakistan with exactly the miracle that was required to avoid a more profound and desperate spike.

Since mid-June, every single indicator across the spectrum of what is being measured has reduced. As we approach the month of September, the worst predictions seem to have been works of fiction. Even the more conservative estimates that were being made in April, May and June seem to be wildly off the mark.

Was this purely divine intervention? A modern-day miracle? Or has Pakistan figured out a way of handling a global pandemic like Covid-19 through a more prosaic combination of science, data, decision-making and good old-fashioned execution of decisions. Since quantifying divine intervention or miraculousness is wrought with all kinds of hazard, let’s explore the other aspect of what has happened in Pakistan that we can confidently attribute at least part of the success in tackling Covid-19.

Throughout March and April, the defining feature of Pakistan’s Covid-19 response was confusion and contradiction. Divisions within the federal cabinet, between the provinces, and between the federal government and the provinces were one dimension of the problem. There was also the lives versus livelihood debate, triggered by PM Imran Khan’s insistence on not wanting to shut down the access of poor and vulnerable citizens to life-critical economic opportunities. Public communications from the very same PM left much to be desired. In short, the lack of coherence in the Pakistani response made anxiety and anticipation of a calamitous surge in infections and fatalities a logical conclusion.

In early April, the National Command and Operations Centre (NCOC) was formed. The logic for the formation of a new body to tackle the pandemic was solid. The National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA), formed to tackle traditional emergencies, was adept at procuring and delivering emergency and relief supplies during earthquakes, floods and conflict: but such a response covers only a small fraction of the challenge posed by a pandemic like Covid-19. More importantly, the NDMA is, as all government agencies other than the Council of Common Interests and the National Curriculum Council tend to be, a federal agency, with national jurisdiction, shared with provincial agencies.

The whole problem that Covid-19 was causing was the differing interpretations of different data points in different provinces and how those data points and interpretations often differed with those of the federal government. What was needed was a clearinghouse mechanism for the data on Covid-19, the science of Covid-19, the insights on what the data and science mean, and how to use those insights to make decisions about economic stimulus packages, lockdowns, and other measures meant to deal with the pandemic. The NCOC is the national response to the Covid-19 crisis that combines the best features of federalism, without the burden of its limitations.

Three lessons from the months of February, March, April and May combined to help frame the task for NCOC. First, the value of robust data and the use of technology in helping understand it and draw insights from it. Second, the importance of clear and effective public messaging and behavioural change communications. Third, the need for coherent and cohesive governance to ensure consistency and predictability in the national response.

Formed by the combination of the federal government, the four provincial governments and the regional governments, chaired by Planning Minister Asad Umar, and powered by the unique discipline of the Pakistan Army (with Lt Gen Hamood uz Zaman leading the charge), the NCOC has helped apply the lessons from the early days of the pandemic to help manage the Covid-19 pandemic.

The NCOC is essentially the nerve centre through which real time data about Covid-19 has flowed. Every day, the four provinces and the federal government come together to examine the data, and the insights and trends that it reflects, to identify what measures need to be taken.

As we close out the month of August, it is important to acknowledge several things that the government and PM Khan got right, notwithstanding how blessed and lucky Pakistan may be (Alhamdolillah).

First, PM Khan solidly landed on the livelihoods side of the ‘lives versus livelihoods’ debate. Many had mocked this as a false binary (including this writer). But the world has come around to exactly the same conclusion that the PM had arrived at, as early as March of this year: that nationwide suspension of economic activity is untenable and that the public health impact and microeconomic impact of the Covid-19 pandemic needed to be dealt with through different lenses. PM Khan 1 – Convention 0.

Second, PM Khan and the government created at least three categories of subsidy that have helped individuals and businesses deal with the crisis. One, the BISP Ehsaas Emergency Cash programme of a one-time Rs12,000 cash grant for over 16 million households. Two, the electricity and utilities bill subsidies for small and medium sized businesses. Three, substantially lower interest rates. These measures have been instrumental in fending off the worst of the economic impact of Covid-19.

Third, PM Khan, CM Murad Ali Shah, CM Jam Kamal, CM Mehmood Khan and CM Usman Buzdar, along with COAS Qamar Javed Bajwa all worked to establish and deliver the NCOC mechanism. This mechanism has proven the capacity of Pakistan’s institutions to respond to a crisis, quickly and coherently – without the need for constitutional amendments or the undermining of Pakistan’s organic, hard won and resilient federal character.

What happens next? The observance of Muharram this weekend, and the reopening of schools from September 15 onwards will test the NCOC and the overall national resolve. Unlike the June spike, for which Pakistan was largely unprepared, the overall national capacity to deal with local outbreaks and an overall national second wave of infections is substantially improved. While Pakistanis should continue to pray for miracles, the likelihood of needing them has been reduced.

Covid-19 has forced a surge of innovation, creativity and boldness in Pakistani governance. The PTI government in Islamabad, Peshawar and Lahore, the BAP government in Quetta and the PPP government in Sindh and the Pakistani military should all take great pride in how they have come together to respond to this pandemic. They have proven that governance in Pakistan is not condemned to live out an infinite loop of failure. A wide array of national issues much deeper and more permanent than a once-in-a -lifetime pandemic await similar innovation, creativity and boldness.

Mosharraf Zaidi, "Is NCOC our Covid-19 miracle?," The News. 2020-08-28.
Keywords: Health sciences , Economic opportunities , Global pandemic , National jurisdiction , Economic stimulus , Covid-19 pandemic , Economic activity , Behavioral change , Economic impact , Interest rates , Public health , National issues , Murad Ali Shah , Jam Kamal , Qamar Javed Bajwa , Usman Buzdar