It is hard to compress a full, eventful year in a sentence. Here in Pakistan, as indeed elsewhere, however, 2020s summary is easy to do: it is a year of losses — of jobs, businesses, opportunities, hopes, plans and above all else loved ones who fell prey to the virulence of the virus.
There may be many countries in the world willing to happily trade places with Pakistan on the Covid-19 list. The country is way down among the most affected ones. The total cases by the end of the year are not even half a million. The deaths are under ten thousand.
The first wave that started around March did spread fear and terror about an Italy or a Spain happening in Pakistan. For the next two months as Corona infections peaked and casualty rates soared, the nightmare seemed to lurk just round the bend. But then, as if by a miracle, the peaking cones flattened out and eventually just disappeared.
This was primarily due to extreme heat and humidity that blunted the virus’s potency and halted its spread. Between July and August, Pakistan made the virus infected regions on the globe go green with envy. Its vast population was acting as if the plague never arrived here.
The second wave started September and is continuing. But unlike say the UK or the US and even India and Brazil, Covid-19 second coming didn’t strike as hard as it was feared.
The citizens, used to the idea of taking the problem in their stride after the first wave, weren’t really careful with social distancing and, therefore, aggravated the situation but as the year closed the second wave did not show exceptional rise. In fact, the last month’s closing weeks showed declining curves.
Job losses in millions
While significant, these silver linings did not compensate for the losses the country suffered in 2020. The government’s estimates of job losses run into hundreds of thousands. Unofficial figures suggest that these were anywhere between 2.5 million to 3.5 million. That’s a lot of households.
By the end of the year, those holding on to their jobs weren’t really confident that the situation would stay this way. According to IPSOS December survey about consumer confidence, 77% of the Pakistanis were worried about the country’s direction; 70% were anxious about their financial future; almost 83% of the employed felt uncertain about their jobs.
These perception survey speaks to the deeply-ingrained fears the public’s more skilled sections have on account of a shrinking economy. The national economic outlook remained grim throughout the year and even the most promising assessments could not cast away the pall of gloom characterising the national mood.
Pakistan’s economic downturn from the previous year had already put the country on the edge and Covid-19 impact only accentuated a grim situation. 2020 saw a global recession and around 100 million people were pushed into extreme poverty. The global impact of the pandemic ranged from $4.8 trillion to $7.4 trillion, and around 28% of losses incurred by the developing Asian countries alone.
The government tried to manage its financial affairs by seeking debt relief. Under the joint coordinated effort, the World Bank, the IMF and G20 countries established Debt Service Suspension Initiative (DSSI) to fight the pandemic with the key objective to assist the poorest countries to access much-needed financial resources.
Downers coming from everywhere
Given the length and depth of the pandemic, suspension period, which was originally set to end on Dec 31, 2020, got extended to June 2021. For the outgoing year the estimated debt relief amounted to $1.7b. Well over $4b came in from international lenders loans to fight Covid-19 impact but were spent to support running expenditure.
All in all, none of the fiscal space converted into business growth or job creation. That’s why year 2020 witnessed a rolling back of all national development and growth plans. Except for small improvements in the real estate and the construction sector, downers came from everywhere else.
Corona politics also raged the whole year. First the government remained reluctant to accept that lockdown was inevitable. Then the opposition went on a stretched protest campaign against the government and held public rallies inviting criticism for violating the standard operating procedures and social distancing. The year closed with both the government and the opposition pointing fingers at each other for worsening the challenge of tackling the pandemic.
The public’s tears and fears were somehow lost in this binary of recrimination. Even though the capital and other cities witnessed a slew of protests from doctors, nurses, teachers, clerks, farmers, and workers of public enterprises, it was drowned out by political wrangling.
The heartbreaks and heartaches became more poignant on account of the misery caused by the pandemic. When oxygen ran out in a leading hospital in Peshawar, leaving seven Covid-19 patients dead, a deep grief descended on the nation born of a sense that nothing was going right. For these reasons not many would miss 2020 and, looking at the last sunset, may well be saying in their hearts ‘good riddance.’
— Syed Talat Hussain is a prominent Pakistani journalist and writer. Twitter: @TalatHussain1