Police officers and media persons gather as Mir Shakilur Rehman, owner and editor-in-chief of Jang media group, publisher of Urdu and English newspapers which runs the popular Geo News TV, leaves after attending court proceedings in Lahore, Pakistan, on March 13, 2020. Image Credit: Reuters

When Prime Minister Imran Khan’s government on Friday ordered a raft of emergency measures to protect Pakistan’s citizens against the deadly coronavirus, there appeared to be little realisation over the scale of challenges confronting the country.

From a largely moribund economy and a highly polarised atmosphere between the government and the opposition to an outright failure to reform key institutions, there is a large menu of issues waiting to be tackled. To improve Pakistan’s prospects Imran and his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) must change course, away from the government’s direction since it came to power in 2018.

The silver lining on Pakistan’s challenges may well be a rare moment of national unity as the country joins other nations in facing the coronavirus outbreak. No political player, whether in government or among the opposition parties, can afford to shy away from calls for a national consensus as the country’s population of 220 million remains at risk. The extent of danger can be gauged from the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) classification of the outbreak as a pandemic.

Rehman’s arrest sparks anxiety

This long-overdue attempt for national unity must not only reach out to political parties but also extend across the board to the communities of professionals, members of the civil society, the media and groups of Pakistanis falling in other categories. Just a day before Friday’s announcement, the controversial arrest of Mir Shakilur Rehman, owner of the ‘Jang’ group — Pakistan’s largest media empire — spoke volumes about the government’s sense of direction.

Rehman was arrested ostensibly over allegations tied to a real estate deal stretching back to 1986, or about 34 years ago. Yet, this incident has triggered a wave of anxiety with journalists terming the arrest as a pressure tactic to force the group to change its editorial policies. On Friday, GEO TV, Pakistan’s largest viewed network owned by Rehman unexpectedly went off the air, furthering the anxiety over the reasons for the arrest.

As Imran’s government faces perhaps one of the biggest challenges in the history of Pakistan — the battle against the spread of coronavirus — this is no time to further divide the disunited country.

Pakistani cricket fans wait to enter the National Stadium in Karachion March 12, 2020. The Pakistan Cricket Board announced that the Pakistan Super League is closing Twenty20 cricket games in Karachi to spectators from Friday to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. Image Credit: AP

On Friday, a number of foreign nationals playing in the Pakistan Super League (PSL) sought to return to their countries over coronavirus fears. This is another jolt to a largely lacklustre cricketing event. Cricket’s return to Pakistan is a matter of national pride, but it was clear that the PSL encounters have lost their gloss. While the matches continue, Pakistani authorities have decided not to allow spectators into stadiums over fears of spreading the virus.

Meanwhile, Pakistan’s economy continues to remain under pressure with few prospects of falling global oil prices being passed on to domestic consumers. It is a sad reflection on a country which has always used such opportunities to fill the gaps in government revenue, amid the powerful reality of a largely dysfunctional tax collection system.

In recent weeks, officials have claimed that the record rise in inflation in January has begun to taper off. It’s therefore possible that the central bank, State Bank of Pakistan, in its monetary policy announcement on Tuesday (March 17) may finally offer a modest reduction in one of the world’s highest interest rates at 13.25 per cent. Yet, such a financial incentive, if it happens, will fail to address a wider challenge of boosting confidence among a range of stakeholders, from investors to ordinary housewives.

Tax collection failure

Under Imran’s 18-month rule, Pakistan signed an agreement with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for securing a $6 billion loan to stave off a balance of payment crisis. Tough conditions tied to this loan have brought misery to ordinary Pakistani households as the government was forced to cut subsidies and sharply raise the cost of electricity and gas. There are also other factors that have contributed to the downturn.

Pakistan government’s failure to address notably the agricultural output resulted in sharp increases in prices of flour and sugar and added a huge burden on ordinary households.

The efforts to overhaul the tax collection system seem to have come up short. A well-respected tax expert brought in to lead the national tax agency eventually left the job with large shortfalls in tax collections.

Given the monumental challenges all around, including a large scale outbreak of the coronavirus, Pakistan needs to overcome the deep divisions. The country needs a healing touch and that can come with an unprecedented show of national unity.

— Farhan Bokhari is a Pakistan-based commentator who writes on political and economic matters.

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