Asad Umar
Asad Umar Image Credit: Supplied

Almost a year after its initial impact, on February 20, 2021, the Government of Pakistan’s coronavirus statistics continue to reveal the existence of the very real threat of the disease. The total number of cases is 569,846, active cases are 24,081, and recovered patients are 533,202. The number of deaths is 12,563. These statistics are human beings who suffered pain and recovered. These statistics are also human beings who lost their lives. There is something else these numbers show: commitment of the government of Pakistan, to the best of its ability, to deal with the pandemic.

Asad Umar is Minister for Planning, Development and Special Initiatives in Prime Minister Imran Khan’s government. Umar is the chairperson of the National Command Operation Centre (NCOC). With the purpose of reviewing the 2020 and present strategy of the government of Pakistan for prevention of coronavirus, I sent Minister Umar a few questions. Finding time in his 48-hour day, he responded in his trademark honesty and graciousness.

Mehr Tarar: Tell us about the genesis of the NCOC. What do you as its head bring to the table? What impedes synergy and a unified national response to the pandemic?

Asad Umar: The National Command Operation Centre [NCOC] and National Command Centre (NCC) were set up after COVID-19 cases appeared in Pakistan. It was essential to have an integrated response. This has been the experience in Pakistan: wherever a coordinated response has taken place, from top to bottom, the result is successful. Because of the devolved structure of Pakistan after the 18th Amendment, there was a need for an institutional structure. And that was the purpose for setting up the NCC.

The NCOC was set up for formulation of policy input on whose basis the NCC could take decisions as well as for implementation of policies and carrying out day-to-day work, ensuring that the overall strategy was being implemented. The NCC is the top policy approval platform for COVID chaired by the prime minister. The four chief ministers and some key ministers are the members of the NCC. More than a dozen meetings have been convened since the beginning of the crisis.

The NCOC is the nerve centre that develops all the policy proposals that are discussed in the NCC. All the tactical and operational decisions were taken on a daily basis in coordination with the provinces. All elements of the COVID strategy were put together, organised and monitored from the NCOC.

Do Pakistan’s size and demography militate against implementation of the NCOC’s decisions?

Demography no, but yes, Pakistan is one of the biggest countries of the world. Big population. There are also weak institutional and devolved decision-making structures. All of that makes it difficult to respond to something [as huge as] a pandemic. And therefore, the work done by the NCOC played a critical role in ensuring that those weaknesses were dealt with. Also, the gaps were removed in terms of institutional capacity as well as in setting up coordination mechanisms, so that the decisions being formulated in the centre, in consultation with the provinces, were being implemented all the way down to the ground level, and everything was being monitored, reported and coordinated.

Would it be an exaggeration to say that our prime minister is truly walking the talk in terms of leading from the front in the fight against COVID-19?

Prime Minister Imran Khan chaired the NCC himself, and the NCC used to meet regularly. Close to a dozen meetings were held. All the big policy decisions were being taken at that forum led by the prime minister himself. I think that an equally important role that he played was in talking to the nation directly and regularly. In the midst of the crisis when things were difficult, and were scarier around the world, Prime Minister Khan leading the communication himself, talking directly to the nation, and assuring them that work was being done to ensure the safety of their lives and to safeguard their livelihoods, I think that played a pivotal role in the national response being positive, constructive and collaborative.

Could or should the NCOC have done certain things differently?

There are always things that could have been done better; I’m sure that when we sit down and document the history of the work that got done, we would be able to identify ideas for further improvement. But given the scale of the challenge, the urgency of the problem… And remember, this pandemic was like nothing that we had faced before. You would have something like a war where there is an external enemy, the whole thing is driven towards a security dimension. Or if there is an earthquake or a flood, a natural disaster, everybody is trying to safeguard people from that. This [pandemic] was a unique challenge where there was a direct trade-off between saving people’s lives and saving people’s livelihoods. And therefore, we had to come up with a strategy and implement it on the ground, balancing both. Safeguarding both lives and livelihoods was an incredible challenge. I think remarkable work was done in that area.

How soon can all Pakistanis expect to get vaccinated?

The frontline health workers are already getting vaccinated. On the 2nd of March we will have the delivery of AstraZeneca vaccination. The vaccination drive will start with those who are 65 plus. And soon after that we will be opening it up for all Pakistanis. How soon will the vaccination be done? As soon as Pakistanis decide to get vaccinated. I keep saying that our biggest challenge is going to be to convince people to get vaccinated. It is not just about making the vaccine available.

Tremendous amount of homework has been done. Setting up vaccination centres, arranging for the vaccine [from abroad], training teams [for vaccination], installation of reporting systems, all of that is in place. But the real challenge is going to be, as has been seen in many other countries, that people are either afraid or are not sure that there is a need for a vaccine. So that is going to be the next greatest challenge. A tremendous communication effort will have to be put in to convince Pakistanis to get vaccinated.

From Mehr Tarar:

Asad Umar is known for his reticence when it comes to highlighting his personal contribution in Pakistan’s battle against coronavirus. To me, he seems to be the manifestation of the ideal of “actions speak louder than words.” One part of my first question remained unanswered: “What do you as its head bring to the table?” Umar doesn’t talk about his role in the NCOC. And that made me get in touch with a member of his team who wishing to remain anonymous described Umar’s work in the famous words of US president Franklin Theodore Roosevelt from his speech in Paris on April 23, 1910:

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

The NCOC team member further added: “The contribution of Asad Umar, as the head of the NCOC, is the key factor behind the success of the NCOC in tackling COVID-19 in Pakistan. His strategy focused on foreseeing the danger, meticulous planning and fearless implementation. Understanding the enormity of the crisis, he created a synergy between various stakeholders and all federating units. If I were to pinpoint the single most important factor of the success of the NCOC’s fight against coronavirus, it would be Asad Umar’s work as the chairperson of the NCOC. His biggest strengths are his vision and calmness [under stress].”

Mehr Tarar, Special to Gulf News-1592296810288