COVID-19 — A leadership challenge

Lieutenant Gen. (Retd) Abdul Qayyum

“Leadership is the ability to guide others without force into a direction or decision that leaves them still feeling empowered and accomplished” said Lisa Cash Hanson who is a multi-award winning influential blogger and a social media strategist.

This definition, however, mainly pertains to businesses where we have both managers and leaders. It is said that “Managers are expected to do things rightly while leaders are expected to do right things”. This means that managers have the responsibility to implement or execute a given plan while the leaders study environments, consider options, take a decision based on their innovative thought process and then conceive and evolve a strategic plan to be executed by the managers. Real leaders thus do a creative work.

That is why Richard Nixon had said, “Management is prose and leadership is poetry”: It is however important to understand that fundamental leadership principles are universally applicable to all professions including politics, military, business and media etc. Great leaders always abide by these principles which include connectivity or communication with the led, awareness and knowledge of their gross root difficulties, intellectual honesty, above board conduct, positivity, accountability and above all humility.

A leader following above stipulated principles can boldly face worst challenges under extremely difficult environments. President Richard Nixon, in his book “Leaders” wrote, “We can fully measure a leader’s greatness only when he is challenged to the limits of his ability”. After Quaid-e-Azam’s early demise and Khan Liaqat Ali Khan’s unfortunate assassination, Pakistan generally faced leadership crises. Resultantly where we suffered serious setbacks by taking wrong decisions and mishandling issues like Gibraltar operation, East Pakistan and Kargal etc, our politico military leadership also did very well in certain areas. For example, Field Marshal Ayub Khan had the vision to construct huge hydel dams, ZA Bhutto initiated work on nuclear capability which was vigorously pursued by all subsequent leaders including Gen. Zia, Ishaq Khan, Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif who finally had the honour to permit nuclear explosions against all external pressures.

Our superior politico military achievements were however exhibited in not only controlling but also comprehensively defeating terrorism under very challenging environments. GHQ was attacked, President/COAS had assassination attempts twice in the heart of Rawalpindi Cantt, National day parade could not be held for many years ,attacks on five star Marriott hotel and penetration of terrorists in to heavily defended KAMRA and Mehran Bases with impunity had created a nightmare scenario.

We salute our Armed Forces and their leadership for their superior strategy and outstanding courage to face the brunt of this Indian sponsored and financed terrorist activity. Credit also goes to Civil Armed Forces, police and our legal fraternity for their sacrifices.

Top political leadership also played a pivotal role in harnessing entire national support. Mian Muhammad Nawaz Sharif called all party conference, paid repeated visits to all flash points including Karachi, Quetta, Peshawar and evening to North Waziristan to rally the entire nation to face the challenge threatening our very existence. Now again we are in the grip of an unprecedented national calamity; Covid-19.

This undoubtedly presents a very big challenge to Imran Khan’s leadership. He has to rally the entire nation. It is unfortunate that he is not ready to see even the faces of his political rivals not to speak of interacting with them for evolving a joint national strategy to meet this menace of Coronavirus which is not only threatening our lives but also pushing us to economic recession. Pakistan’s debts and liabilities now stand up to Rs 41 trillion which is about 94 percent of our GDP. Besides population is increasing by 1.8 percent.

The coronavirus outbreak is first and foremost a human tragedy, affecting hundreds of thousands of people. It is also having a growing impact on the global economy. The pandemic continues to expand. More than 175 countries and territories have reported cases of COVID-19. According to an analysis by UN Department of economics and Social Affairs (DESA), “The severity of the economic impact will largely depend on two factors – the duration of restrictions on the movement of people and economic activities in major economies; and the actual size and efficacy of fiscal responses to the crisis.”

Recent World Bank report for 8 South Asian countries is alarming. It says that Pakistan which was expecting 1 percent growth in GDP in 2021 , may achieve negative growth of over 2 percent first time in 68 years. This will be worse than 1971 war when Pakistan’s GDP growth remained positive 1.3 percent. World Bank also foresees drop in our per capita income in addition to looming food insecurity. World GDP has already shrunk by 3 per cent which may go to 8 per cent in 2021. American GDP has already gone down by 5.9 percent. Market and macro data signal that Covid-19 economic crisis will be worse than in 2008 financial crisis. It will all have worst impact on developing countries like Pakistan.

My humble recommendations to the Government would be:

  1. PM should consider himself as a leader of the entire nation (not PTI only ) and call APC along with CMs of all five provinces and PM of AJK to formulate a national plan of action. Show honesty, humility, apathy and grace as President Obama highlighted while praising and endorsing Joe Biden as Democrats’ presidential candidate.
  2. Show genuine respect for all but take firm policy decisions and ensure their strict Implementation without wavering.
  3. Since we don’t know how long we will be tormented by this virus, we should hypothesize both short and long terms scenarios and assess possible damages to lives, economy and food security and prepare contingency plans.
  4. Since surrender is no option, our top priority has to be social isolation and distancing however farmers will have to be allowed harvesting and thrashing of wheat crops with due precautions.
  5. Apply to Paris Club for rescheduling our debts and put full pressure on IMF and World Bank for debt relief and writing off some debts as was done in the past for many nations
  6. Provide maximum financial assistance to the farmers to buy quality seeds and fertilizer on cheap rates to help them grow bumper crops with focus on cotton, rice , sugar cane , wheat , lentils and vegetables.
  7. Essential industries should be allowed to continue under strict control of the owners for their work force isolation, sanitisation and healthcare.
  8. Defence production industries are already working with full precautions. They may be used for preparing sanitisation Gels, masks, testing kits, protective dresses for doctors and paramedics and much needed ventilators. Some defence industries like POF and DESTO are already doing a wonderful job. 9.

PM should cut down his battery of unelected advisers and allow parliamentary committees to function. Senate session can also be call with due precautions. Parliamentarians can guide the ministries and also ensure their oversight.

  1. Foreign remittances play a pivotal role in boosting our economy. So far 17 billion dollars have been remitted in the current financial year.

We have about 9 million people working abroad mainly in GCC countries, Europe and America. Most of them are being laid off. Our ambassadors in different countries must keep a close liaison with governments and big employers to protect employments of our diaspora.

  1. Last but not the least revive local governments through an Ordinance. They can reach out to every house in their wards to identify the needy people and render help.

This may avert a worst human catastrophe because of unemployment and food shortages.