Farmers need all the help they can get during this crisis
Shahab Jafry
The longer the lockdown lasts the clearer it's becoming that this is a very short-term measure at best. Because even though a lot of people can work from home, which has its own share of problems but is still manageable, people will still have to go to factories, etc., so the economy can start functioning again. Otherwise, sooner or later pharmacies will run out of medicines and food shelves will also go empty. What then?
So, unless the coronavirus goes away as suddenly and mysteriously as it came or somebody quickly develops a vaccine for it - none of which seems to be happening anytime soon - we could really be in for a very different world in the very near future. Just think about it; how long can a situation where people can't meet other people, friends and family alike, because of a very real danger of spreading disease and death everywhere really last?
Just last week, for example, the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), along with the World Health Organization (WHO) and World Trade Organization (WTO) warned of global food shortages because of protectionist measures adopted by various governments as well as sudden shortage of workers because of the quarantine enforced by the pandemic. Most countries have enforced bans on food export, which is very understandable since everybody wants to secure their own population's share first, but shortage of labour is impacting crucial agri-work like harvesting and farm-to-market delivery. And even though there's still some time before this supply chain disruption will reduce options at grocery stores, the warning is enough to trigger panic buying with its own upward pressure on prices.
How do governments deal with such unprecedented situations? They could allow farm workers and drivers to go back to work, provided they wash their hands every few minutes, and you'd have a lot of daily wagers working again and also preempt food shortages; killing two birds with one stone so to speak. But there's a slight problem. You can't open up agriculture without also opening up associated industries, like fertiliser, pesticides, spare parts manufacturers, tractor plants, and all of that. And, of course, to get all these plants and factories running you'd have to resume public transport as well.
That's just too many people out and about every day for the lockdown to make any sense or have any real effect. They could still try it, rather than just sit on their hands and watch all the food run out, but what if the virus does spread and incapacitate all the works that were put out to get the machine running again? Then you'd have a lot more sick people and still the prospect of agriculture sector collapse and food shortage. And let's not forget that this particular virus doesn't just impact the people that get it, but puts entire families and everybody they meet, even other people in places they visit, at serious risk as well.
Governments must always factor in worst case scenarios before making very tough decisions, and this one is as tough as it gets.
They must also make sure that economies get going again so people can earn, buy food, etc., and life can go on. Lockdowns won't work either, if economies collapse and people begin to starve. So the Pakistani government has come up with a rather novel response. It will kickstart the construction sector with all kinds of incentives.
That, according to the prime minister, will employ daily wagers who must be protected first because they are the most vulnerable, trigger activity in a bunch of associated sectors, and give a lot of people their own homes at the end of the day. That's why he showered it with a lot of incentives, tax breaks, and effectively a blanket amnesty. That means anybody who puts money in construction right now will not be questioned about its source.
And that, in simpler language, means that black money is once again welcome for investment.
All these steps are understandable, but if a start had to be made somewhere shouldn't agriculture have been the number-one priority? One can understand the compulsion of generating income and employment, even the sweeteners to attract as much interest as possible, but how long will a lot of people be able to make a lot of buildings if food starts to run out? Either way, there's a good chance that the world coming out of the pandemic might be a little different from the one that plunged into it.