Covid-19: logistics and supply chains

A unique and terrifying moment in modern history is unfolding before us, every day. The escalation in the number of cases in Pakistan, despite extremely low testing rates across the country, portend a peak of both confirmed infected individuals, and fatalities that our collective public health capacity and resources, and our national psyche, at the individual or the collective level is not prepared for.

A caveat to our appetite for very rapid transformation in many areas of public life: no country, or state, or locality, or even individual hospital was properly prepared for Covid-19. Pakistan prepared, on the whole, much better than a resource and capacity-constrained, elite-dominated state could have been expected to. Several good decisions have been taken thus far, though perhaps all have been marred by either unclear communication, or by compromises that undermined them.

These include the decision to disallow China-based students and workers to return to their country in January and February, the institution of tight controls at the Iran-Pakistan entry points (that were allegedly compromised for some travelers), the publication of the Covid-19 national action plan on March 13, and the long drawn out, quasi-lockdown (as opposed to the sudden lockdown in other countries).

As this crisis metastasizes into the kind of ugliness and horror we have witnessed in other countries, it will become increasingly important to remind ourselves that slowing the speed at which the peak number of cases and fatalities is arrived at was exactly the purpose of flattening the curve. Pakistan’s measures and preparation leave a lot to be desired, but so did China’s and the United States’ and every other country’s on the planet. We must be present and alive to the history we are witnessing. Part of the challenge we face is to be able to process the disruption, fear and anxiety that Covid-19 has caused in a manner that solves problems, rather than exacerbates them.

The extraordinary changes that need to be conceived of and delivered in the next few weeks begin with logistics and supply chains. This is an easy, throwaway term, but outside of actual logistics professionals, it is hard to breathe in the full spectrum of how important Suzuki vans and Bedford trucks are to the daily wage labourers that put products on them, and pick up products off of them.

When you buy a carton of eggs, or a loaf of bread, or a roti at a tandoor, or paracetamol at the pharmacy, you are capping off a full-blooded symphony of human ingenuity at its very finest. The products we consume, regardless of our economic status, all end up in our hands through a complex web of interdependent industries and sub-industries that enable a grain of wheat to become a piping hot naan or roti that we use to enable the morsels that we eat: that complex web of interdependent processes, functions, profits, wages, machines and humans is what we call logistics, and managing them is supply chain management.

Ensuring the sustenance of national, provincial and local logistics, within the framework of the constitution, laws, regulations, rules and policies, is the ultimate single line definition of the modern DMG or PAS officer’s job – and for post-colonial states like Pakistan and India, is the best that the existing system can be expected to deliver.

But the size of the economy, and its complexity – even here in Pakistan, which has numerous weak nodes, in comparison with places like Sweden, or Japan – has increasingly pushed state and society to establish and normalize logistics and supply chains that are essentially ungoverned.

The Covid-19 crisis represents a unique and historic opportunity to revisit the notion of governed and ungoverned, to adopt and adapt to new technology that affords greater utility for citizens, businesses, consumers and taxpayers, and to establish new standards of what we deem to be good enough. But to do this, we have to transition from instruction and directives-based governance, to problem-solving governance. What does this mean?

At the local grocery store I frequent, it seems there are already palpable disruptions in supply. But on closer inspection, these ‘disruptions’ are not in supply. They are in demand. Fearing an extended lockdown and shortages, individuals and families have understandably started trying to stockpile key food items. As the days turn into weeks, and weeks grow into months, the sense of panic and fear will only increase. The thinning of shelves at your local grocery store up to this stage is a function of higher demand, but this week we will start to see (some localities already have) the upstream impact of supply chain disruptions. Why?

Well, even in the absence of a lockdown, many local manufacturers have slowed down or stopped production. With the lockdown, even essential or skeletal staff isn’t able to get to work – let’s say they work at a local medicine manufacturer. So what happens next? Well, there’s not as much medicine to move from the factory to the wholesaler. The wholesaler just happens to be shut down as it is. Even if we could work with the trucking companies to pick up and drop off the medicines, they will struggle to find the goods and products that we are asking them to move.

If we could solve all the production and manufacturing challenges, we would run into other problems. One trucking company leader I spoke to, was extremely positive about the IQ level of truck and van drivers. He said he can train them on Covid-19 sensitivity, hygiene and even disinfection of deliveries, in a matter of days. I asked him if he could afford the added cost of personal protective equipment (PPE), that kind of training and disinfectant material. He said, “it would hurt, but this is a crisis, we all have to do our part, so sure!”. I asked: then, what’s the issue. He said, the heat.

The heat in many parts of the country is already prohibitive, if the proposition is for a driver or driver’s assistant to wear full PPE. Why? Because most delivery vans and trucks do not have air conditioning. When you hear practitioners explain the micro and nano level constraints to the idealized solutions we construct, the exponential growth of informal economies, and supra-legal and supra-regulatory behaviour suddenly begins to make sense again.

This global crisis is an opportunity to revisit the logistics and supply chain of the full spectrum of how the things that we really want get from where they are to where they should be. The various provincial and federal governments are working with 19th century tools to solve 21st century problems. That they are still standing alone is a tribute to the extraordinary energy and efforts of individuals and groups, from the bureaucrats or babus managing our districts, to the cops managing our streets and neighborhoods, to the doctors and nurses managing our hospitals. But this country expects too much extraordinariness, too frequently.

As the Covid-19 crisis metastasizes, we will witness an unprecedented exhaustion of our usually resilient people and systems. As we head into that tornado, we must constantly remind ourselves that this crisis is a chance for us to change the fundamentals of how things work in this place.


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