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Pakistan's nationwide blackout is part of an escalating crisis

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Last Monday, a cold, wintry day in Pakistan, there was a nationwide blackout. It lasted all day, leaving factories idle, businesses closed and parents scrambling to collect their kids from classrooms that went dark by early afternoon. As NPR's Diaa Hadid reports from Islamabad, it's part of an escalating crisis.

DIAA HADID, BYLINE: Pakistanis have a rich catalog of songs mocking their country's failures...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

UNIDENTIFIED MUSICAL ARTIST: (Singing in non-English language).

HADID: ...Like this classic tune. The singer croons, the lights are off. This is how electricity works in Pakistan. Singers had more material this week when the entire power grid collapsed. And many people didn't even realize there was a major problem, like Aly, who works at a local news channel. We found him at a noisy working-class Islamabad market.

ALY: (Non-English language spoken).

HADID: He says power cuts are so frequent that he assumed it was, you know, one of the regular ones. So for hours, he sat in the dark. He couldn't shower.

ALY: (Through interpreter) It was only when I got to check the news that I realized it was nationwide.

HADID: The cause of the blackout is still unknown. Authorities say they're investigating. But Mosharraf Zaidi, who directs policy think tank Tabadlab, says this episode signals a broader crisis.

MOSHARRAF ZAIDI: The national blackout that the country suffered the other day is really a manifestation and a commentary on the state of Pakistan's economy, on the state of Pakistan's governance and on the darkness that will continue to envelope Pakistan for the months to come.

HADID: He's saying that because the blackout came during a week where Pakistan veered towards economic default, the country is meant to be at the receiving end of a bailout by the International Monetary Fund, an institution it has turned to more than 20 times in its 75-year history. But the current bailout has stalled because the finance minister had refused to implement reforms that the IMF demanded, including a halt to Pakistan artificially propping up its currency. Matters reached a crisis point this week when the country's foreign currency reserves dipped again, triggering fears it couldn't even cover three weeks of imports.

MALEEHA LODHI: This is the worst economic crisis that Pakistan has faced in decades.

HADID: Maleeha Lodhi was a former Pakistani ambassador to the U.S. and U.N.

LODHI: Pakistan is on the brink of a sovereign default.

HADID: By the end of a week that began with a nationwide blackout and ended with near default, Pakistan's government finally relented to one of the IMF's conditions, and they allowed the local currency to devaluate. That's led to hopes that the bailout with the IMF might resume.

But back in that working-class market in Islamabad, taxi driver Abdul Qadir says he doesn't expect life to change for the better anytime soon. He says for the past year, he's been barely able to support his five children as inflation pushes up food and fuel prices.

ABDUL QADIR: (Through interpreter) Our elites run around the world with a begging bowl, but they use it to lead a life of luxury.

HADID: As we chat, a blind beggar sings in praise of Sufi saints to draw attention to his plight.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Singing in non-English language).

HADID: Shoppers thrust small notes in his hand. One fellow takes his arm and helps him walk down nearby stairs, helps him across the road. It's this kind of solidarity that has helped ordinary Pakistanis survive, crisis after crisis.

Diaa Hadid, NPR News, Islamabad. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Diaa Hadid chiefly covers Pakistan and Afghanistan for NPR News. She is based in NPR's bureau in Islamabad. There, Hadid and her team were awarded a Murrow in 2019 for hard news for their story on why abortion rates in Pakistan are among the highest in the world.