Need for ceasefire
AS the coronavirus pandemic continues its deadly march across the planet, acts of violence perpetrated by different groups continue apace in parts of the Muslim world, seemingly disregarding the threat Covid-19 poses to humanity. On Sunday, Somali militant group Al Shabaab — linked to Al Qaeda — killed a senior official in the Puntland region. The outfit has been held responsible for far deadlier terrorist attacks in the past and seeks to overthrow the government in Mogadishu. Meanwhile in Afghanistan, the government said on Monday that the Afghan Taliban carried out two deadly attacks targeting police and army personnel. Dozens were reported killed in the attacks. On the other hand, jets belonging to the Saudi-led coalition pounded the Yemeni capital Sana’a as well as a northern province on Monday after the Houthi rebel movement fired missiles targeting the kingdom’s cities over the weekend. The situation in Syria also remains precarious, though there have been no major acts of violence over the past few days.
Of course, even before the Covid-19 crisis erupted, the situation in these global hotspots was far from perfect. Because of conflicts involving a variety of actors — states, armed groups, terrorist outfits — hundreds of thousands had been killed or maimed, while millions had been uprooted or were suffering from malnutrition and disease. In this miserable state of affairs, the coronavirus threatens to cause havoc on a catastrophic scale unless wiser counsel prevails. Ideally, as the UN secretary general has said, there needs to be a global ceasefire to ensure all energies are concentrated on containing the virus. Perhaps leading Islamic scholars of all sects can give a joint call to ask combatants in all these theatres to lay down their arms and help save lives at risk from Covid-19. However, the fact is that while such a call may have an effect on the Houthis and the Taliban, which have political wings and are Islamist nationalists, the words of ulema and scholars will most likely be dismissed by terrorists belonging to groups such as Al Qaeda and the self-styled Islamic State group.
Perhaps the focus of the Islamic bloc should be to put in place long-lasting ceasefires in countries such as Yemen, Syria and Afghanistan in the wake of the coronavirus threat. In all three theatres, embryonic peace processes exist; these must be given a strong push by the international community, specifically the Islamic nations, in such times of global crisis. In Yemen, for example, if the Saudis were to declare a unilateral ceasefire, international pressure would be on the Houthis to respond and devote all energies to letting help get through to Yemen’s vulnerable people. In Afghanistan, the peace process suffers from fits and starts, but leading Islamic states can convince both the government in Kabul as well as the Taliban to cease hostilities and fight Covid-19.
URGENCY is the need of the hour. To fight a pandemic that is spreading like wildfire and to mitigate its impact on their citizens, governments need to fashion responses that make the best use of precious time and resources. Raising a youth volunteer force called the Corona Relief Tigers, a measure formally announced by Prime Minister Imran Khan in his address to the nation on Monday, cannot be described as meeting that criteria. Moreover, while the premier may have the best of intentions, the move also sends the wrong message to an opposition that feels alienated by the PTI government. Indeed, the PPP has already expressed its reservations, with Senator Raza Rabbani saying in a statement that the move would politicise the national effort against Covid-19. He suggested that the centre take a leaf out of the Sindh government’s book and form mohalla committees including members of different political parties and NGOs working in the areas where relief goods are required to be distributed.
Providing relief during a pandemic through mass distribution points is a difficult task as Sindh is discovering, with hundreds converging on the sites despite the authorities’ best efforts. Mr Rabbani’s advice to the centre is eminently practical. On-the-ground resources such as community organisations can be quickly harnessed in the relief effort. For the federal government to now reinvent the wheel — albeit with a more catchy name — will take up unnecessary time and effort. As it is, there is little clarity about how it can organise such a massive operation from the top down. Mohalla committees are a more granular mechanism that would have the local buy-in critical to countering accusations of favouritism and ensure a more systematic distribution procedure. That said, our society has been ill served by a succession of democratic governments that have balked at devolving power to the grass-roots level. The coronavirus pandemic, in a few terrible weeks, has highlighted the importance of such third-tier governance. Local elected bodies, empowered and properly funded, would have been the logical conduit for not only the relief effort but also for carrying out awareness campaigns to prevent the spread of infection. Instead, there are no local governments in Punjab, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan at present. Meanwhile in Sindh, the PPP through legislative action has abridged and diluted third-tier governance to meaningless tokenism. One can only hope this unprecedented emergency will herald a change in approach.
“ROTI, kapra, makaan — aur internet,” is how former Google executive Tania Aidrus underscored her vision for Digital Pakistan: a tech-driven society in which all citizens are connected. However, it will take many years for that dream to become a reality. The internet continues to remain a luxury accessible to a relatively small percentage of the total population, with even fewer able to access good-quality connections, particularly in the periphery regions of Azad Jammu and Kashmir, Gilgit-Baltistan, and former Fata as well as Balochistan. According to a report in this paper, in recent weeks, hundreds of university students and instructors have registered complaints regarding the problems they have had with internet connectivity, along with other technical issues, during their online classes. Others criticised the quality of lectures, which they felt were deteriorating, with less interaction and fewer chances to ask questions. In light of the coronavirus pandemic, with much of the country under lockdown, the online teaching system — particularly in use in developed parts of the world — has been encouraged by the authorities here. But it is also presenting its own sets of challenges and difficulties, and is exposing and creating inequalities which will be felt beyond the classroom.
Of course, no one could have foreseen the pandemic, and both students and teachers are trying their best to do what they can under difficult circumstances, but authorities will need to chalk out a long-term plan if the current situation continues beyond the summer months. Otherwise, the health emergency may just turn into an education emergency, which will bring its own host of problems, from a higher number of early marriages to more children working to support their families. Pakistan already has a high dropout rate from both primary and secondary schools, while millions of others have never even stepped inside a classroom. Prolonged breaks and disruptions in education may lead to even more dropouts. And how many Pakistanis can even afford to make it to higher education in the first place?