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Dawn Editorial 10 June 2020

Path of disaster

THE nightmare scenario that doctors in the country had warned of in April is fast approaching. At the time, senior doctors had written to the government urging it to reconsider its decision to allow congregational prayers during Ramazan, and had said that the number of Covid-19 patients in need of urgent medical care would “expand exponentially” if strict distancing was not enforced. More than a month later, with the government lifting most lockdown restrictions, those fears are turning into a grim reality. According to official data, major hospitals across the country are rapidly running out of capacity. With over 31,000 cases in Karachi alone, private and public hospitals in the metropolis are becoming overwhelmed. The Sindh health department’s data shows there are no beds vacant in ICU units in Karachi, except for six at one hospital. The Pakistan Medical Association has said that major hospitals in Karachi had stopped admitting critical patients. Even the government’s Pak Neghayban app showed that ventilators were available in one hospital only, while others were running on limited capacity. In KP, the chairman of the Provincial Doctors Association expressed fears that the province was rapidly heading towards a situation where “there will be no space in hospitals to take Covid-19 patients”. According to him, most of Peshawar’s hospitals had run out of beds, with patient’s relatives running from pillar to post in search of a health facility.
One hopes that the harrowing numbers of the infected and the dead that were once seen in Italy as Covid-19 peaked there are not reflected in statistics in Pakistan, where doctors are being forced to refuse patients and make difficult choices in rationing ventilators. As this situation unfolds, Prime Minister Imran Khan has forecast that Pakistan will hit its peak in July or August, whereas earlier, NCOC head Asad Umar had said infections would peak in June.
With no prevention strategy in sight and no consensus between the federation and provinces on a way forward, it is clear that Pakistan is hurtling towards a Covid-19 catastrophe at full throttle. The prime minister, who had disturbingly downplayed the coronavirus as “a type of flu”, is, ironically, today expressing his frustration at the lax attitude of people who are ignoring SOPs. In a televised message this week, Mr Khan said that people who are careless about SOPs will endanger themselves, the elderly, the immuno-compromised and in turn the country — a contrast to his earlier messages that people should not panic and that we were much better off than other countries. Sadly, few in the government are aspiring to follow New Zealand, which now has zero new cases, or Vietnam, which reported zero deaths. The authorities must look inward and reflect on where they have gone wrong, and what message has been conveyed to the public. They must remedy their mistakes. Alarm bells are ringing loudly. The government must listen.


Archaic law

AN archaic law, enacted by the colonial masters to oppress the ‘natives’, should not — in theory — be difficult to jettison from the statute books. Sometimes, however, the masters of old are replaced by autocrats or, at the very least, quasi-autocrats seeking to quell a ‘troublesome’, rights-demanding populace. Thus, when former chairman Senate Raza Rabbani introduced in the upper house on Monday a bill to do away with sedition from the Pakistan Penal Code, it was akin to taking the bull by the horns. For the offence has increasingly become a go-to for state authorities seeking to clamp down on dissenting voices and independent thought. Civil rights activists — including student leaders and academics — have been targeted for demanding constitutional rights and even journalists singled out for publishing information that ran counter to the official narrative. In January, no less than 23 people were booked for sedition after being hauled up at a peaceful protest calling for the release of PTM leader Manzoor Pashteen, who had himself been arrested for the same, among other charges. Hearteningly, there has been civilian pushback. One of the leaders of the above protest filed a petition in the Lahore High Court asking it to declare the section of the PPC dealing with sedition as being ultra vires the Constitution. The Islamabad High Court also took an extremely dim view of peaceful protesters being charged with the crime.
Defined in Section 124A of the PPC, the offence is deemed to have been committed by an individual who by “words either spoken or written or by signs or by visible representation or otherwise brings or attempts to bring into hatred or contempt or incites or attempts to incite dissatisfaction…” towards the government. The vague language of the law facilitates its abuse as a one-size-fits-all weapon to harass and intimidate inconveniently vocal individuals. The very raison d’être of the law is reflected in the names of some of the historical figures charged with sedition or put on trial for the offence. Among these were Maulana Mohammad Ali and Maulana Shaukat Ali — indeed, Gandhi himself — individuals who were the voice of an oppressed people and, therefore, those whom the British Raj wanted to silence. The government’s human rights minister has rightly criticised the sedition law as “an anachronism in an independent, democratic state”. There are other colonial-era black laws, such as contempt of court, which should also be consigned to the dustbin of history.


Melting glaciers

SINCE recent headlines have been dominated by the spread of the novel coronavirus and themes of racial injustice, climate change has taken a back seat. Yet its effects continue to be felt by people around the world. According to a news report, residents of a village in Hunza Valley have expressed their concerns at the rising level of water and flooding, which has left a path of destruction in its wake, forcing people to evacuate their homes. As global temperatures continue to soar, and glaciers melt at an alarming pace, the urgency of addressing climate change could not be greater — especially for countries such as Pakistan, which is one of the most vulnerable to the effects of climate change and home to over 7,000 of the world’s known glaciers. This battle cannot be fought alone, but it is not as if the warning signs were not there, or that such events occur out of the blue.
For several years, residents of Gilgit-Baltistan have complained about the destruction of their natural environment due to rapid changes they have had to witness before their eyes, including receding glaciers and shrinking forest cover. Pakistan is said to have one of the highest deforestation rates in the world. Not only do trees lower temperatures and provide sanctuary from the scorching sun, they also protect the land from flooding and erosion. Memories of the Attabad Lake disaster remain fresh, and it is telling that one of the most popular tourist attractions was born out of tragedy. Ten years ago, following a landslide, 20 people were killed and 6,000 displaced as their houses were submerged in water. The people of Hunza are some of the most progressive when it comes to the environment; they are among the first in the world to impose a ban on the use of plastic bags, and it is unfair that they disproportionately suffer from the effects of climate change. Instead of slandering, arresting or eliminating climate change activists, listen to their warnings.


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