Civil defence force
VOUNTEER work is not new to Pakistanis. We have seen people of all age groups stepping up in times of natural disasters and helping their countrymen without any expectation of reward or recognition. It was, therefore, no surprise to see many individuals and groups reaching out to those hit hard by the shuttered economy in the wake of the countrywide lockdown enforced to slow down the spread of Covid-19. As part of this effort, thousands of young men and women have joined the Corona Relief Tiger Force, an army of volunteers raised by Prime Minister Imran Khan’s government to distribute ration and help out people who have lost their livelihoods. In some parts, these volunteers have also been asked to identify and register families in need of cash support from the Ehsaas Programme. The strategy to raise a new body of volunteers has provoked a reaction from the opposition and civil society activists involved in humanitarian relief work on the political nature of the force. After all, the majority of volunteers are either affiliated with the PTI or support it. Theoretically, political parties do have a right to try and win over voters by taking action they feel is for the public good, but in the acrimonious political atmosphere that exists in the country today, many might argue against this logic. Only time will tell whether or not the initiative was worthy of the resentment it has generated.
What is clear is that the government has missed the opportunity offered by the health crisis to resurrect and reorganise the politically neutral civil defence force, an organisation of volunteers with an institutional infrastructure and a significant presence in all the provinces. The civil defence force organised under the Civil Defence Act, 1952, was formed to mobilise and organise communities to aid the government in times of emergencies. Volunteers were trained to work and help people in different situations as first responders. But the institution has fallen prey to official neglect and fund shortages and is in disarray. There would have been more appreciation for the government had it revived this legal entity, recruited volunteers and trained them to work in hazardous situations such as the present one instead of mobilising volunteers under the party banner.
The government can still use the institution to help the people by persuading Tiger Force volunteers to work within the institutionalised framework of civil defence. If it cannot do that, the government could ask primary school teachers to join civil defence forces for voluntary work at least during the holidays while new volunteers are recruited. In KP, the deployment of civil defence volunteers is helping the administration spread awareness about Covid-19, supply ration to vulnerable communities, enforce lockdown restrictions and so on. If KP can put this force to use why can’t the other provinces do the same?
BASED on the remarks of two key officials at the helm of pandemic control in the country, it appears that the federal government is pursuing an unannounced policy of ‘herd immunity’.
The first indication of this came from SAPM Dr Zafar Mirza, who in an interview with DawnNews earlier this week conceded that “it will be better for the future if coronavirus spreads at a certain level so people can become immune”.
Also read: Sweden opted for ‘herd immunity’ against a total lockdown. Is it paying the price?
The second, albeit less categorical, message came from federal minister and NCOC chair Asad Umar during a talk show. Although he said it is not a policy decision, he justified it by saying that the logical conclusion of the pandemic is either a vaccine or a situation where 70pc of the population contracts the virus and achieves herd immunity. That these remarks have come as the government prepares to ease lockdown restrictions — despite the spike in death and infection curves — is extremely troubling.
In theoretical terms, herd immunity is a concept based on the body’s immune resistance to the spread of a contagious disease within a population. It is achieved when a significantly high proportion of individuals are vaccinated against it and therefore develop immunity. When enough people are vaccinated, a virus is unable to spread through the population.
However, the reality is that there is no vaccine for the coronavirus as yet. In the absence of a vaccine, immunity to the virus can likely only be achieved if an individual contracts it and survives, developing antibodies in his or her system.
If, by Mr Umar’s calculation, three-fourths of the population contracts Covid-19, the results in Pakistan would be catastrophic. At present, 2.2pc of those testing positive in the country die. Even if that grim percentage is halved, if 140m people contract Covid-19, we would be looking at at least 1.4m deaths. It would require the immuno-compromised to be sacrificed for the sake of the economy — a notion which is unacceptable and inhumane.
Despite what Mr Umar appears to be suggesting, the herd immunity approach is being pursued by very few countries. The UK’s initial decision was to take this approach, but the lack of restrictions and the rapid spike in cases and deaths forced a rethink. Currently, it is only being pursued by Sweden, which is drawing flak from scientists across the world.
The government needs to say clearly that it is not pursuing the policy of herd immunity as it eases the lockdown.
MOST experts are of the firm view that social distancing and avoiding large crowds is the best way to keep the coronavirus at bay. However, this sage advice has fallen on deaf ears in some countries, Pakistan included. Despite fervent appeals by medical experts, people have failed to practise social distancing and are treating Covid-19 as just another illness. This has had an obvious impact with cases crossing the 28,000 mark, and more than 600 deaths in the country. Unfortunately, many clerical elements in Pakistan have also reacted emotionally, and instead of counselling their flock to pray at home have insisted that congregational prayers at mosques continue. While doctors and health experts had advised against allowing large communal prayers, the state caved in to the clerics and gave the green light for congregational prayers, including taraweeh during Ramazan. Now the majority of Shia clergymen in the country insist that the mourning processions to mark Yaum-i-Ali, which falls on Friday, will go ahead. A delegation of Shia ulema met the federal religious affairs minister on Friday in Islamabad and said the processions will be taken out. Although the minister remained ambiguous, the Sindh government had recently issued a notification indicating that processions and all other large-scale religious programmes would not be allowed.
This is a time for prudence, not emotionalism. While clerics say the processions will be brought out ‘by observing SOPs’, this is easier said than done. After all, tens of thousands of people attend the main processions, and especially in Karachi, when the juloos winds its way through the old city area social distancing becomes impossible. Local Shia ulema need to reconsider their inflexible approach, especially when the highest Jafari jurisprudential authorities in Iraq and Iran have urged caution, and have called on the faithful to follow government protocols. No heed should be paid to social media campaigns being run by anti-Shia extremist groups celebrating the temporary suspension of mourning processions. At this juncture, preventing more infections and saving lives should be of paramount concern.