THE writing was on the wall from the start. Only the government refused to see it. Now, the WHO’s letter to the provinces, expressing concerns over the steep spike in Covid-19 infections across the country owing to easing the lockdown without effective disease transmission control or surveillance systems, has only confirmed our worst fears. The government had erred in lifting restrictions and opening up the economy after two months of closure. Its actions have caused infections to spike and overwhelm the country’s already overstressed public health infrastructure. Every call for extension in the virus lockdown was dismissed as an ‘elitist plan’. The lockdown was lifted on the plea that Pakistan could ill afford a longer closure as the shuttered economy would kill more poor people than would Covid-19 infections. Consensus was missing as the centre berated Sindh for pursuing stricter measures, and encouraged businesses to demand the removal of restrictions. It was also troubling to note the superior judiciary’s view that Covid-19 “apparently is not a pandemic in Pakistan”.
A month after the government ordered the easing of virus restrictions, the country has confirmed more than 115,000 infections and some 2,300 deaths, with each day recording a higher number of cases. Now Pakistan ranks 15th on the list of countries with the most Covid-19 infections and is among the top 10 reporting the highest number of new cases. The disease has spread to every corner of the country and hospitals are reportedly turning away patients because they don’t have enough beds. The health authorities say the outbreak will not peak before August. And yet, despite this grim situation, the government continues to send out confusing messages to the public, with politicians often seen without a mask and not observing social distancing guidelines.
The WHO letter says that the disease transmission is steep, and the health system isn’t capable of detecting, testing, isolating and treating every case, and tracing every contact. It also points out that a high positivity rate of 24pc, which is above the required level of 5pc, underlines the seriousness of the situation and the poor efforts of the government in this regard. It urges the provinces to enhance daily testing capacity to 50,000 to assess the actual prevalence of the coronavirus besides strengthening the surveillance system (identification, testing, isolation, care for the ill including identification and the follow-up of contacts and quarantining). Lastly, it has recommended the imposition of a ‘two weeks on, two weeks off’ lockdown to contain the virus transmission. The government disregarded expert advice when doctors called for banning congregations and ensuring the strict implementation of social distancing guidelines to halt transmissions. It didn’t consider their opinion when lifting the lockdown. And it has consistently ignored violations of social distancing guidelines with the result that few have bothered to make the necessary adjustments to lifestyles. It is doubtful then that it will heed the WHO’s advice.
COAS Kabul visit
IT is apparent that efforts are underway to save the peace process in Afghanistan on the global and regional levels. The unannounced visit of army chief Gen Qamar Bajwa heading a delegation to Kabul on Tuesday must be seen from this perspective. Gen Bajwa, while in the Afghan capital, met both President Ashraf Ghani as well as Abdullah Abdullah, the second most powerful office-holder in Afghanistan. As expected, intra-Afghan peace efforts were the focus of the discussion, with Dr Abdullah highlighting “Pakistan’s constructive role in this regard”. Gen Bajwa’s Kabul visit came soon after Zalmay Khalilzad, America’s point man for Afghanistan, visited Islamabad and Kabul, as well as meeting Afghan Taliban representatives in Doha. Clearly, as the Americans eye their complete exit from Afghanistan, they are encouraging efforts for a settlement in the war-torn country to ensure the fiasco that ensued after the Soviet withdrawal over three decades ago is not repeated.
From a local standpoint, it seems odd that the Kabul sojourn was a military-led initiative, with the ISI chief accompanying the army chief, and the newly appointed special envoy for Afghanistan serving as a token civilian representative. Legitimate questions arise about whether the elected government is disinterested in the Afghanistan file, or if it is being told to stay away. Even in previous engagements, Mr Khalilzad and other senior foreign visitors have been more interested in meeting the military leadership, as the latter is viewed as having the final say in key matters. Perhaps if the foreign minister or some other senior civilian functionary had headed the delegation, it would have provided for better optics. Looking at the larger picture, it appears that the US doesn’t want to be blamed for leaving a mess in Afghanistan after its troops board the last American military flight out of Kabul. This explains why in the aftermath of much discord and a bitterly contested election, Mr Ghani and Dr Abdullah were ‘prompted’ to share power by the US, after Washington cut significant amounts of aid for the Afghan government. The recent shuttle diplomacy is part of the same process. Regardless of America’s intentions, the Afghans themselves — the government as well as the Taliban — must take the lead in brokering a lasting peace, and regional states, including Pakistan, must facilitate the process. Without a workable agreement, the descent of Afghanistan into more violence post-US withdrawal cannot be ruled out.
Use of stun batons
IN a disturbing development, it has emerged that law-enforcement agencies in Faisalabad are using stun batons on citizens in a bid to enforce coronavirus-related SOPs. Local police are using these stun batons as a means of punishing those flouting Covid-19-related rules, with videos on social media showing how motorcycle riders with exposed faces are being subjected to this painful and unacceptable treatment. These handheld instruments — clearly approved and supplied by the provincial government — are known to deliver an electric shock that causes the victim to momentarily lose his balance; it disrupts muscle control, besides leading to mental confusion and disorientation. Those who have been at the receiving end of such treatment know that the pain, though briefly felt, is excruciating. One victim said he felt like he “was dying”. A policeman on condition of anonymity told this paper that the higher authorities were well aware that these stun batons were being used by LEAs, and that they hoped it would be helpful in making people follow SOPs to contain the spread of the coronavirus. The use of such a device to enforce any kind of rule is unacceptable. Rights groups such as Amnesty International and the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan have rightly criticised the use of stun batons as torture. In a statement, the HRCP termed the use of such instruments as a flagrant violation of Article 14 of the Constitution of Pakistan as well as of the UN Convention Against Torture to which Pakistan is a signatory. “The crisis must not be tackled at the expense of human rights — this is not an ‘either/or’ situation,” the commission added.
The government must stop this practice immediately, as not only does it have no legal basis, but it is also an inhumane attempt to remedy its own failure to educate the public. Poor messaging, weak enforcement of SOPs and the authorities’ lax attitude are the reason why Covid-19 is spreading unabated. Physically punishing those who do not follow the SOPs is cruel and senseless.