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Dawn Editorial 12 May 2020

A worrying gamble

AS was expected, hundreds of thousands of people came out of their homes on the first day of the relaxed lockdown. In every province, markets and shops were crowded as if the virus and its very real threat were things of the past. Scenes in bustling commercial areas showed that the practice of ‘social-distancing’, mask-wearing and general precaution were all but forgotten. This happened as Pakistan crossed the 30,000 mark for positive cases and Sindh recorded over 1,000 Covid-19 cases — the highest in a single day. These results were obtained after close to 5,500 tests were conducted in the province in 24 hours, which means approximately 20pc were positive. The situation is already serious and the reports from hospitals and doctors suggest that the situation will get worse. According to the Sindh health minister, there is a sharp increase in the number of patients “after every half an hour” and the number of beds in high-dependency units across hospitals in the province are running short. While the graph for positive cases remains on the incline and recorded deaths reach 670, the lockdown appears to exist merely in name. The caveat for following SOPs, too, has been ignored, and bodes poorly for what lies ahead.
The coming weeks will determine whether the government’s gamble of restarting business was worth the risk. Worryingly, the data and the size of crowds in public contradict this decision. If the government is unable to effectively enforce SOPs, as the scenes from yesterday indicate, the results will be disastrous. Already, congregations in mosques are violating the protocols agreed upon between the government and clergy. There is also very little hope that the rest of the general public will suddenly observe SOPs. In Punjab, where contact-based industries such as barbershops and salons have been allowed to open, implementing SOPs will be an even bigger challenge as many of these businesses exist in closed, private spaces. If the cases and deaths continue to climb at this rate — which the data predicts may happen — the authorities must be quick and decisive in their response and revoke relaxations in the lockdown. A scenario where these cases and deaths rise and no action is taken will cripple the healthcare system and be a collective blow to both society and the economy.
As the government mulls its next move, it should focus its resources on ramping up testing. While testing has increased to around 12,000 per day, it is still far less than the goal of 25,000. Furthermore, members of the federal and provincial governments should end hostilities which are continuing unabated in this pandemic. The presence of the coronavirus and the ensuing chaos have created an unprecedented situation which demands extraordinary leadership. Name-calling and blame games will only worsen the public’s already low levels of trust in the state.


Railway probes

TRAIN accidents are a common feature in Pakistan — and for the railway bureaucracy they are just another routine matter in their daily work. Statistically, at least one train accident takes place in the country every three days and an increase in their frequency can be noticed in recent years. For the most part, the accidents are caused by derailments and involve the loss of railway or private property. But in other instances, such as the horrific Tezgam fire accident in October last year, we have seen scores of people losing their lives for no fault of their own. Normally, the railway authorities carry out a departmental probe into every accident for the sake of meeting legal requirements. However, most such probes are usually left incomplete because no one — not the politicians, bureaucracy or the public — is interested in the reasons. It is only when there is significant loss of life that a serious investigation is ordered under public pressure. It is another matter that the findings of such probes are also swept under the carpet on completion because most of those who travel in trains come from the middle- to low-income groups. Moreover, to pacify the public and to protect the higher railway bureaucracy, the inquiries are generally a way to find scapegoats and put the blame on junior operation staffers such as drivers. It is difficult to recall the railway management ever initiating administrative action against higher officers after an accident. Even when a railway officer or junior staffer is suspended on the recommendation of a probe, the orders are revoked in a few weeks if not within days.
A recent inquiry into a couple of incidents of train derailments carried out by the intelligence unit of the railway police has identified four main factors responsible for accidents: poor railway infrastructure and fractured tracks, overloading of freight trains, over-speeding by drivers, and indifference and negligence on the part of the higher railway bureaucracy towards the current state of affairs. The report clearly shows that a number of accidents could have been prevented had the senior railway management/bureaucracy performed their jobs honestly and were more vigilant. The inquiry shows the necessity for holding the top rail bureaucracy to account for their acts of omission and commission. But will the authorities be able to carry out the accountability of the senior railway bureaucracy? The jury is out.


Media workers at risk

FIFTY journalists were tested for the coronavirus in Quetta recently. The results of no less than 27 — more than half — turned out to be positive. It is yet another reminder that the list of those who advocate protection against the virus but do not always practise what they promote doesn’t end with the government. Media workers, in their rush to get the news, are constantly seen exposing themselves to the danger the virus presents. Unfortunately, news-disseminating organisations are prone to crossing the line very frequently, thus exposing their staff to risks that would not normally fall in the category of the usual occupational hazards. Bad news related to these journalistic exposures that emanate from pursuing dangerous trends in the cut-throat information market is then only to be expected, as we have seen in the case of Quetta which is not the only instance of media workers testing positive. Journalists and their co-workers, in the latest race to rule the airwaves, have been struck by Covid-19 in other parts of the country as well. In the grimmest example, offices have been sealed and staffers forced into quarantine. The latest evidence provided by Quetta only reinforces the bitter irony that those who have been calling out for everyone else to take protective measures have themselves been forced to work without sufficient safety measures in place.
So where does this leave those who employ these reformers, opinion makers and information disseminators who have been trying to guide the public to a safe path in order to protect them from infection? The restraint the professionals in the field and media trade unions have been pleading for has been thrown to the wind as the force of the market brutally lifts the old-fashioned mission-mask to reveal yet one more time tendencies that call for urgent pro-worker action. Providing protective gear to those exposed in the field must precede a commitment by media owners who hardly need to be sensitised about the dangers they are pushing others into.


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