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Dawn Editorial 13 April 2020

Need to restrict

WITH more than 1.5m people infected and upwards of 100,000 dead, the spread of the deadly coronavirus shows little sign of slowing down across the world. Italy, Spain and the United States remain the most affected countries, even as the infection spreads to all corners of the planet. The projections are ominous and the worst may be yet to come. In this grim scenario, countries can do little more than try to ‘flatten the curve’ while scientists rush to find a vaccine. Even though testing on humans has started, experts say the actual vaccine that will be approved for usage may still be 12 to 18 months away. For Pakistan, this is a huge challenge. Prime Minister Imran Khan has started saying that our health system may come under tremendous stress by the end of the month. The pace of the spread of the infection has picked up dramatically and will likely reach tens of thousands within the next few weeks. The government may have belatedly got its act together, but despite all our best efforts to acquire equipment and beef up our health facilities, there is very little chance that we will be able to cope with the pressure of patients.
The only option we have, as do all other countries, is to maintain strict lockdowns and try to suppress the spread of the virus. However, recent announcements seem to suggest a certain laxity in restrictions. The Punjab government has announced the opening of some businesses, while the prime minister has already declared the construction industry will restart its activities shortly. The federal government has also said limited flight operations will resume soon and Pakistanis stranded abroad will be brought back home. These are all noble intentions and they point towards a need to get the economy going, but they run the risk of diluting the impact of the lockdowns. These steps also suggest a certain lack of clarity within the government, as it vacillates between lockdowns and economic activity. This is a difficult decision, but given the choice, it really is not. By diluting lockdowns, we will only be delaying the inevitable in terms of re-clamping restrictions and hastening it by triggering the spread of the virus.
The key priority at this stage is to slow down the pace of infections by every means possible in order to better prepare for the deluge. By giving in to the pressures of the economy — and there is no denying the reality of these pressures — the government is avoiding the hard choices that need to be made. It would be far better to make a clear plan around lockdowns for a limited period and strictly enforce it while speeding up relief to the weaker sections of society through the Ehsaas programme. Dithering will serve no purpose other than worsening an already bad situation.


Data protection

THE Ministry of Information Technology and Telecommunication last week published a draft of a personal data protection bill, with an invitation to stakeholders for feedback. With a May 15 deadline, the ministry maintained that the privacy of personal data of an individual has become “more relevant and important than ever” at a time when digital measures such as mobile phone tracking are being employed to contain the virus. While the government’s effort to move forward on data protection is encouraging, it has been a long time coming. A similar attempt was made during the PML-N tenure, but it did not yield results. In the absence of such legislation, and as internet and telecom penetration increase in Pakistan, citizens have been victims of privacy breaches and data leaks at the hands of companies, individuals and the state, without any repercussions.
There is no doubt that there is an urgent need for citizens to have legal protections for their data. The phrase ‘data is the new oil’ aptly describes how companies mine personal data to build and profit from profiles. In this respect, the current draft bill aims to govern the collection and processing of data and criminalise violations of privacy and data leaks. Yet, it is not very clear whether this scrutiny will apply to the state, which arguably controls the largest amount of citizen data — and has been accused of breaches. From Nadra to FBR to ECP, the state holds a wide range of private citizens’ information, including home addresses, biometric and electoral data, as well as information of ethnicity and religious beliefs. Given these large-scale data-gathering functions, the exemption given to the federal government under Section 31 is alarming, as it empowers the state to grant exemptions to “any data controller”. Furthermore, Section 38 stipulates that employees of the data protection authority will be public servants, giving rise to apprehensions that the legislation will not hold authorities accountable. Rights groups have correctly demanded a more independent and transparent decision-making process. They have also made a legitimate request for more time to critically examine the draft. The government must invite and accept the feedback given by these stakeholders with sincerity. Anything short of this would render this legislation a lip-service exercise rushed through to placate social media companies which the government is so eager to invite to Pakistan. The intention behind the legislation should be to protect the citizen, not just serve the interests of the state.


Mental health in jails

THE mind can be a prison for anyone afflicted with a mental health disorder. But for the countless mentally ill prisoners languishing in Pakistani jails, there is little to no treatment or respite from their ailments. Indeed, the harsh conditions within the prison confines exacerbates underlying illnesses, as many are thrown into these overcrowded spaces that lack natural sunlight and air, and privacy, and are often subjected to violent and volatile behaviour. There is also evidence of drugs being used within prisons, and torture used as a method to subjugate or exhaust inmates into compliance. Those prisoners who are placed in tiny isolation cells are perhaps the most vulnerable of all, lacking any human connection or understanding. While these prisoners should be receiving treatment, they are instead weighed down by the twin stigma of being both mentally unwell and a prisoner, and are thus condemned by society for being ‘deserving’ of their suffering — regardless of whether or not they are indeed guilty of their crime beyond reasonable doubt.
On Saturday, for instance, a report in this paper detailed the tragic tale of Kanizan Bibi, who was thrown into prison around 30 years ago, when she was just a teenager, for the murder of six individuals. She had been accused of being an accomplice in the murder of her employee’s wife and children, and was charged under Section 302/304 of the Pakistan Penal Code. Later, she was handed the death sentence, along with her employer, who was hanged to death in 2003. Despite being declared schizophrenic, and her death sentence being halted in a presidential stay, Kanizan Bibi is not a free woman and the noose still hangs around her neck. Last year, the mentally unwell prisoner Khizar Hayat breathed his last in a hospital, after suffering for 16 years in confinement. In his final days, Khizar was a shadow of his former self, suffering from hypertension and anaemia. May no one else be subjected to such a dreadful fate.


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