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Dawn Editorial 13 June 2020

Blaming the people?

THE number of Covid-19 cases across the country are increasing rapidly, with social media posts and news reports reflecting how quickly hospitals are running out of space and how limited healthcare access is. Hospital staff is becoming overwhelmed as more and more medics fall ill and fatalities increase. Confirmed cases in Pakistan are around 130,000 and daily fatalities of nearly 100 are being reported. These figures are of confirmed cases and official hospital deaths, with the actual number of Covid-19 cases including fatalities possibly far higher. In a televised speech, Prime Minister Imran Khan, too, acknowledged how rapidly the virus is spreading and expressed his frustration at how casual the public’s response is. “I am disappointed to see that our nation is being very careless,” he said, adding that many don’t believe that the coronavirus even exists or that people are dying of it. Yet, his strategy to curb and control the spread of the coronavirus is limited to pleas for distancing and observing SOPs.
While the message about distancing and SOPs is the correct one, the government cannot simply leave it to citizens to fend for themselves and then hold them responsible if deaths continue to escalate. The government is ultimately responsible for how badly the coronavirus hits the population and, therefore, must not stop at merely requesting that people take precautions. A mass awareness campaign with effective messaging is the need of the hour, as it is the only way the state can limit the death and doom spelt by the virus in the absence of a lockdown. Unfortunately, while the government’s anti-lockdown policy has been strongly and repeatedly communicated, its anti-coronavirus messaging is weak. If, as the prime minister says, there are so many people who think the virus is a hoax or part of some conspiracy, something is amiss in the government’s existing communications strategy and must be addressed immediately — not when cases rise even further.
They must create a sense of urgency among the population and also have an enforcement mechanism in place for those who don’t follow the rules. As has been said before, the notion of ‘self-responsibility’ and ‘voluntary rule following’ in a country where millions can become infected and thousands die is dangerous. Sweden adopted this approach to avoid long-term economic hardship, but paid a heavy price as its deaths per capita surged to the highest in the world. The support package for healthcare workers and data collection from hospitals are important and necessary government initiatives in this battle, but the war against Covid-19 is a long and difficult one. The government must not stop here. It must invest in improving its messaging and in implementing SOPs. Instead of blaming those who are violating SOPs, the authorities must examine why they have failed to convince the public of the very real consequences of the infection.


More swarms arriving

IN a contracting economy that faces an uncertain future amid the rapid spread of Covid-19 across the country, the agriculture sector has proved to be the only silver lining in the thick black recessionary clouds. The farm sector, which, according to the Economic Survey for 2019-2020, has grown by 2.67pc, compared to 0.85pc the previous financial year, could not stop the overall economy from moving into negative territory for the first time in 68 years, but it did help slow down the damage. That agriculture registered a positive growth in spite of the significant damage caused to crops by the widespread locust plague speaks volumes for this sector’s resilience. Some say that agricultural growth estimates for the present year may be exaggerated. But everyone agrees that the sector may not perform as well during the next fiscal year unless the new threat from the crop-eating pests in the coming weeks and months is tackled effectively and urgently.
The locust infestation across the country is worsening in spite of the ramped-up measures taken in recent weeks to control the menace. A report on Thursday said that, apart from their old route through Iran — the pests have found a new corridor via Afghanistan to enter Pakistan and devastate crops in KP before attacking green fields in the adjoining districts of Punjab. In addition, a new wave of locust swarms originating from Ethiopia, Somalia, Eritrea and Djibouti in the Horn of Africa is expected to reach Balochistan via Iran after travelling through Saudi Arabia and Yemen in the next two weeks. The emerging situation is alarming for farmers who have for more than a year been trying to cope with the plague to somehow cut their losses and protect their livelihoods. Tens of hundreds of poor farmers, especially from Balochistan — the worst-hit province with its 33 districts under locust attack — have already lost their means of earning while others are reporting significant losses. The government claims it is monitoring the movement of the migratory pests in the region on a daily basis and strengthening its infrastructure to fight off the menace. However, the authorities need to realise that they are running out of time. The failure to deal with the threat will not only wipe out millions of rural livelihoods and add to poverty but could also cause food insecurity at a time when people are still trying to cope with another plague, ie the coronavirus.


Teacher’s arrest

RIGHTS’ activists in the country and progressive teachers’ associations particularly in Sindh are attempting to defuse a situation following a new case of alleged blasphemy, which has at its centre Prof Sajid Soomro of the Shah Abdul Latif University, Khairpur. Not too long after Prof Soomro’s arrest, the JUI-F, which has some support in Sindh districts such as Larkana away from its strongholds of KP and Balochistan, took offence at a social media post by Dr Arfana Mallah — president of the Sindh University Teachers’ Association. The provincial leadership of the right-wing party wanted the same blasphemy charges brought against Dr Mallah, apparently an old ideological opponent of theirs, which threaten to turn Prof Soomro’s life upside down. In a replay of the past, when angry crowds tried to force the registration of a blasphemy case against an accused, the Bhitai Nagar police station was besieged for some time.
If history is any guide, further pressure is likely to be mounted on the authorities in the coming days. Much has been said about the law, and the argument to prevent its misuse to settle all kinds of personal and political scores is a compelling one and substantiated by evidence. But, unfortunately, in recent times, there has been an all too visible increase in the reluctance to discuss the existing law, let alone taking steps to revise it. This is a result of the entrenched positions of people who take too much interest in punishing those they believe are violating the law and who are unlikely to be distracted by any reported instances of misuse. Those demanding fair treatment for an accused in the name of the law and principles of justice provided by religion are faced with a dangerous situation in the present case. They need much more than a call to Sindh’s old values of tolerance and understanding to persevere. They need the state, the politicians and other powers to be at least neutral. They need a government that treats people equally.
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