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Dawn Editorial 15 June 2020

Package for healthcare workers

THOUSANDS of healthcare workers in Pakistan are putting their lives on the line every day in the fight against the coronavirus. By end May, at least 1,900 had been infected. According to latest figures by the Pakistan Medical Association, 37 doctors and three paramedics have succumbed to the disease. In an acknowledgement of the dire risks they incur every day, the government on Friday announced a comprehensive support package for these medical professionals. Among its features is a Shuhada package from Rs3m to Rs10m for the families of those in the medical profession sacrificing their lives in the line of duty. Other aspects include tax exemption for front-line healthcare workers, provision of sufficient personal protection equipment, training for staff of public and private hospitals in critical care management of Covid-19 patients, prioritisation in testing them for the virus, etc.
With the total number of confirmed infections having crossed 142,000 and rising relentlessly every day, and more than 2,600 deaths — over 1,000 of them so far in this month alone — the stress on the healthcare system is becoming unsustainable. Reports are increasingly surfacing of packed-to-capacity Covid-19 wards and patients being turned away from hospital after hospital. Healthcare workers have little respite from their duties of caring for the sick, all the while filled with dread that they may unwittingly take the virus home and infect their own families. Any slip-up — perhaps an N95 mask reused once too often or a slight mistake in donning or removing PPE — can expose them to the contagion and its unforeseen consequences. On top of that, there have been several incidents of violence against healthcare workers by distraught family members of Covid-19 patients. It is therefore in the fitness of things that the government has finally come up with a holistic support package for these beleaguered professionals.
However, the best thing the state could have done for our healthcare workers was to listen to their urgent recommendations to bring down the infection transmission rate and flatten the curve so that the hospital network was not overwhelmed. After all, these medical personnel are the experts with a ringside view of ground zero: the health facilities where Covid-19 patients are being treated. Doctors have repeatedly warned of a catastrophe in the making, and through several press conferences pleaded with the government to enforce a lockdown, and implored the public to observe the SOPs. Instead, the federal government politicised the medical professionals’ sincere move to sound the alarm early on — we were at ‘only’ 10,000 cases at the time — as an attempt by the opposition to put pressure on it. Had the government not been so dismissive of their words, the burden on healthcare workers would quite likely not have become so crushing. Where we stand today, the elusive peak is nowhere in sight — only a situation becoming more precarious by the day.


Colonial symbols

IN the aftermath of the George Floyd tragedy, a movement has started in many parts of the world where protesters have been pulling down or defacing statues of figures seen as instrumental in the subjugation of colonised peoples. In the British city of Bristol, demonstrators recently toppled the statue of 18th-century slave trader and politician Edward Colston, and chucked it into the harbour. In several US cities, people have attacked statues of Christopher Columbus, the man who discovered the Americas, paving the way for European colonisation of the continents, and the marginalisation of its native peoples. Meanwhile, in Belgium statues of Leopold II have been targeted; this was the man who treated Congo as his personal fiefdom, and under whose watch millions of Africans were killed or maimed. Clearly, the time for revisiting the colonial era has arrived, as people of colour and former subjects of empire the world over question the violence their forefathers were subjected to — which still shapes attitudes towards minorities in many places — and ask for amends.
Far from being a benign influence, colonialism devastated cultures and upended societies as conquistadores and slavers exploited the ‘new world’ for profit. Indeed, today much of the wealth and power of the so-called First World is based on the blood, hard labour and riches of colonised, enslaved peoples. So oftentimes, when such states hold forth on human values, the hypocrisy is inescapable in the context of their own past. Even in our neck of the woods, while some in the subcontinent may have fond memories of the days of empire, the fact is that this was a period of great violence and upheaval. For example, Robert Clive — whose statue stands outside the British Foreign Office in London — has been blamed by historians for the Bengal famine in which 3m people are believed to have perished. Moreover, the British have yet to apologise for the Jallianwalah Bagh massacre. The fact is, there needs to be an honest appraisal of the colonial period, with the former colonisers admitting the atrocities committed against native populations in Asia, Africa, the Americas and Australia. In addition, the hateful symbols of colonialism need to be put in museums so that future generations can learn from them. Surely, states must ask themselves: should statues of individuals responsible for untold misery and exploitation of coloured peoples be lionised and placed on high pedestals?


Haj decision

WITH the Islamic month of Shawwal drawing to a close, a key decision confronts the Muslim world: how to proceed with Haj, which is due to start at the end of July. While the Saudi government has not taken a decision yet on whether or not the pilgrimage will go ahead, some Muslim states have announced that they will not be sending hajis this year due to the coronavirus threat. Among these are Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei. Of course, the challenge is considerable. Last year, around two million believers made their way to the holy places to perform the annual pilgrimage. Enforcing the SOPs health professionals recommend — especially with regard to social distancing — is next to impossible given the massive number of pilgrims. As it is, the Saudi health authorities put in a huge effort to ensure pilgrims arrive and stay healthy during Haj. With Covid-19 now posing a serious challenge to global health systems, the risks involved with allowing even a limited number of hajis will be considerable, especially when the pilgrims fan out across the world after Haj.
The decision is not easy, but the Saudi government should announce its policy soon for the sake of clarity. Instead of allowing large numbers of people from across the world, perhaps a solution can be found by only allowing a small, symbolic number of locals to perform the key rituals in Makkah, Arafat, Mina, etc so that the religious obligation is fulfilled. Allowing a large number of believers to congregate may complicate the situation further. And even if Saudi Arabia decides to proceed as usual, each Muslim country, including Pakistan, must assess the risks to its own citizens before allowing them to undertake the pilgrimage this year. Perhaps if ulema from different countries and schools of thought are consulted, and the advice of health professionals is kept in view, a solution can be found for the pilgrimage to symbolically go ahead, and ensure that Muslims’ lives are not threatened by Covid-19.


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