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Dawn Editorial 15 March 2020

Containing the virus

THE National Security Council has met to discuss a strategy for a looming healthcare crisis of unprecedented proportions — the contagious coronavirus, which has sparked panic across the world owing to its rapid spread and potential to kill.
The government has announced the formation of a national coordination committee along with a string of measures which include the sealing of borders with Iran and Afghanistan, restricting international flights and barring mass public events.
The advisory also declared the shutdown of educational institutions, cinemas, theatres and marriage halls, the adjournment of civil cases in courts and changes in hearing procedures for criminal cases.
The decisions came as Pakistan reported some 30 confirmed cases of COVID-19, which include at least one individual who did not travel abroad, indicating that community spread within the country could be a reality.
Given that Pakistan is straddled by China and Iran which have among the highest reported cases, the authorities’ response to the fast-spreading virus has been lethargic and more reactive than proactive — a circumstance which has led the virus to thrive in other countries.
States including China, Iran and Italy were unable to contain the spread and have reported thousands of cases and hundreds of deaths.
This is a situation our authorities have been aware of for some time.
One illustration of this is that until just a couple of days ago, Punjab, the most populated province, had ostensibly taken no measures to limit public gatherings or establish health protocols.
The ijtima at Raiwind, a congregation of thousands, began despite the provincial government’s pleas to organisers not to hold it.
This defies logic. Pakistan is a developing country with poor healthcare infrastructure and low hygiene standards, so authorities ought to have sounded the alarm by enforcing strict screening and cancelling mass public events when the first case was reported at the end of February.
Moving forward, the government must share its resources and work with the provincial governments to contain the virus.
This would include effective screening at entry ports, which until recently involved filling out a form.
Resources must be allocated to establish health desks at ports which check symptoms and isolate passengers who show signs of being infected.
Across cities, the government must kick off mass multilingual awareness drives about hygiene, symptoms and the availability of medical help.
The federal government must take on board religious authorities to examine the roles that mosques can play to create awareness and limit the spread.
Prime Minister Imran Khan should follow in the footsteps of other world leaders and be visible in the COVID-19 messaging campaign, which he had stayed away from until yesterday.
Given the potentially high mortality rate and the ensuing economic losses, this is not the time to bicker over the 18th Amendment or the availability of funds. Our politicians ought to show leadership and focus on action, transparency and communication.


Hot money

THE rapidly accelerating departure of so-called hot money that came pouring into government debt from last July onwards is now going to test the State Bank’s commitment to a ‘market-determined exchange rate’. In the first 12 days of March, for example, close to $600m left Pakistani markets, primarily from debt securities, as foreign investors and carry traders rushed for safety with the rising economic impact from the fight against the COVID-19 virus. In the days to come, this exodus is likely to grow, especially since it has induced exchange rate volatility which is the biggest source of uncertainty in the eyes of the carry traders behind these inflows. Just in the last week, the rupee touched 160 to a dollar, and then saw a mysterious dive back to 156.5 on Friday in a move that looked suspiciously like intervention from the central bank. If so, we can be certain that the outflows have already given the central bank cold feet, after its young governor had gone to some lengths to play down the risks of a sudden outflow.
The financial markets will be the first to be tested by the growing clouds of uncertainty that are engulfing the country and the world economy these days. The fact that this is happening in the run-up to a monetary policy decision only complicates the picture for the State Bank. Pressure to reduce interest rates is now higher than it has ever been through this cycle of monetary tightening, and not a single voice is left in the public domain to make the case for continuing with high interest rates. The problem is the State Bank cannot have it both ways. It cannot have a stable exchange rate and low interest rates. Another problem is that the government is in no position to afford the kind of stimulus measures that other economies are announcing to compensate for the slowdowns that the fight against the virus necessarily brings. An important test is now shaping up for the governor of the State Bank, who has confidently sold the public on the idea of hot money inflows to build reserves, a market-based exchange rate, and tight monetary policy. This is one test for which the textbook had not prepared him, and Tuesday’s monetary policy statement will be his answer to the challenge. We will wait to see the outcome.


Guantánamo’s prisoners

THE account of Saifullah Paracha, a septuagenarian prisoner of Guantánamo Bay, published recently in this paper is truly harrowing. Mr Paracha, who arrived at the infamous American gulag located in Cuba in 2004, has never been charged with a crime. Moreover, the description of one of his hearings, which was held in the US, and which he was briefly allowed to listen to via an audio link, is akin to “a George Orwell novel”, as he puts it. Besides, the detainee says he was tortured and abused by the Americans while incarcerated at Bagram, another American gulag, in Afghanistan. These aren’t of course the first revelations of abuse linked to Guantánamo and other detention centres that acquired a notorious reputation in the aftermath of 9/11. Sadly, in these dark spaces away from the public eye, the high principles that the US and other Western states claim to respect appear to be held in abeyance.
While the law must be firm against militants and those involved in terrorism, clearly what goes on in Guantánamo and other similar facilities flies in the face of due process and the rule of law. If states use extrajudicial methods to counter terrorism, then they sacrifice the moral high ground. Soon after Barack Obama entered the White House in 2009, he had promised to close Guantánamo “… no later than one year from the date of this order”. Today, in the third month of 2020, this presidential order is dead and buried. Donald Trump appeared ambiguous when questioned about the facility, but has questioned the costs of operating it. The fact is that holding prisoners without charge, and worse physically and mentally torturing them, is a blot on the image of a nation that claims to offer “liberty and justice for all”. Those accused of militancy must be tried and punished if found guilty through a transparent legal process. And the sooner ‘black sites’ such as Guantánamo are shuttered, the better it will be.


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