A common enemy
ON Sunday, Saarc representatives appeared in a video conference to discuss how they could tackle the novel coronavirus threat (COVID-19), as the number of infected patients around the world suddenly climbed over the weekend. In this rare attempt to highlight a common concern, Special Assistant to the Prime Minister on Health Zafar Mirza underscored the importance of working together and developing a regional mechanism for sharing health-related information.
A common enemy presents a window of opportunity for all countries at odds to put aside their differences — at least, for the time being — and take on the virus on a war footing. Dr Mirza correctly labelled COVID-19 “the most serious global health emergency in the last 100 years”. To his credit, the health adviser has tried his best to take charge of the situation from day one. Perhaps there would have been greater awareness of Pakistan’s efforts in the fight against the virus had Prime Minister Imran Khan participated in the video conference as his Bangladeshi and India counterparts did.
The global death toll is over 6,500 and set to climb, and millions of people continue to be exposed to the infection. In neighbouring Iran, one of the worst-hit countries, the total number of deaths exceeded 850 — over 120 in the past two days alone.
In Pakistan, the first COVID-19 case was detected about a month ago, when a young man who had returned from pilgrimage in Qom, Iran, tested positive in Karachi. While he fortunately recovered due to timely detection, over 180 others have since been diagnosed with COVID-19 in the country. Out of these, a few are said to be in critical condition.
Undoubtedly, and regrettably, this figure will keep rising in the coming days as tests confirm the worst, as they did in Peshawar, which reported 15 cases yesterday. The vast majority of cases have been found in Sindh, particularly in Karachi and Sukkur, where several travellers from Taftan who had returned from pilgrimage in Iran tested positive. But this may just be because the Sindh government is taking a more proactive, hands-on approach in dealing with the crisis, while understanding the gravity of the situation and the crucial need for honesty.
In yesterday’s press conference, Sindh Chief Minister Murad Ali Shah did not gloss over the facts, laying the numbers before the media, even as reports of more confirmed cases were relayed to him. While the situation is indeed grim, the provincial government’s transparency is laudable.
There is also the question of other pilgrims from Taftan who would have returned to their homes in KP, Balochistan and Punjab. Peshawar has just announced a number of such cases. What about Punjab and Balochistan — where is their data? Are screening facilities adequate in these provinces? ‘Don’t panic’ does not mean one should be paralysed either.
A grim milestone
AS the world struggles to come to grips with the global coronavirus pandemic, the grim anniversary of a man-made disaster has just passed. The Syrian war has now entered its 10th year, and there are few signs that hostilities in the Arab country are winding down, with the belligerents ready to make peace. Far from it, there appear to be new and more dangerous fronts opening that could plunge the wider region into a conflagration unless wiser counsel prevails. What started in 2011 as a popular uprising against Bashar al-Assad’s iron-fisted rule has in fact morphed into a wider geopolitical battle, with rival ideological blocs using Syria as a chessboard. Moreover, ferocious militant outfits, such as the self-styled Islamic State group and Al Nusra, have used the chaos to establish themselves. In fact, only a few years ago, it appeared as if IS and other jihadi groups were on the ascendant, until they were beaten back by the Syrian government with the help of its foreign allies, as well as a separate US-led coalition.
Today, while Mr Assad’s regime has the upper hand against his opponents — thanks primarily to military support from his Russian and Iranian allies, as well as Hezbollah — a new conflict brews as Turkey has entered northern Syria to bolster rebel factions it supports. Only last month, Damascus’s troops clashed with Ankara’s forces in and around the northern Syrian province of Idlib, with casualties on both sides. Russia has helped broker a ceasefire, but the truce remains tenuous. Up till, now the pro-Iranian Syrian government was fighting local proxies supported by its rivals in the American/Gulf Arab camp, as well as militants. But today, a confrontation between two sovereign states — Syria and Turkey — is very probable. Suffice it to say, such a development will only spell more misery for the Syrian people. According to one count 384,000 have died since hostilities began, while the UN says half the Syrian population has fled their homes. To prevent this catastrophe from getting any worse, it is essential to defuse the crisis that is brewing between Damascus and Ankara. Once a permanent ceasefire is in place, the numerous multilateral processes — Astana, Sochi — must be reactivated in order to bring Mr Assad and his opponents to the table to hammer out a deal acceptable to the Syrian people. There is grave mistrust on both sides, but the only alternative to reconciliation and peace is further bloodshed.
THE demand for a separate Hazara province along with the one for a south Punjab province has been an active topic of discussion in recent years. In 2010, the proponents of a Hazara province took to the streets to press for the acceptance of their demand after the passage of the 18th Amendment that gave the country’s north-western province its new name. So when the PTI government announced plans for the creation of a south Punjab province last week, it was natural for Hazara province advocates to use this opportunity to also renew their call for the division of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. A multiparty conference organised in Mansehra the other day has asked the government to make a resolution for a Hazara province a part of the one that it plans to move in parliament for the creation a south Punjab province. The move is backed by all the major opposition parties — the PML-N, PPP, PML-Q, JUI and JI.
Separately, the PTI’s Hazara division also chimed in, calling for the establishment of a sub-secretariat in the region — again on the model of south Punjab — as a prelude to the commencement of constitutional formalities needed for a new province. The party, which rules KP, has also urged the provincial assembly, which in 2014 had adopted a resolution calling for a separate province for the people of Hazara, to support the demand. With the government now actively pursuing its plans to carve out a new province comprising the southern districts of Punjab, it cannot reject similar calls, made on the basis of geography, language, culture, ethnicity, lack of development, etc, from other regions. Some feel that the division of the existing federating units into several smaller units is essential to improve the quality of governance, administration and service delivery. The genie is now out of the bottle. The only way to handle it is to initiate a wider public debate to develop a national consensus on the direction in which we want to move.