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Dawn Editorial 19 April 2020

Progress in Yemen

THERE is reason for cautious optimism where ending the debilitating war in Yemen is concerned, as the UN’s top official for the country says “very good progress” is being made towards a ceasefire in the war-torn state. Earlier this month, the Saudi-led coalition had declared a unilateral ceasefire in its war against the Houthi rebel movement. The Houthis responded coolly to the truce, saying they would reciprocate if a crippling blockade of Yemen, enforced by the coalition, was lifted. However, while fighting between the two sides has continued, as per the UN’s assessment, efforts on “reaching consensus” continue and agreements could be reached “in the immediate future”. For Yemenis, who have lost tens of thousands of their countrymen in this vicious war, while millions remain hungry and sick, this is welcome news. This is especially so when the first case of Covid-19 has been reported in the battered country. This may, of course, only be the tip of the iceberg — considering the fact that Yemen’s health system has been shattered by over five years of conflict, the true number of coronavirus cases are likely to be far greater.
Both the Yemeni government and their Saudi backers, as well as the Houthi fighters and their Iranian allies, must realise the gravity of the situation and fast-track the peace process. While it may sound alarmist, Covid-19 may be a ticking time bomb in Yemen considering its undernourished, vulnerable population, with around 12m people needing food assistance. That is why to strengthen the chances of a permanent ceasefire, unrestricted food and medical aid must be allowed to reach all parts of the country so that the sick and the hungry can be cared for. The blockade should be lifted immediately and leading Muslim states need to approach both the Saudis and Iranians to help enforce the truce by convincing their respective Yemeni clients to put down their weapons. If petty geopolitical interests are pursued instead, an even larger disaster awaits the hapless people of Yemen.

 
 

A risky proposition

THE coronavirus pandemic has upended social, political and economic routines across the globe. Routine activities that were not too long ago totally kosher have now been suspended as per the requirements of social distancing. Marriages, funerals and all other social events where a large number of people gather have now been cancelled or scaled down to the bare essentials. As for mass worship, most religious institutions around the world, including in Muslim states, have advised believers to pray at home instead of attending places of worship. Pakistan had taken similar steps, with varying degrees of enforcement on the part of the state in various provinces, and adherence by the general public. However, with the month of Ramazan due to start at the end of next week, the matter of mosque attendance is one of urgency. A meeting on Saturday of the president with ulema belonging to different sects sought to address this key issue.
What emerged from the conclave of the clergy and President Arif Alvi is a 20-point ‘action plan’ that suggests various guidelines for the holy month related to mass gatherings. While the plan has given the green light for taraweeh and congregational prayers, it has also offered some precautions, such as observance of social distancing within mosques, disinfection of masjids etc. Interestingly, the 20th point highlights the fact that the state can “review and change … its policy if … the rise in cases was exponential”. This point, perhaps, clinches the issue. The fact is that by allowing congregational prayers to go ahead, the state has taken a huge risk. Freedom of worship should be guaranteed, but when the risk of infection is so acute, why take such a questionable decision? Moreover, the prime minister also observed that infections may rise in May. If this is the case, the state should have taken a more firm stance with the clerics.
Moreover, our clergymen need to see what other Muslim states are doing in this situation. Saudi Arabia’s grand mufti has said taraweeh and even Eidul Fitr prayers should be offered at home, while Iran’s supreme leader earlier said that mass gatherings in Ramazan were unlikely to go ahead. If these two Muslim states — which many believers across the world look to for guidance on religious matters — as well as others such as Egypt and Turkey can take firm decisions on suspension of congregational prayers, what makes our clergymen take such rigid positions? There is strong evidence that lack of observance of social distancing during religious events — the Tableeghi Jamaat ijtema, for example — has led to a spike in Covid-19 cases. In the face of such facts, the state’s decision to allow congregational worship during Ramazan is a matter of concern, and if there is the slightest evidence that cases are shooting up in the aftermath of mass religious gatherings, the government needs to take a firm decision.

 
 

Construction package

NOBODY doubts that the construction sector is a job-creating part of the economy and hires more unskilled daily wagers than perhaps any other sector. Equally, nobody doubts that these unskilled daily wagers are the worst hit under the present-day lockdowns. However, the continued focus, via the government’s public pronouncements, on the sector at a time when the country is facing a public health emergency has been called into question. Indeed, it is baffling to note the speed at which the government as a whole, in the recent cabinet meeting, moved to pass a far-reaching set of proposals for the construction sector that contain within them an amnesty scheme for whitening black money, as well as key tax incentives that end up promoting speculative activity in the property market.
Whatever arguments one musters in favour of incentives for construction magnates, the discussion could have been left for another time. The scheme, which is being justified by the authorities in the name of helping the poor, may appear to be a positive move to boost the construction sector, but a closer look at the details shows very little effort at targeting the incentives to only benefit low-income housing. Other than a few initiatives, the benefits as a whole will be available to all builders and the construction sector has historically always worked to service elite demand first and foremost. But even more important than the targeting is the loosening of the lockdown terms that is inherent in these incentives. A string of decisions will now need to be made to support the resumption of construction activity, and along with this will come a series of demands from other industries that will claim to be allied to construction beyond cement, steel and fixtures. More than a revival of the economy, this package is likely to lead to a progressive loosening of the strictures around social distancing, since enforcing these on the sites will be difficult, if not impossible. The confusion that this package has created, about what exactly are the state’s priorities in the midst of a public health emergency, as well as the perception that has developed around it that this is a clandestine effort to benefit property developers, is likely to do more harm than good in the days to come. It would be better to postpone the decision for reopening of construction sites for now, and concentrate on measures to contain the virus.
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