Limiting the spread
WHERE containment of the spread of Covid-19 is concerned, it is essential that decisions at the top are taken with prudence and firmness. Any dithering or lack of direction can result in the situation getting out of control with an explosion of cases. Considering our creaking healthcare system, this is not a risk Pakistan can afford to take. Where mismanagement of the crisis is concerned, mistakes were quite obviously made while handling the zaireen returning from Iran, which has been ravaged by the virus. The pilgrims were housed in inadequate conditions in Taftan, and the lack of proper facilities to screen and accommodate them is said to have led to the spread of the contagion in this country. However, another major administrative lapse that has affected the battle against Covid-19 has been the Punjab government’s handling of the Tableeghi Jamaat’s grand ijtima in Raiwind held in the middle of March, when coronavirus cases had already been reported in Pakistan.
The Tableeghi Jamaat’s ijtima is no small event. Figures in the media say around 250,000 people had gathered in Raiwind. At a time when ‘social distancing’ and ‘lockdowns’ are buzzwords in the effort to stop the spread of the contagion, the congregation was a recipe for disaster. The Punjab government had asked the Tableeghi Jamaat to postpone the event, but the request was ignored. It took heavy showers in the area for the Jamaat’s hierarchy to cancel the event after it had begun, but by then the damage had already been done. While the Punjab administration erred by allowing the event to go ahead in the first place, things were further complicated when Tableeghi preachers were allowed to spread throughout the country. Cases connected to its members have been reported across Pakistan, as well as other parts of the world. In fact, it is believed that Covid-19 was carried to Gaza by two preachers who had been to Raiwind.
There are lessons that can be learnt from this fiasco. Firstly, where matters of public health are concerned, the state must be gentle but firm. The Punjab government should have clearly communicated to the Tableeghi leadership that letting the ijtima go ahead would create a health crisis on a national scale. Bringing in senior clerics to communicate the message may have helped. Secondly, what the state needs to do now is limit all religious congregations, particularly those of Friday prayers. Scholars of all sects have backed the call for a suspension on congregational prayers, and even the Grand Mosque in Makkah — Islam’s holiest site — has been put off limits to believers. Therefore, overzealous clerics must not be allowed to challenge the writ of the state, and the Covid-19 crisis should be prevented from snowballing further; the ban on congregational prayers must be enforced by the centre as well as all provincial administrations as long as the crisis lasts.
THE country’s informal sector has always kept the wheels of the economy moving during every financial crisis we have ever witnessed in the past by supporting growth and protecting jobs. No more. The ongoing economic crisis triggered by the global coronavirus pandemic threatens to damage the informal sector the most, putting out of work those who need to labour every day to meet their daily needs. By the time the lockdowns enforced by the provincial governments as part of the social-distancing measures to limit the spread of the infection are lifted, millions of informal jobs would be lost and tens of hundreds of small, informal businesses destroyed — perhaps for good. It is in view of this looming economic impact of the coronavirus crisis that the government has announced economic relief packages to support the most affected segments of society in order to minimise the damage to businesses and jobs. The relief programmes so far announced aim to directly transfer cash to 12.5m poor households and distribute food hampers among them. Similarly, the government has announced funds to support businesses and deferred interest payments, in addition to several concessions announced by the State Bank, to help the enterprises facing cash-flow problems make it through the crisis.
Nevertheless, none of these packages contain anything significant to help the informal sector, which is estimated by the World Bank to be a little more than one-third of the country’s GDP and accounts for over 60pc of the total workforce and 71.3pc of non-agriculture labour. The informal businesses are not registered, regulated or protected by existing legal or regulatory frameworks. Similarly, the workers employed in the informal sector work mostly on daily wages and are typically not covered under any social protection scheme. According to the ILO, these people are in the bottom or lower middle-income segment of the population. The pandemic is exacerbating existing economic inequalities as the poor and vulnerable segments of society are struggling to cope with the economic consequences of the virus. The policy response to the coronavirus threat must focus on the most vulnerable people and enterprises. The government should ensure that its financial support reaches the enterprises that need it most — that is micro and small businesses operating in the informal sector — to protect jobs. The economy will suffer massively if micro and small informal enterprises go out of business and their workers lose their jobs. That could potentially lead to massive social unrest in the country.
Policing the pandemic
LIKE much of the world, Pakistan is suffering from the weight of the coronavirus pandemic, and no one seems to know just how long the global health crisis will persist. Understandably, there is fear and anxiety over the rapid spread of the virus, its strain on an already burdened healthcare system, and its overreaching effects on the economy, education, and even simple human interaction — the latter is perhaps most deeply felt under the lockdowns. Meanwhile, law enforcement has to grapple with enforcing lockdown measures, while simultaneously keeping themselves protected from catching the illness. It is only natural that the present circumstances will deeply impact the mental and emotional well-being of both citizens and the state apparatus. However, this should not excuse words or displays of cruelty, particularly towards those who may be suffering from illness, nor should health concerns be used to perpetuate xenophobia, racism, or the targeting of any one community or sect. Equally important, the privacy of patients must be maintained, something that was lacking in the initial days.
Recently, the health ministry mentioned that some coronavirus patients had complained about ill treatment at the hands of district administrations and the police, saying they were being treated like criminals. The ministry was correct to warn against harsh behaviour or shaming tactics, since it can lead to fewer people reporting their illness, thus making it more difficult to contain the spread of the virus. Of course, this does not apply to all police officers or authority figures, and many officers enforce the law with remarkable patience, bravery and selfless service, evident in many videos being shared on social media. Last month, UN Secretary General António Guterres also addressed the issue of stigmatisation in a video message, calling for greater empathy and global solidarity in the face of the epidemic, and urging member nations to “be kind, and make sure no one faces stigma”. The virus does not discriminate, and patients deserve urgent care, not condemnation.