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Dawn Editorial 20 March 2020

The crisis deepens

PAKISTAN arrived at a grim, if inevitable, milestone on Wednesday in its battle against COVID-19 when two of those known to be infected succumbed to the disease. The deaths occurred in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and, contrary to what appears to be the general pattern of fatalities worldwide, the individuals were well under 60 years of age. As is the case with most of the confirmed cases in Pakistan, they both had a recent travel history. Last week, however, we entered the next stage of this pandemic when the first case of community transmission was confirmed in Karachi. That number is bound to rise, perhaps exponentially, with each passing day.
This is no time for politics or platitudes. It is a moment that calls for our leadership to rise above their differences and formulate a coordinated response that can make efficient and judicious use of available resources. At the moment, there is a discrepancy between the numbers of confirmed cases released by the Control and Command Centre set up to deal with the crisis and those given by provincial governments, which are possibly more up to date. While Sindh has shown itself to be commendably responsive to the multi-faceted challenge posed by COVID-19, and KP has begun rolling out a coherent strategy, there is on the federal level a sense of disjointedness, a perceptible lack of direction. In a society whose bonds are already frayed through divisive narratives, a national emergency such as this unless handled intelligently can exacerbate pre-existing cleavages. Although Prime Minister Imran Khan addressed the nation on Tuesday, there should be on his part more frequent communication with the public to inform them of the steps his government is taking in conjunction with the provinces. He must also explain why some of the measures that may temporarily cause major disruption in people’s social and spiritual routines are necessary in the present situation.
Rapid transmission of COVID-19 has been checked in China and South Korea through lockdowns. Such a drastic step, given the realities of Pakistan, would cause untold misery to the multitudes that survive on daily wages or those with small businesses dependent on a steady income to make ends meet. However, there may come a point when the government decides it has no choice but to impose such a lockdown at least in some parts of the country. In any case, the closure of markets and schools — places where hawkers tend to find customers — has already begun to impact the poor. An intervention by the state is urgently required. In concert with provincial dispensations, the government must devise a streamlined plan of action that also co-opts the private sector — including organisations already engaged in charitable work — so that efforts are not replicated and equitable distribution of relief goods is ensured. Low-income families must be provided the wherewithal to make it through this unfolding nightmare.


NAB & the judiciary

CHIEF Justice of the Islamabad High Court Athar Minallah has expressed anger at a report of the National Accountability Bureau and accused it of trying to scandalise and blackmail honourable judges. During the hearing of a petition filed by former federal minister Akram Durrani for pre-arrest bail, a NAB investigation officer presented a report which contained names of some IHC judges and other judicial officers who had allegedly been given out-of-turn allotment of government accommodations. Chief Justice Minallah told the NAB official that if there had been any discrepancy, then NAB should have filed a reference for misconduct against the judges in the Supreme Judicial Council. He warned the NAB official that no judge in this court would be blackmailed.
This is not the first time that the IHC has expressed annoyance over the role of NAB. Earlier, the honourable court had berated NAB officials for their policy of arresting accused personnel without any solid reason. In various bail hearings, the judges have also grilled NAB prosecutors for their failure to provide substantive evidence that would explain the need for keeping people incarcerated. Time and again, it has been seen that NAB has turned in an unconvincing performance in court and has been unable to provide solid arguments to defend its weak investigation and prosecution. The number of people criticising NAB has been increasing steadily and there is a general consensus within parliament that the NAB Ordinance, which gives sweeping powers to the accountability bureau, and especially its chairman, needs to be amended. The opposition parties have worked out a draft of these amendments and the treasury benches have supported the need for reforming the accountability body. However, things have not progressed beyond this stage and there is no agreement on what exactly needs to be amended and according to what timelines. In the meantime, NAB officials continue to exercise their powers of detention at will. The criticism from the court reinforces the need for checking the excesses of NAB and bringing its powers within a framework that protects the fundamental rights of citizens. The reform process will also need to address other issues that plague NAB officers including how capacity can be enhanced so that investigations are done professionally on the basis of solid evidence that can withstand judicial scrutiny. The sooner this reform is done, the better it will be for our system, otherwise the country would be better off without such a controversial body.


Foot-in-mouth syndrome

EYEBROWS were raised when Punjab Information and Culture Minister Fayyazul Hassan Chohan was reinstated to his position in December. Last March, the PTI announced that the provincial government had removed the minister from his post following derogatory remarks he had made about a religious minority. Nonetheless, the generous of spirit believe in second chances, and Mr Chohan was given one to redeem himself with. He instead chose to squander that opportunity by directing his vitriolic tongue at an even more vulnerable group of people. Addressing a press conference on Tuesday, the minister claimed that people who engage in panic buying and hoarding during the COVID-19 pandemic will be ‘punished’ by God by bearing offspring with disabilities. Such a regressive and damaging statement, rightly slammed by many including Human Rights Minister Shireen Mazari, is utterly unbecoming of a public office-bearer, let alone one responsible for ‘information and culture’. By the same logic, one may ask what the people of Punjab have done to deserve such a minister.
Besides being hurtful to Pakistanis (adult and children alike) with disabilities, and their loved ones, Mr Chohan is misinformed to believe that disability is a divine curse. Disability can affect anyone, at any time in life and due to any number of reasons. At a time when the public is fraught with anxiety, the last thing this society needs is for its leaders to display callousness and lack of empathy for others. This is not our ‘culture’. In fact, our culture demands that we call on each other to work collectively and ensure the most vulnerable among us — including people with disabilities — are supported in these difficult times. German Chancellor Angela Merkel recently displayed such leadership when, instead of haranguing people by unleashing a volley of abuse at the ‘sinners’ among us, she spoke of the need for “solidarity and reason”. Mr Chohan may have offered a token apology for his latest bilious statement, but it seems that he still falls short of demonstrating the kind of moral leadership this country needs right now.


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