THE Supreme Court’s words have undoubtedly gladdened the hearts of many chafing at the official restrictions on commercial activities in the country at present. On Monday, the apex court bench, hearing the suo motu case pertaining to the authorities’ handling of the coronavirus pandemic, set aside the federal government’s decision to close shops, markets and businesses on Saturdays and Sundays. “People of my country are poor and they need to earn their bread and butter on a daily basis,” said Chief Justice of Pakistan Gulzar Ahmed. The court also ordered the provincial governments to reopen all malls but to ensure the SOPs are strictly observed. Alongside this, the bench expressed concern that the amount being spent on fighting the pandemic could not be justified because Pakistan is not “seriously affected” by it.
There will be those in government who will argue, if behind closed doors, that this is yet another instance of judicial overreach. However, the federal and provincial authorities cannot absolve themselves of creating a situation where the Supreme Court may have believed an intervention on its part was called for. Led by the centre, the once-in-a-century pandemic should have seen them set aside their political differences, reach out across the aisle and hammer out a coherent administrative response based on scientific expertise and best practices in public health policy. It was not essential that each part of the federation be in lockstep with each other throughout, but it was necessary to have a unified, well-reasoned narrative with a consensus on priorities. Instead, there has been acrimonious point-scoring and undermining of each other’s strategy, further fuelling conspiracy theories and public discontent. A populist response has now come from the bench, and there are legitimate fears it could open the floodgates for the infection to spread.
The SOPs are already being followed more in the breach, and while the fatality rate in Pakistan has not been increasing precipitously, the infection rate is alarming. Covid-19 has not even peaked in this country, let alone arrived at the stage where there is a ‘flattening of the curve’. We could be in for a harrowing time ahead, an apocalyptic scenario where patients in need of medical intervention would be turned away from packed-to-capacity hospitals. This is no time to downplay the risk. It should also be said that the executive must have space to make decisions, sometimes difficult and unpopular ones, based on hard-headed realism. Moreover, notwithstanding the political leadership’s discordant response, there is a National Command and Operations Centre specifically set up to bring together the federal and provincial governments and the military leadership on one platform to deal with Covid-19. Excessive judicial activism has sometimes cost Pakistan dearly, such as when the Steel Mills privatisation was overturned or the Reko Diq agreement declared null and void. One hopes that history is not going to repeat itself.
LAST week, police received confirmed reports that two girls were murdered in a village bordering North and South Waziristan, purportedly to ‘restore’ their families’ ‘honour’ after a mobile phone video of them began circulating on social media. On Sunday, they arrested two male relatives of the victims, who have yet to be identified by name. The mystery, secrecy and silence behind this crime bear all the grim hallmarks of similar high-profile ‘honour’ killing cases of the past, the most notable of them being the murders of three women in Kohistan in 2012 after footage of them singing and clapping was leaked online. A year later, in 2013, two teenage girls and their mother were gunned down in Chilas by the girls’ stepbrother and his friends after a video of them smiling and enjoying the rain outdoors was circulated in the area. In some cases, these pixelated videos are the only documentary evidence we have to prove that these women ever lived, let alone the circumstances behind their untimely deaths, as the question of them ever receiving posthumous justice lingers. In fact, the pursuit of truth can itself prove deadly; last year, Afzal Kohistani, the man who spearheaded the long quest for justice for the Kohistan victims was himself gunned down on a busy street in Abbottabad.
For such crimes to be committed today, despite all the shock and horror expressed over previous high-profile cases, and despite all of Pakistan’s legislative achievements and claims to uphold the rule of law, a culture of impunity for crimes against women must obviously remain entrenched in the hearts and minds of many in the far reaches of the land where the law dare not trespass. Tribal ‘custom’ is a law unto itself, with the state apparatus abdicating practically all responsibility in pursuing legal action for gender-based crimes, and a public inured to brutality shrugging off or condoning the murder of yet another woman. Is it futile to expect things to be any different today than they were in, say, 2008, when Senator Israrullah Zehri spoke in defence of burying women alive in Balochistan, claiming it was “a tribal custom”? MNA North Waziristan Mohsin Dawar said of the recent murders, “Honour killings are an extreme expression of patriarchal violence, and the practice has to be condemned in the strongest terms … timely justice must be served”. More leaders must speak out for attitudes to change and justice to prevail.
THE international community should give its best possible support to the call being made by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation for funds to help Pakistan and Iran in their fight against a new locust invasion. The dangerous pest has been threatening crop and non-crop vegetation in many parts of the world, in addition to Pakistan and Iran, for quite a few years now. But the danger has taken an altogether new dimension in the wake of food security apprehensions being expressed by experts in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic. Food security, protection of rural livelihoods and sustainable agriculture are central to any scheme to restore the Covid-19 world to minimum functioning levels. However, countries like Pakistan and Iran that face massive economic losses and unemployment in this period have little financial space to combat a fresh upsurge of the plague. The devastation, which the locust infestation is feared to cause, will further weaken these countries’ ability to fight this threat or stop it from spreading to neighbouring countries, unless the wealthier nations step in to help them sustain their efforts to avert a food security crisis.
The international funds collected by the FAO in January had helped it make significant gains in dealing with the plague in East African countries and Yemen. Much of that money had been spent on locust-control activities. Now the FAO requires more support for protecting livelihoods in countries under locust attack. For Pakistan, where 38pc of the area (60pc in Balochistan, 25pc in Sindh and 15pc in Punjab) are breeding grounds for the swarms, the situation is already turning dire as struggling farmers from different parts of the country are reporting severe crop damage. The FAO director general has rightly stated that “the battle is long”. Unless this war is won, the locust plague in Pakistan may wipe out more livelihoods than the Covid-19 contagion and worsen food security in the coming months.