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Dawn Editorial 21 April 2020

Smart strategy?

AS the battle against the coronavirus rages on, the federal government has made a fresh proposition to the provinces: to enforce lockdown in only those localities from where new cases are being reported. Invoking the term ‘smart lockdown’, Special Assistant to the Prime Minister on National Security Moeed Yusuf said the suggestion builds on the prime minister’s view that imposing a blanket lockdown is not a feasible option as it would have serious economic consequences. Essentially, if this smart lockdown is imposed by provincial authorities, restrictions in parts of the country which are deemed ‘low risk’ areas will be relaxed; but they will remain in place in localities where confirmed Covid-19 cases are high.
The smart lockdown strategy is heavily dependent on two key factors: mass testing and the availability of data. At the moment, Pakistan is testing between 6,500 to 7,500 people per day in a population of over 200m. While the government has pledged to take this figure to 25,000 by the end of the month, it is far too early to make a call about the selective easing of restrictions and deem areas ‘low risk’. Given that Pakistan is still in the initial stages of grappling with the virus, the government currently has very little information about infection rates, confirmed cases and future projections that supports the easing of restrictions. In fact, even the limited information that is available clearly shows that the Covid-19 graphs for active cases, daily new cases and daily deaths all indicate a steady rise. Moreover, the figures for the actual number of cases and deaths are likely far higher, as testing is limited and reports of an unusual rise in home deaths in Karachi suggest there may be Covid-19-related fatalities outside of hospitals, as has been the case in other countries. The handful of countries that have started to lift restrictions waited till Covid-19 cases had reached their peak and the curve flattened by strict distancing measures.
In this scenario, the government must continue with the lockdown till patterns for the spread of Covid-19 are well established. Provinces should not jump the gun, imposing a smart lockdown till they have a clear statistical picture of the Covid-19 spread. As they gather this data, authorities must focus on ramping up targeted relief efforts for sections of the public that will face dire economic consequences. A calculation of which areas are ‘low risk’ at this stage is impossible without contact tracing and mass testing, as those without symptoms can pass the virus to vulnerable people without knowing they are carriers. With the partial lifting of restrictions for certain industries and the continuation of congregational prayers in Ramazan, hospitals must brace themselves for an escalation in the spread of the virus in the coming weeks. The government would do well to allow data, and not panic, to determine its future course of action.


Wrong messaging

AS the government moves to ease the lockdown restrictions, one scene is becoming increasingly familiar: social distancing and coronavirus prevention guidelines are being casually flouted. People can be seen standing close to one another, without masks and touching their faces, apparently unaware of how the coronavirus spreads. From official press conferences to queues outside shops and banks, the situation is no different. The World Health Organisation has time and again repeated how easily the virus that causes Covid-19 can spread: it is mainly transmitted through droplets being generated, not only when an infected person coughs and sneezes but even when they speak. An individual can be infected by breathing in the virus if they are within a few feet of a person who has it. Despite these well-established facts, the importance of practising precautions appears to be lost on many. This attitude towards a virus which has infected thousands of Pakistanis and killed close to 200 — with actual cases likely to be much higher — comes at a high price.
The responsibility to make citizens aware of the easy transmissibility of the virus and preventive measures lies with the government. The federal and provincial authorities must be clear in their messaging — and begin by adopting stringent precautionary measures themselves. Starting with the prime minister, every government official should practise social distancing and wear a mask whenever in public. Not only is this important for their protection, it will also remind members of the public to do the same. Bizarrely, in some photos of officials wearing surgical masks, the nose is uncovered, defying logic and the very purpose of wearing a protective item. Politicians should not stop at telling people to wash their hands, but must actively engage in an exercise via their high-profile platforms about keeping a distance and wearing a mask. For those who are unable to purchase masks due to their shortage or lack of resources, there are studies which suggest that even homemade cloth masks add a protective layer; plenty of online tutorials show how these can be made. Sending the right message is even more important now, as Ramazan approaches, because mosques will continue to hold congregational prayers. The Karachi commissioner has done well by saying in a notification that face masks are mandatory for anyone leaving home. The government must enforce this and do whatever it takes to inform citizens about the risks they are taking if these measures are ignored.


AQIS cell busted

WHILE the frequency of terrorist attacks in Karachi has come down considerably compared to what it was a few years ago, it would be naïve to assume that militant networks have been permanently neutralised. Proof of this has emerged in the recent arrest of four alleged militants belonging to Al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent from the metropolis, which police announced on Sunday. According to law enforcers, the militants were arrested during an operation in the densely populated Gulistan-i-Jauhar area. Weapons were seized from the suspects; the cell was apparently planning to launch terrorist attacks targeting the Pakistan Stock Exchange, City Courts and other public buildings in Karachi.
The law-enforcement agencies must be commended for busting the cell before it could carry out its disastrous agenda, especially at a time when security forces are busy enforcing the lockdown in the province and the rest of the country. The fact is that both militants and violent criminals are well aware of the fact that security men are preoccupied with lockdown-related duties, which is why the security apparatus must continue to keep a watchful eye on such elements to prevent acts of terrorism and mass violence. While most of the planet is in the midst of the battle against Covid-19, violent actors will sense a perfect opportunity to reorganise and carry out acts of terrorism. Therefore, the state must keep two steps ahead of such elements through intelligence-based operations. The threat of jihadi and sectarian terrorism in this country is still there; the militants are only keeping a low profile and waiting for an ‘opportune’ time to resume their business of death and destruction. Indeed, law enforcers have their plates full managing law and order and keeping the peace during these volatile times. But it would be unwise for the security forces to not remain vigilant where the terrorist threat is concerned, in order to prevent large-scale attacks. As the arrest of the AQIS men has shown, militants are keeping themselves busy.


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