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Dawn Editorial 22 March 2020

Lessons for the world

IN a milestone development that brings a moment of much-needed relief in the coronavirus pandemic, China this week reported that it has no new local cases. While 39 new coronavirus cases have been confirmed in mainland China, all of them are ‘overseas transmissions’ carried by international travellers entering the country. This means that China’s containment measures were successful and that it was able to effectively ‘flatten the curve’ — a term widely being used by experts which refers to slowing down the projected number of people who will contract Covid-19 over a period of time. A flatter curve assumes that the same number of people get infected, but over a longer period of time, which eases the burden on hospitals and medical staff.
As China documents fewer cases, it presents an opportunity for the world to learn lessons — both good and bad. To evaluate the country’s approach to the pandemic, it is essential to look at the facts: between the end of December and mid-March, China reported over 81,000 confirmed cases with a death toll of 3,255. The regime responded to rapidly rising cases with a dramatic lockdown and enforced isolation — measures which initially were met with criticism around the globe. For instance, the world expressed shock at the authorities’ decision to shut down Wuhan, the epicentre of the outbreak with a population of 11m, as experts were sceptical about the success and viability of what is possibly the biggest quarantine exercise in modern history. China was criticised as authoritarian as it went further and locked down the entire Hubei province of 60m in a dramatic show of power. But while the regime’s draconian measures became the focus of headlines, the country’s decisions to build temporary hospitals, deploy scores of medical workers, establish wide-scale screening and isolate infected individuals appear to have contributed largely to its successful response. In fact, its authoritarianism and initial lack of transparency — which included threats to those who tried to raise the alarm about Covid-19 early on — are factors which led to major deficiencies and the subsequent outbreak.
Here, it is important to look at the success of containment in South Korea, where transparency, openness and effective public-health decisions have been at the core of the response. After the 2015 outbreak of the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, during which South Korea recorded 186 cases and 38 deaths, the country revamped its response systems to respiratory infections. Although Korea was criticised for its poor response to MERS, lessons learnt then were adopted during the Covid-19 pandemic: mass production of test kits, adequately equipped hospitals, infection control units, hygiene awareness campaigns and technological innovations. Its dedication to act early, make testing available and affordable, keep the public informed, trace and isolate and communicate social distancing kept the spread and death rate low. World leaders would do well to follow South Korea and China’s example.


Death of miners

PAKISTAN has a poor record of upholding labour rights, but perhaps nowhere is this more apparent than in the coal mining sector. Horrific news of miners who are buried alive, inhale toxic gases, or get burnt to death inside their places of work surfaces every few months. And yet it seems no action is taken to ensure humane working conditions, or hold owners to account for allowing such conditions to fester. Why else do such incidents keep recurring? Or do the cries of the miners fall on deaf ears? Are their lives inconsequential to those in power? Unfortunately, coal miners are some of the poorest and therefore the most exploited among the workforce. They often work with no safety equipment, receive negligible training, and are afforded few if any public holidays. In 2017, the Pakistan Institute of Labour and Research came up with a comprehensive list of recommendations to ensure basic health and safety standards in the mining sector. Some of the recommendations included: regularising all mines; granting permanent employment status to all miners, including those on contract; providing medical facilities, along with quarterly medical examinations for workers; setting up ventilation systems inside each mine; legislating on the amount of oxygen and temperature inside mines; ratifying ILO conventions and enforcing labour laws; covering mine work under social security and EOBI laws; monitoring methane and coal dust within mines; providing miners with necessary safety equipment; and ensuring miners receive the minimum wage and work no more than eight hours a day. Lastly, in the event of a fatal accident, the families of the victims must be provided compensation within a few days of the tragedy.
But this advice is not followed. Recently, seven miners were killed after yet another explosion ripped through a mine in Balochistan. Can readers imagine what would happen if such an ‘accident’ were to happen in another part of the world? For instance, in Turkey, which itself has a dismal record of ensuring safety for miners, hundreds of protesters took to the streets when 301 people perished in the country’s most disastrous mine-related accident in 2014. A fire that broke out in a mine in Soma raged for two days. The government declared three days of mourning, while grief-stricken families and townspeople demonstrated their anger when the prime minister callously said the situation was ‘normal’. Why do we not witness similar outrage in Pakistan? Perhaps our collective conscience is dead.


Overcrowded prisons

AS the country grapples with the grave challenges posed by the coronavirus pandemic, the Islamabad High Court has taken a welcome initiative to provide relief to the overwhelmed criminal justice system, and ordered some necessary precautions.
The court has directed that 1,362 under-trial prisoners be released from Adiala jail; the cases of these individuals pertain to minor crimes and are pending before the high court. It has also ordered the Islamabad police not to make, for the foreseeable future, any further arrests of those involved in petty offences. The release has been ordered in an attempt to reduce overcrowding in jails and regulate visitation for those who cannot be released, as part of the larger action plan by the government to combat the coronavirus pandemic.
At present, 5,001 prisoners are incarcerated in Adiala jail against its sanctioned capacity of 2,174. Adiala jail, like other prisons in the country with their squalid living conditions and high turnover, could potentially become a hotbed for the spread of the virus, endangering the lives of not just the prisoners but thousands of others connected with the criminal justice system including their families.
The release of under-trial prisoners involved in petty crimes will also, to some extent, reduce the unnecessary movement and exposure of prisoners, police and court officials, thus helping limit the chance of their being infected by the dangerous virus that has gripped the world.
According to the Islamabad deputy commissioner, and representatives of the Islamabad police and federal health ministry, the release of under-trial prisoners is in line with a national action plan formulated by the government under WHO’s declaration of a ‘public emergency of international concern’. If indeed this is the case, then other high/superior courts should also make haste in taking similar steps to lessen the deadly impact of the coronavirus outbreak in the country.
Every move aimed towards reducing its spread will add up in eventually being able to beat the pandemic.


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