Reverse the decision
WITH Pakistan passing the grim milestone of over 10,000 coronavirus cases and more than 200 deaths, there is no time for half measures and missteps. Lockdown fatigue seems to have set in with many people flouting SOPs and safety measures, and ignoring the fact that we are sitting on a time bomb that will detonate unless firm steps are taken immediately.
The battle against Covid-19 must be fought on multiple fronts, but one area where decisive action can be taken without delay is that of congregational prayers. Various provincial administrations had taken differing steps regarding the suspension of congregational prayers in mosques to stop the spread of the contagion, with varying degrees of success. Sindh tried to implement the law in letter and spirit, though there were instances where mobs attacked law enforcers trying to enforce the ban on Friday prayers.
However, at a conclave in Islamabad on Saturday, President Arif Alvi and a collection of clerics belonging to different schools of thought hammered out a 20-point ‘action plan’ that envisaged reopening of mosques for the public, especially in light of the fasting month, which is due to begin either tomorrow or the day after. Under this scheme, daily and taraweeh congregational prayers would be allowed with a number of ‘precautions’, though the last point of the plan clearly stated that the restrictions could be put back in place if the number of cases shot up.
The administration, as well as sensible clerics, need to realise that Pakistan cannot afford to take a chance by reopening mosques at this juncture. Attendance at masjids goes up during Ramazan, and it is hard to imagine how the state as well as mosque administrations will enforce social-distancing guidelines. Moreover, in a letter released on Tuesday, some leading doctors of the country have asked ulema to review the decision on congregational prayers. They point out that indiscipline and contempt for the rules has become part of our national character; therefore, in order to protect public health the decision to open mosques to the public must be reviewed.
Clerics say that social-distancing norms are also being violated in markets. That may be so, and the administration needs to do a better job of ensuring crowding does not take place in bazaars and markets. But the comparison between shopping for food — which is a necessity — and attending congregational prayers — in which there is much flexibility, especially in times of a pandemic — is not a sound one. Even Saudi Arabia has said only a few staff members will be allowed to offer taraweeh prayers at the two holy mosques of Makkah and Madina. If other Muslim states can take sensible decisions, there is no reason why our rulers should be swayed by emotional, ill-informed appeals. For the sake of public health, both the state and ulema need to reverse the decision on congregational prayers.
ON the face of it, the opposition has given cogent reasons for rejecting a government plan to hold the next session of the two houses of parliament through video link. The suggestion to hold virtual proceedings was made in view of the prevailing lockdown restrictions on the movement of people and large gatherings in order to halt the spread of Covid-19. However, both the major opposition parties, the PPP and PML-N, argue that the execution of such a proposal would require changes to the Constitution. Additionally, they point out that if the government can frequently hold large cabinet meetings and the courts continue to function without any problem, why shouldn’t parliament meet to discuss government policies and legislation, especially those that are related to efforts to control the virus? They also note that virtual sessions are not feasible because of erratic internet connections. Last but not the least, parliament has to meet at least once to make necessary amendments to the rules to create room for virtual sessions. Some from the ruling alliance are also in agreement with the opposition that feels it is possible to hold the pre-budget and budget sessions in the house by implementing the necessary safety measures including social-distancing precautions.
Had the situation in the country been a little less desperate, it would indeed have been hard to dispute the opposition’s arguments against convening virtual sessions of parliament. But desperate times demand desperate measures, and those who oppose videoconferencing must rethink their position. In fact, the convening of sessions in parliament will further confuse the people about the severity of the situation as it will negate the opposition’s own stance that favours the enforcement of a stricter lockdown to stop the spread of infection. Virtual sessions are perhaps the best option until such time that it is safe to resume normal activities. If there is still insistence on holding a session where lawmakers are present physically in the house, the parties should agree to sending a third of their members to participate, with the rest joining through video link — as an example, Britain successfully experimented with this mode of parliamentary proceedings on Wednesday. Meanwhile, the government needs to realise that the opposition’s stand on its proposal stems from the growing trust deficit between the two sides. It is the responsibility of the ruling party to narrow the gap with the opposition for a better working relationship.
Left to suffer
THE Covid-19 pandemic has created a serious dilemma for outpatient departments at public hospitals. These departments were closed down in an effort to contain the spread of the highly contagious infection. This forced shutdown, which continues even in the face of an apex court direction for work to resume in OPDs, has been responsible for delivering some very devastating blows to patients in urgent need of expert medical care. Stories of people suffering, indeed of precious lives being lost because of the absence of timely medical help, have been doing the rounds, some of the most painful amongst them lent credence by making it to newspaper pages. The challenge today is about ideas and material means to defeat the grave pandemic. But whenever the issue of those suffering from health problems other than the coronavirus is discussed, at the centre of attention are the same group of professionals whose selfless services at the forefront of the battle against the contagion have been so widely hailed. They once again hold the key here. The doctors and paramedical staff may have genuine reason for not wanting to leave it to chance at these OPDs, considering that these clinics, which are swarmed by people in their thousands, can be infectious nurseries for the dangerous virus in the best of circumstances.
The times call for desperate measures. Telemedicine has been tried — dubbed as a system for the future in which patients can connect with their doctors via the internet. It is, however, too early for people to efficiently use, let alone trust, telemedicine and it cannot be a substitute for an in-clinic examination in every case. What else can be done to lessen some of the sufferings caused by overcrowded OPDs? Not by any means a revolutionary solution, but private practitioners in various localities should be willing to bear more than their usual share of attending to patients as they may no longer have the option of referring difficult cases to the bigger hospitals.