THE prime minister has now announced formally that an incentive package is being prepared for industry to help them weather the severe disruptions in demand as well as their operations with the spread of the coronavirus. From his points mentioned during his interaction with the media on Friday, we know that the construction sector and textile exporters are high on the list of industries that are in focus as the incentive package is hammered out. The reasons he gave are that construction creates employment for daily wagers, a group that is high on his list of priorities, and textiles brings in foreign exchange. It is not known yet what size and shape this incentive package will take and more specifically how it will ensure that the group the prime minister is trying to reach is targeted; all this will be known only when the details have been made announced.
At the outset, though, it is important to underline that this is not the best direction to take. If the plight of the daily wagers in the event of a slowdown is the key concern here then the resources and energies of the state should be spent in quickly developing an income transfer scheme to put funds directly into the pockets of this group during a lockdown. The Sindh government is already moving in this direction, and public-sector enterprises are drawing up lists of daily wagers who work for them to see if funds can be transferred to these people using mobile payments to help them weather a lockdown. It is not difficult for the state to build such a database in a short period of time if it seeks out the cooperation of industry and labour leaders, as well as members of the research community who have experience working on social protection schemes.
It is true that industry needs support and it is also true that many developed countries are announcing stimulus packages for their economy. But as the top leadership itself keeps pointing out, Pakistan is a poor country and its response does not brook comparison with the examples that are cited. There is now little doubt that a surge of infected people is coming our way and in the middle of such an outbreak the hand of the state may well be forced into announcing and enforcing lockdowns. This is the time to focus all our energies on preparing for the surge by strengthening public health systems, building targeted income transfer schemes to help the poor to weather the foreseeable lockdowns, and to ramp up public messaging on social distancing. The federal government’s response in all three of these areas is woefully inadequate. Focusing on transferring state resources to industrialists and property developers, especially in the name of protecting daily wagers, is the wrong direction to be heading in.
A TROUBLING uptick in small-scale militant attacks in the tribal areas has become evident. On Wednesday night, two constables laid down their lives in the line of duty when armed men attacked a police station, also manned by Frontier Corps personnel, in the Orakzai tribal district. The assailants escaped after the assault. In the early hours of the same day, an army officer and three soldiers were martyred during an intelligence-based operation against a terrorists’ hideout in Dattakhel in North Waziristan. Seven terrorists were also killed. About two weeks ago, on March 10, a colonel was martyred in the course of another IBO in Tank district bordering South Waziristan.
There is good reason to be concerned. Local residents for several months have been warning that militants have been trickling back into their areas, perhaps attempting to establish a foothold in their old stomping grounds. Dattakhel — along with Mir Ali and Miramshah, also in North Waziristan — was once considered a hub of TTP activity. In 2011, it was the target of the first drone strike after the Raymond Davis affair ended with his release: 44 people were killed, leading to widespread protests across the country. Wednesday’s attack on the army personnel in Dattakhel is suspected to have been carried out by men belonging to the Hafiz Gul Bahadur group which is believed to be sheltering in Afghanistan. Gul Bahadur, who had once negotiated an ill-fated peace deal with the Pakistan Army, was the head of a syndicate of various militant outfits before Zarb-i-Azb forced them to flee across the border. As yet, there is no evidence that the Afghan government has taken any action against such groups whose resilience drives them to seek any opportunity to regain lost ground. The increasing number of small-scale attacks in Pakistan indicates either they are still managing to slip across the border, or that sleeper cells on this side have become more active. The gravity of the situation is further enhanced by the growing crisis in Pakistan on account of the Covid-19 pandemic. If the number of infections rise exponentially, it is conceivable that the government may have to impose a lockdown in some parts of the country. As in other countries, the measure may require the army to be called out to enforce it strictly, stretching the security forces’ resources further. One hopes that planning for the coming weeks takes this reality into account.
Save the pangolin
THE first 41 victims of the novel coronavirus had one thing in common: more than half of them had either worked at, or recently visited, a market in Wuhan, China, which traded in live animals. While the original source of Covid-19 is still uncertain, it is largely accepted that the disease was spread to humans via an animal host. At first, experts suspected bats to be the potential carriers. Later, growing evidence suggested that pangolins were the primary source of the outbreak. But even without clear answers, it is evident that stricter controls need to be enforced on the wildlife industry and the illegal trade of live animals and animal parts for food, medicine, clothing, decoration or research purposes. The infamous market in Wuhan has now been sealed, and China has imposed a ban on trading and eating ‘non-aquatic’ animals. However, while wildlife conservationists welcome the ban, those paying attention to the fine print have pointed out ‘loopholes’ which would allow traffickers to continue bad practices, potentially endangering humanity once again. After all, Covid-19 is not the first zoonotic disease to rattle the 21st century. Both SARS and Ebola were traced to animals, as was HIV, which largely terrorised the previous century.
Even if the pangolin is found not to be the source of the recent pandemic, there must be greater intercontinental efforts to uphold an international ban on the trade of the critically endangered species — often referred to as “the world’s most trafficked mammal” — poached for its scales and meat that are in demand in China and parts of Africa. While Pakistan is fortunate to host diverse wildlife, attitudes towards the pangolin range from indifference to fear and demonisation, with several instances of locals attacking and killing the notoriously shy animal. Others try to profit off it. On Thursday, for instance, wildlife officials seized a pangolin from poachers in Punjab. In the midst of a pandemic and a climate crisis, if greater sense does not set in, perhaps we are doomed.