THE Saudi authorities have finally announced what many had been fearing ever since it became clear that Covid-19 was not going to go away anytime soon: this year’s Haj has been scaled back considerably due to the threat of the coronavirus, and only Saudis and foreigners residing within the kingdom will be able to perform the pilgrimage and associated rites. On Tuesday, the Saudi authorities announced that only 1,000 people will be performing Haj this year. This is a far cry from the 2m or so believers that flocked to the holy places year after year from the four corners of the globe to participate in the pilgrimage — one of the key pillars of Islam.
Though there is understandable disappointment over the move, it was the best possible solution in the given circumstances. While it is true that men and women from across the world save up all their lives to be able to perform the pilgrimage at least once, the circumstances this year are far from normal. Indeed, Haj rituals have been curtailed in the past, particularly in times of antiquity and mainly due to pestilence or violence, but this is perhaps the first time in the modern era that the pilgrimage has been scaled back so drastically. Masjid Al Haram was closed off to believers for several days in 1979 when Salafi militants occupied it during the siege of Makkah, but this was just after Haj had concluded. However, at a time when social distancing is essential, there was no other option but to limit the pilgrimage as ensuring that hundreds of thousands of people keep a safe distance from each other is next to impossible. Whether it is performing tawaf inside the Haram, or other key rituals at Arafat, Mina etc, people mingling in such close proximity makes it very difficult to observe SOPs. Even in more ‘normal’ times, controlling such large crowds is a considerable challenge for the authorities, as numerous fires and deaths caused by overcrowding at the jamaraat over the years have shown.
The scaling back of Haj is a sobering moment for the Muslim world. During the pandemic, mosques around the world, including the two holy mosques in Makkah and Madina, have had to be closed off for mass prayers, and now with Haj being affected, it should serve as a moment of reflection for the Muslim world. Indeed, Haj is a symbol of unity where Muslims of all nationalities and colours gather, and where — temporarily — the differences of sect and school of thought melt away. This same spirit of unity is needed, especially with Eidul Azha coming up, to prevent the coronavirus from spreading further. If SOPs are followed, life will be able to return to normal sooner rather than later. Those who wished to proceed for Haj this year will hopefully be able to perform the pilgrimage in 2021.
Missing local link
OBSERVATIONS by a number of UN organisations put together in one volume by the UNDP have once again tried to make us confront a reality that we have been too shy to acknowledge. The assessment, Covid-19 — Pakistan Socio-economic Impact Assessment and Response Plan, says how a top-down authoritative style of governance can weaken the social contract between society and state.
The picture that emerges is not too different to the one regularly painted by the local press and other keen watchers. The study is populated with familiar dissatisfied traders affected by ‘unilateral’ government decisions, with medics having to work without personal protective equipment and people left at the mercy of an inefficient system of testing and tracking.
There are no revelations when it talks about the threat of mental health issues in the wake of Covid-19, about lost livelihoods — though coming from UN agencies these lines would sound almost like an indictment. The better option is the old but, in Pakistan’s case, seldom taken course of “political engagement and social dialogue, community empowerment and participation, and governance and rule of law … these three together determine the state-citizen relationship, which eventually determines the implementation of the government’s response to such a crisis”. The objective is to build this “bridge between the government and the population”.
A cursory look based on the pointers given in this new, painful reminder shows just how guilty those in power have been. They have been jealously refusing to share authority with those who can really make a difference at the most basic level. As the structural flaw is reflected in a lack of relief supply lines connecting to the people in times of emergencies, the country is still struggling to create a balance between the federal and provincial powers.
The debate on grass-roots empowerment via local government systems is restricted to the very contentious and controversial exchanges between the supporters and critics of provincial autonomy. The acrimony has to be taken out of the debate for the discussion to promise any meaningful progress. Legislations of the past — to be precise the 18th Amendment that has ramifications for power structures at all levels — have to be treated with full respect. The devolution of power has to be recognised as a ground-breaking move, reflecting the collective wisdom of parliament elected by the people of Pakistan. Avenues of empowerment at the grass roots must be created, and not blocked.
Increased testing needed
On multiple days since mid-June, official figures for coronavirus-related deaths in the country have been well over 100. According to press releases issued by the National Command and Operation Centre, 111 people lost their lives to Covid-19 on June 16 and 136 on June 17.
Just last week, the Covid-19 official death toll in a single day was 153 — the highest in 24 hours since the start of the outbreak in Pakistan at the end of February. As these figures continue to climb, the daily total tests towards the end of June stand at an average of 28,500, a number far lower than the 100,000 daily testing milestone the government has calculated for July.
It is evident that, much like the global trend in countries where Covid-19 cases have soared, Pakistan’s daily cases and deaths are growing. In fact, the current scenario was predicted by healthcare professionals who had warned of a rise in coronavirus cases if restrictions were lifted at the end of May.
Although the authorities may argue that cases and deaths here are still lower than in many of the worst-hit countries — such as the UK where over 1,000 coronavirus fatalities have been reported in a single day at the peak of the infection — the reality is that Pakistan is still over a month away from what authorities and think tanks have estimated to be the ‘peak phase’.
As we approach that dreaded period, the authorities must focus their resources on two key areas: increased testing capacity and data-driven decisions. Testing must be ramped up, and fast, in order to obtain a realistic picture of the spread of Covid-19. While 100,000 daily tests are not enough in a population of 200m, at the moment we are very far from even that target.
Increased testing and intelligent data gathering are the only tools the government has to enforce the smart lockdowns it views as its mitigation strategy. These figures are the roadmap; in the absence of accurate data, any strategy will be flawed.