ON Monday, Pakistan moved much closer to a full lockdown in its attempts to limit the spread of Covid-19 by breaking the chain of transmission through physical contact. With the extension of government-ordered shutdowns to KP and Punjab, the entire country has now been closed down more extensively than before as only essential services will be allowed to remain open. The country has been in some degree of lockdown ever since the NSC meeting on March 13, which ordered the complete closure of educational institutions, restricted international travel, barred large public gatherings, and shut down the western borders. Many things have happened since. The government has since effectively ‘quarantined’ the country by totally barring international travel and closing its borders with Iran and Afghanistan for daily public traffic. Train operations have also been reduced along with curtailment of intercity bus services as the number of people infected with the virus has spiked sharply. Sindh has taken more aggressive measures with a view to forcing people to stay home as the province has reported the highest number of Covid-19 patients, or 45pc of all confirmed cases. Punjab went for a slightly ‘less harsh lockdown’, shutting down government and private institutions, offices, malls, restaurants and other non-essential services, taking public transport off the road, banning pillion riding on motorbikes, and permitting only emergency intra-city commute as the province saw its tally of Covid-19 patients rise to 246 in just a few days, far more quickly than the rest of the country.
Overall, the number of cases have surged past 800 from just 19 on March 11. The health authorities had detected the first two cases on Feb 26; both individuals had returned from Iran. The graph has since been depicting a much steeper rise in the number of confirmed cases when compared to many other countries, leaving the government with no choice but to lock down the country as the number of infected people with no recent foreign travel history also increases.
Meanwhile, we have been witnessing an unnecessary debate over whether or not a total lockdown is justified. Both arguments are valid. Those worried about job losses and food security for the poor have opposed the demand for a lockdown, with Prime Minister Imran Khan supporting this viewpoint. Yet he is not averse to a lockdown if the situation gets out of hand as in countries like Italy, Spain and Iran. Painful as it may be, a full lockdown is the only remedy available so far to ‘flatten the curve’, ensure better care for those infected, and save lives. Until a cure or a vaccine is discovered, all stakeholders need to rise above their petty political interests to cooperate rather than indulge in recriminations. The government needs to stay a step ahead of the disease and proactively deal with the situation that is constantly evolving.
CONSIDERING that the Afghan Taliban have often referred to the Western-backed government in Kabul as a ‘puppet regime’, the fact that both sides communicated via videoconference on Sunday is something to be welcomed. While it may not herald the beginning of an ‘official’ dialogue between the two warring parties, it should definitely be considered an ice-breaker. The conversation centred on the exchange of prisoners — a key sticking point which has threatened to scuttle the peace deal signed between Washington and the Taliban in February. While the Afghan authorities were initially reluctant to release any Taliban prisoners, that stance may be about to change. As per a Taliban spokesman, “… there were initial agreements on some issues regarding the release of prisoners” during Sunday’s discussion. Both sides hold thousands of each other’s men, and the mutual exchange of prisoners could be a confidence-building measure to further the intra-Afghan dialogue. Officials from the US and Qatar had helped set up the videoconference.
Clearly, it appears that the Americans, eager to get their troops out of Afghanistan, are using all the tactics in their playbook to ‘convince’ the Kabul government to help save the deal with the Taliban. The first batch of American troops has already left Afghanistan, while Washington is trying to bring together rival Afghan power elites to put up a united face in front of the Taliban. Despite the global coronavirus pandemic, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was in Kabul on Monday to try and make Afghan President Ashraf Ghani — who won the presidential election — and his arch-rival and former CEO of the country Abdullah Abdullah — who ‘inaugurated’ himself on the same day as Mr Ghani — patch up. The Americans know that if there is infighting in the Afghan government, the peace deal will be worthless, as the Taliban will battle all other pretenders to Kabul’s throne for power as soon as the last American soldier leaves. Therefore, to prevent further chaos in the country, unity is needed in Kabul to show the Taliban and the world that the dispensation in Afghanistan is legitimate and functioning. Moreover, dialogue between the Kabul power elite and the Taliban should continue, for any peace deal the militants sign with foreign powers will not amount to much unless all Afghan stakeholders are on board. To prevent a return to chaos in Afghanistan, the focus should now be on the intra-Afghan dialogue.
World Tuberculosis Day
AS many parts of the world observe complete or partial lockdowns to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus, another infectious disease — tuberculosis — silently continues to wreak havoc in a number of developing countries. World Tuberculosis Day is observed on March 24, but this year concerns about the disease will probably be overtaken by coverage of the Covid-19 pandemic. Considered to be a malaise of poorer countries where malnutrition, poor living conditions and access to healthcare remain difficult, TB is one of the top 10 leading causes of death worldwide. In 2018 alone, the disease claimed around 1.5m lives across the world. The worst-affected countries include Pakistan, where the disease burden is considered to be the fifth highest in the world. According to WHO, around 510,000 new TB cases are recorded in the country every year, with at least 15,000 of them being cases of multidrug-resistant TB, the fourth highest prevalence globally. Given the fact that treatment for TB is already of long duration and expensive, the high prevalence of MDR TB adds another dimension of difficulty in the attempts to stem the disease.
Worrying as it is, the high prevalence of TB in Pakistan — including among young women of childbearing age — is doubly of concern as stories of critical patients of Covid-19 from around the world reveal that the coronavirus has a tendency to attack the respiratory systems of people with weak immunity and compromised health. With the number of Covid-19 patients in the country steadily rising, the new disease might prove to be a death sentence for the thousands of TB patients in the country whose lungs have already been ravaged by the disease. The loss of lives at the hands of the pandemic notwithstanding, it is still a matter of great concern that TB persists so widely among the Pakistani population. It will continue to kill more people than Covid-19, if sufficient measures are not taken to screen patients and curb its spread.