Weak virus strategy
PAKISTAN’S coronavirus figures are becoming more worrying with each passing day. The graph depicting confirmed cases is at a sharper incline as compared with previous weeks. The daily death rate, too, is increasing, with 16 Covid-19-related fatalities reported across the country on Sunday alone. There is little doubt that the government understands the scale of the problem. From the prime minister and his key health adviser to senior officials, most are well aware that the coronavirus threat is growing in the country and have expressed this apprehension at several public forums. Additionally, health officials have sounded the alarm about the number of asymptomatic individuals testing positive. Yet, despite the writing on the wall and clear indications that the situation will soon become very difficult, the government’s approach remains unassertive. Lockdown measures in most cities have been eased. In some areas, the scenes at bazaars and in mosques are reminiscent of any other day in the pre-Covid-19 era. Overall, the atmosphere of urgency and caution which was palpable in the initial lockdown days is dissipating. The scenario raises a serious question: what is the government’s strategy?
Prime Minister Imran Khan has been against any iteration of a lockdown from the very first day. The premier has unequivocally said that the country cannot afford to lock down due to dire economic consequences and has appealed to citizens to be responsible in practising distancing measures. Yet, even when it came to congregational prayers in Ramazan — which have little connection with the economic situation — Mr Khan said: “We knew that people will definitely go to the mosques even after the government stops them by force.” A similar rationale was applied by President Arif Alvi, when he met members of the clergy and formulated distancing SOPs for congregational prayers. Unfortunately, this appeal has been largely unsuccessful. A survey has revealed that 80pc of mosques in Punjab and the federal capital are not implementing the agreement reached between the government and ulema. Observers conducting the survey noted that worshippers in 194 mosques violated preventive measures.
The experiment has failed and begs a reassessment. For the government to rely on the notion of individual citizen responsibility, it must confront an unfortunate reality: the Swedish model of self-regulation, if successful, is only possible because it relies on the notion of trust between citizens and state — a historical rarity in Pakistan and in many other countries. The crowds in public spaces are evidence that the government’s appeals have not been taken seriously. Therefore, the government must rethink its strategy and impose stringent restrictions even as it ramps up testing to the promised 25,000 a day — a target it is yet to meet. The approach of ‘advice giving’ must be abandoned. Instead, the government ought to exercise its constitutional authority to protect the public before it is too late.
THE special inquiry commission on sugar, which was constituted earlier this month to conduct a detailed forensic audit of nine companies, is being given another three weeks to do its job.
The commission, which was formed to look into manipulation of the domestic sugar market by producers, was supposed to submit its forensic report on April 25.
But it has sought more time because it is finding it difficult to hire people with the required expertise to carry out a forensic audit of the sugar business, as well as owing to the closure of factories in compliance with lockdown rules.
This was expected ever since the formation of the commission which many observers argued had been given very little time to undertake a very technical exercise.
Most were doubtful of the commission’s capacity to perform a forensic audit as the earlier inquiry report prepared by the FIA team had betrayed the investigators’ unfamiliarity with the way the sugar or any other business is conducted and how the markets function in countries like Pakistan.
Although the inquiry committee was able to put together a good industry report after weeks of hard work, its findings remained inconclusive owing to its lack of technical expertise.
For example, the investigators equated future contracts with satta, a form of speculative investment usually considered akin to gambling.
Thus, it is advisable for the commission to use the services of experts who are trained for carrying out such studies even if it requires another extension to the life of the commission.
It is important for the government and investigators to produce a scientifically credible report as the mill owners have already raised serious objections, some valid, to the earlier one on the basis of which the forensic audit has been ordered.
Moreover, the PTI’s Jahangir Khan Tareen, whose six mills are part of the nine firms selected for the forensic analysis, has also expressed his fears that someone in the bureaucracy might be targeting him and his business interests for political reasons.
Indeed, the sugar mill owners, most of whom either belong to a major political party or are closely related to influential politicians, exercise much clout over the policymaking process.
But a great deal of their political influence is firmly rooted in the sugar policy pursued by successive governments to please big farmers.
The commission must also examine the role of sugar policy in helping millers and distributors manipulate the market to rig profits.
Saudi human rights
TWO recent changes to the Saudi legal system point to the fact that the ultra-conservative desert kingdom is slowly taking steps to bring its laws in line with international human rights principles. The Saudi supreme court had over the weekend announced that convicts would no longer be flogged; the punishment has been meted out to people for a range of crimes. Another development quotes the country’s Human Rights Commission as saying that capital punishment will no longer be given to those convicted of committing crimes while they were minors. While observers would be right in asking what took the Saudis so long, considering the kingdom’s peculiar history and austere mores, this is progress nonetheless. The Saudi apex court was quoted as saying that the moves are part of “human rights advances” as per the vision of King Salman and his son, Crown Prince Mohammed, the real power behind the throne.
It is a fact that since his father ascended the throne in 2015, the crown prince has been trying to ‘remake’ Saudi Arabia as a nation for the modern era, shedding the austere Wahabi codes his own forebears put in place. This has included giving women the right to drive, loosening gender segregation and allowing international entertainment events. Even a decade ago, most of these things would have been unthinkable in Saudi Arabia. But the march to ‘progress’ also has a darker side, with Mohammed bin Salman accused of ruthlessly weeding out any dissent to his rule. Indeed, the crown prince has not even spared some of his closest relatives — blue-blooded members of the House of Saud — in his quest for ‘accountability’. Legal and social reforms will be meaningless unless there is freedom of speech and expression in the kingdom; currently, even the vaguest criticism of the crown can land Saudis in hot water. Perhaps slain journalist Jamal Khashoggi is the most well-known victim of this ruthlessness. The legal changes are great, but there remains much to do before common Saudis can breathe freely.