IT was perhaps only a matter of time before Pakistan joined the ranks of countries hit by the coronavirus.
On Wednesday, the federal health ministry confirmed the first two cases of COVID-19 — in Karachi and Islamabad — prompting the authorities to close schools in parts of the country.
The national health authorities had been vigilant over the last few weeks, for instance, by shutting off the border with Iran (where the number of cases has risen to nearly 250) and checking international flight passengers at airports for symptoms.
Now that the highly infectious virus is in the country, they must double their efforts to contain its spread — a huge challenge indeed.
For one, state-of-the-art quarantine and treatment facilities are needed in virtually all districts with special instructions to healthcare staff on how to manage COVID-19 patients.
At present, there are only five quarantine facilities in the country — two in Islamabad, two in Rawalpindi and one in Karachi. This is clearly not enough to deal with a potential outbreak.
Suspected patients being transported to these facilities from the rural areas will have plenty of time along the way to transmit the virus to others.
The pace of diagnosis should also be speeded up, while equipping at least some of the more reputed health facilities to test patients for COVID-19 would ease the burden on the National Institute of Health that is currently conducting most of the diagnostic tests.
It is true that the situation does not call for panic, as the special assistant to the prime minister on health has said. But whether “things are under control” can only be assessed in the days to come, as Pakistan grapples with the virus in the midst of a dilapidated healthcare system.
To contain the virus and discourage the public from believing in conspiracy theories, the authorities would have to run a robust awareness campaign about the infection, give updated information about new cases, and share its plans to combat the illness.
The fact is that the government cannot afford to slacken its efforts.
According to WHO, COVID-19 has affected over 80,000 people in approximately 40 countries. New cases may be on the wane in China, where the virus originated, but the infection continues to spread in other countries, with South Korea reporting the most cases outside China.
The global outbreak should put even more pressure on the authorities here to mobilise all layers of the public health system to address the situation.
This means that all levels of the healthcare system — national, provincial and district — will have to work in tandem under a clear, comprehensive, globally accepted strategy. Anything less could be a recipe for disaster— and Pakistan, with its myriad health challenges, such as the resurgence of polio, has so far not proved itself adept at tackling crises.
IN yet another volte-face, the government has announced that it will be withdrawing the reimposition of surcharges and taxes on the power tariffs of exporters. The announcement comes after the prime minister took stock of the situation. He decided he did not wish to stand by the decision of his power division through which not only was the power tariff concession given to exporters last year reversed, or reimagined in a way that amounted to a withdrawal, but the move was also made retroactive. Exporters were asked to start paying the surcharges applicable to their power tariffs, as well as reimburse the power utilities for all the months that these charges were not billed to them. Last year, the government had announced a relief measure for exporters only and fixed their power tariff at Rs7.5 per unit, inclusive of taxes and surcharges.
What we have, therefore, is one U-turn followed by another. No doubt the exporter community will hail the step, but it is nearly certain that the power division and even the finance ministry will view it with dismay. More importantly, the markets are watching and this sort of vacillation signals weakness. The weakness is two-fold. First, there is flawed decision-making, since the power and finance divisions both gave contradictory accounts of how the decision to withdraw last year’s tariff incentive was made. Also the government’s inability to live up to the financial implications of its own announcements has been made apparent. The second weakness that has been signalled is the inability of the government to stand by its own decisions. If an incentive is announced today, withdrawn tomorrow, then announced again a short while later, it betrays confusion and lack of ownership behind the scenes. It is now clear what is happening. The power sector is unable to meet its liquidity requirements from its own recoveries, despite massive power tariff increases over the past year. The finance ministry is unable to contribute the resources to tide over these liquidity problems. The result is the continued rise of the circular debt to arrest, and the Fund is demanding further tariff hikes that the prime minister is unwilling to sanction. The government is stuck in this situation now, and how the logjam is eventually broken will reveal a great deal about the way it is managing the stresses and strains of the Fund programme.
An act of sadism
MAN’S cruelty to man can strain credulity. That is especially so when the target is more vulnerable than most. In a recent incident reported from Lahore, three individuals grabbed hold of a deaf beggar and allegedly, “for the sake of amusement”, pumped air into his body with a compressor at a petrol station. The unfortunate man lost consciousness from the excruciating pain, and was rushed to hospital by the management when they were informed of what had happened. Doctors diagnosed massive internal bleeding from the damage done to his large intestine as a result of the abuse. Thankfully, the victim’s condition is improving. Not so fortunate was a blind beggar who died in last November, also in Lahore, after a group of men subjected him to the same inhumane act.
Bullying is unacceptable; left unchecked, the tendency can evolve into the form of egregious cruelty on display in the incidents cited above. Indeed, it is mind-boggling how people can pick on individuals who have to navigate so many challenges in their daily life — poverty, mental and/physical challenges, etc. Most Pakistanis see themselves as being compassionate and generous to those around them, often rightly so. Nevertheless, in a society where ‘might is right’, those with power are far too often seen as lording it over the comparatively weak. Leave aside Lady Health Workers or government teachers protesting peacefully for their rights, even rallies by handicapped people have been set upon by the police. Moreover, we can be exceedingly judgemental, quick to ridicule or denigrate those who do not conform to what is considered ‘normal’. Witness the taunts and degradation often meted out to trans people in public places, not to mention the violence they are subjected to. And it is not only human beings at the receiving end of sadistic treatment. Caged animals in zoos, already kept in miserable conditions, are often pelted with stones and other objects by visitors. Compassion does not seem to be part of our national character.