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Dawn Editorial 28 June 2020

Costly oximeters

AS knowledge of Covid-19 grows, our understanding of the infection’s symptoms and the tools to measure these with has simultaneously expanded. Soon after Covid-19 was declared a global pandemic by the WHO, a large part of the messaging on the early signs of the coronavirus focused on three major symptoms: a persistent dry cough, flu-like symptoms and fever. As Covid-19 cases and deaths in New York City escalated, a doctor penned an opinion piece for The New York Times in which he described how many patients could avoid ending up on a ventilator — and even escape death — by measuring their oxygen saturation levels using a simple oximeter at home. The article was widely read and soon, with hospitals at full capacity and cities running out of ventilators, pulse oximeters were flying off the shelves. Later, research suggested that mask-wearing could greatly reduce the rate of transmission.
The demand for these items, especially oximeters, is also high in Pakistan, where citizens fear that because of the growing number of cases, hospitals may become inundated. An Aga Khan University Hospital doctor advised people to buy a pulse oximeter and check oxygen saturation levels at home after every few hours. “Any Covid-19 patient with saturation below 90pc must rush to a hospital. Otherwise, if saturation is fine, they need not worry,” he said in an interview. In this situation, having a pulse oximeter at home to easily check oxygen saturation levels is a reasonable step to stay ahead of the virus. However, the price of the instrument — which was earlier available at pharmacies for Rs4,000 to Rs5,000 — has now doubled. Much like some recovered patients who are profiting during the pandemic by selling their convalescent plasma for hundreds of thousands of rupees, medical supply sellers, too, have hiked up prices of oximeters. Prices for purchasing or renting CPAP machines and oxygen cylinders have also gone up, as have rates of face masks. Sadly, these prices are doubling despite the government giving tax and duty exemptions for the import of many diagnostic items and PPE for a period of three months in order to reduce rates in the domestic market. Authorities must not only crack down on those who are profiteering, but also ensure that this medical equipment is available, as it can prevent patients from falling critically ill. Strict action must be taken against pharmacies and vendors that are minting money at a time when public desperation is high.


Petrol’s slippery slope

AFTER a month of wrangling, the aggravated shortage of petrol at pumps around the country is finally set to be resolved as the government retreats from its position and has agreed to raise prices at the pump by a near historic amount.
The shortages arose once the government reduced prices in May, at the insistence of Prime Minister Imran Khan who said he wanted to bring down fuel prices in a bid to curb inflation and pass on to the public the benefits of lower international oil prices.
But the move sparked immediate protests from oil companies and refineries who argued that the downward price revision had been made on the basis of month-old prices, and the prevailing international prices, as well their direction, at the time were sharply upward. It would not be possible for them to arrange cargo deliveries in the month of June at the price the government had notified in May, they said.
On the last day of May, the government notified a second decrease, and the minister petroleum — Mr Omar Ayub — went on the offensive on the media calling the oil companies a ‘mafia’. This aggressive turn in the sequence of events was followed up by law-enforcement action against oil executives after they were accused of ‘hoarding’ supplies.
Through all this, oil imports slowed to a trickle and supplies ran short around the country, creating long lines and dry-outs at pumps. The dispute dragged on all through June as consumers jostled for space at the pumps. The oil industry held its ground that arranging fresh supplies under the notified price was not possible, while the government served up fines and hostile rhetoric. Negotiations swirled around measures to reform the pricing mechanism, but a consensus on current prices could not be hammered out.
Then suddenly on Friday night the government caved in and passed through the single largest oil price increase the country has seen in many years. In a hurriedly called press conference, the minister and the prime minister’s special adviser on petroleum appeared together and took the defensive position that international oil prices had seen more than a 100pc increase in the last month, as well as offered the bizarre comfort that despite the price increase, the oil companies would continue to suffer.
With their first point they have confirmed what the oil industry was arguing all along: that under the notified price in May it was impossible to arrange for fresh supplies. With their second point, they have given the impression that their minds are less focused on solving problems and more focused on trading and deflecting blame. It is no longer possible to see the events of the past month in the oil-marketing sector as anything other than gross mismanagement by the government. Let’s hope things return to normal now.


Intolerance inside

IN a landmark resolution, Prime Minister Imran Khan approved funds for the construction of a Hindu temple in Islamabad. The decision has been hailed as a step in the right direction, creating a pluralistic and tolerant Pakistan, in line with the vision of this nation’s creator. It follows in the wake of other encouraging acts, such as the reopening of an ancient temple in Sialkot, which had been sealed for 72 years; and the inauguration of the Kartarpur Corridor, which allowed Sikh pilgrims to cross the border and visit one of their religion’s holiest sites. But despite these progressive steps, Pakistan is no sanctuary for religious minorities, and contradictions and hypocrisies abound. The misuse of the blasphemy law disproportionately targets religious minority groups and individuals, and provides cover for extrajudicial violence. There are continued instances of forced conversions and marriages of minority women and underage girls. Minority places of worship have also been attacked or ransacked by terrorist groups and unruly mobs in recent years.
In this wave of religious intolerance and opportunism, Muslims are not spared either. As noted in a recent op-ed in this paper, religiosity continues to grow in the country, often aided or enabled by the state. Only recently, the Punjab government sent a notification making university graduation in the public sector conditional on studying the Quran, even though a law mandating the study of the Holy Book in the province’s educational institutes is already in force. Such actions cannot create a more religious, moral or law-abiding society; they only lead to an artificial sense of religiosity, allowing the self-righteous to persecute others on the basis of not being ‘good’ or not ‘good enough Muslims’, and create distraction from pressing issues. Aside from serving as a place of worship and gathering for the Hindu community, the recent decision to build a new temple in the capital city provides deep symbolic value, but until the root of intolerance and bigotry is not removed, symbolic actions will not amount to lasting societal change.


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