Sindh leads the way
IN SPITE of some good work done by stakeholders within their area of operation, the country remains divided over a national strategy to defeat the coronavirus pandemic, with the number of confirmed cases exceeding 1,300. Efforts are still dispersed despite warnings that the crisis could turn into a huge calamity if we do not get our act together. Luckily, there are examples of how to proceed in this calamity, and the leading role played by the Sindh government in the country’s fight against Covid-19 should provide valuable lessons for both the central government and the other provinces. Chief Minister Murad Ali Shah’s proactive leadership has been appreciated both at home and abroad; Sindh was the first province in the country to forcefully highlight the lack of preparedness that exists at different levels when the virus was knocking at our door, and to draw the federal government’s attention to the poor quality of screening of inbound passengers at airports, as well as the absence of quarantine facilities there. Sindh also pointed out the mishandling of the return of pilgrims from Iran, the epicentre of Covid-19 in the region, at a makeshift quarantine facility at the Taftan border. Most of the initial, confirmed Covid-19 cases in the country, especially in Sindh, can be traced to the batch of pilgrims returning from Iran and allowed to leave for home without proper testing.
In many ways, the province has provided the other federating units and the central government with a roadmap to limit the spread of the coronavirus. It has tested people more aggressively and was the first province to implement a lockdown as an extreme social-distancing measure, despite strong opposition from Islamabad. It is also leading the others in restricting religious gatherings after the tablighi congregations in Lahore and near Islamabad proved to be another source of the Covid-19 illness. Even the first two confirmed cases of the illness in the Gaza Strip were traced to a tablighi gathering in Pakistan. In short, the ruling PPP in Sindh has done what few expected of it, and the other three provincial administrations, together with Gilgit-Baltistan and Azad Kashmir, have mostly followed in its footsteps by taking certain actions, that though considered harsh for the poor, will help contain the spread of Covid-19 in their geographical jurisdictions.
Although the federal health adviser Dr Zafar Mirza has been proactive in coordinating with the provinces, it seems that the centre is still uncertain about a national strategy, given some of its concerns regarding a lockdown, such as the impact on the poor. But there can be no further dilly-dallying — especially in a country where people reject measures that are prescribed to protect them from injury. The war on Covid-19 cannot be fought effectively, let alone won, without developing a consensus and a national strategy — and no effort can succeed in isolation.
THE State Bank and the country’s banks have moved fast to pre-empt rising calls for a moratorium on debt repayments from individuals and businesses. The key now lies in how many parties step forward to avail themselves of the benefits being offered. Chief among these benefits is the option to delay all repayment on principal by one year, for individuals and businesses, but continue the interest payments. Given that Rs4.7tr worth of principal is due over the next year, this is by far the biggest plank in the debt relief plan chalked out by the State Bank and the Pakistan Banks Association. Coupled with the coming reduction in domestic interest rates that will be reflected in the Karachi Interbank Offered Rate, or Kibor, by the end of March, this could amount to significant relief for local enterprises. There is a high possibility that more will be required in the weeks to come, particularly on the interest rates, but for now the ball has passed to the court of the borrowers, who must now vote on the plan with their actions. If we see a large uptake on the terms being offered, we will know it has been successful. If very few step forward we will know there is a problem.
Banks might need more specific guidance on how to treat those parties who seek to avail the terms being offered. If a request to defer principal payments by one year is treated by the banks as ‘rescheduling’, and thereby adversely impacts a borrower’s credit rating, it will serve as a disincentive to step forward. For the success of the scheme — which must be measured in the number of parties availing its benefits — it is important that those participating in it not be left with an adverse report on their credit rating. Businesses are facing a unique challenge with the lockdowns and certainly have a valid case for getting relief. The extent to which this relief does not become a burden on state finances is important since those funds will be required to underwrite social protection as well as significant investments in healthcare provision. Giving debt relief in the form of deferred repayment of the principal has the benefit of not placing any burden on government finances to provide relief to industry. This is the way forward should further measures be required to support industry, which must not be allowed to become a burden on the state.
WATER is both a blessing and a curse for the coastal communities that live along the Indus delta region. Earlier, a report in this paper gave a glimpse into how sea intrusion in recent decades has changed the centuries-old way of life for the people of Kharo Chan in Sindh. As water consumes entire villages, the families are forced to relocate. In Thatta alone, according to some reports, over 2m acres of land have been lost to an expanding sea. Additionally, when saltwater destroys once fertile farming lands, or mixes with groundwater, entire communities are at risk of suffering from food and water insecurity, disease, and falling below the poverty line. Meanwhile, insufficient freshwater reaching the delta has made it increasingly difficult for residents to access clean drinking water. Much has already been written about the mismanagement and unfair distribution of water between the provinces, and the damage caused by the construction of dams and barrages along the Indus River, which has resulted in Sindh receiving a trickle of the water supply it is due under the Water Apportionment Accord of 1991. The lack of freshwater flow and increased salinity also poses a grave threat to the Indus delta’s once dense mangrove forests. Not only do these forests protect the land from sea intrusion and prevent natural disasters, they also serve as breeding grounds for a diverse range of aquatic wildlife, and the fishing communities are dependent on them.
While March 22 marked World Water Day, the event was largely overshadowed by the coronavirus pandemic and the sudden rise in the number of cases around the world. As often said, one of the simplest and most effective ways to counter the spread of the virus is by practising basic hygiene and regularly washing hands with soap. But how will people who do not have access to water do that? This is a good time as any to remember that water and sanitation are human rights, not luxuries.