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Dawn Editorial 30 April 2020

A troubling trend

EARLIER this month, the federal government announced that it would ramp up Pakistan’s Covid-19 testing capacity to conduct 25,000 tests per day by April end. It is therefore disturbing to note that not only are we nowhere near achieving this target, but that the number of tests being done per day has declined in the past week in Punjab, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Balochistan and the Islamabad Capital Territory. While the PPP’s Nafisa Shah speculated that the reduced rate of testing may be politically motivated, Special Assistant to the Prime Minister on Health Dr Zafar Mirza said in an interview that testing would increase significantly once the federal government’s test, track and quarantine policy is implemented. However, the absence of a definitive explanation for missing this target does not augur well, and Dr Mirza’s suggestion that tests may be declining due to fewer suspected cases betrays a degree of complacency in the federal government’s handling of the crisis. Each day that Pakistan isn’t pushing its testing capacity to the limit increases the risk of the situation spiralling out of control, as even asymptomatic carriers can spread the virus to others, with major consequences for both lives and livelihoods.
Time — hard-bought with myriad collective and individual sacrifices made under lockdown — cannot be squandered. We must move past this phase, but in order to do so policymakers urgently need an accurate picture of the issue to prevent a rush on our already overburdened healthcare systems. The politicised nature of the lockdown debate has distracted from a key issue — intensive ramping up of testing and critical care capacity in order to gradually reopen the economy. Countries that implemented early lockdowns with effective messaging and mass compliance, in addition to scaling up their national health response, especially testing, are now beginning to ease restrictions. Those that botched both or either of these measures are seeing hundreds of patients die each day. There is little evidence to suggest that Pakistan would be an outlier to this trend.
While we cannot build an exceptional healthcare system overnight, we can and must improve our testing capacity. A few examples of small-scale universal testing at private organisations not only indicate a high rate of infection but also show that most people were unsuspecting carriers. The extent to which public policymakers can base conclusions on these data sets is limited, but the fact that the country on the whole has been unable to intensively scale up testing in the past few weeks is a serious handicap. Our public health experts argue that the current official figures represent only the tip of the iceberg. We are nowhere near testing enough of our population to see the peak of the curve, let alone flatten it. However, as Dr Mirza himself noted, perhaps a more reliable indicator would be to look at death rates, which no rhetoric can obscure. It is growing.


Extremism in India

THE extremist Hindutva clique that calls the shots in India has largely been able to get away with its atrocious treatment of Indian Muslims because powerful voices in the world have remained silent in the face of this oppression. But this may be changing as voices are finally being raised against the BJP-RSS combine’s anti-Muslim proclivities. Though Pakistan has long been warning the world against India’s brutal treatment of Kashmiris as well as of Indian citizens, Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi has urged the OIC to take a firm stand against New Delhi’s rogue behaviour. In a tweet, Mr Qureshi urged members of the multilateral Muslim body to “unite in global condemnation of these inhuman attacks”, referring to the ostracism Indian Muslims have had to face in the aftermath of the Covid-19 outbreak. Earlier, the general secretariat of the Kuwaiti Council of Ministers also called upon the OIC to take “necessary and urgent measures” to help protect Indian Muslims. But perhaps the most stinging criticism has come from the US, which the Modi regime constantly courts economically and politically. In its recently released annual report, the US Commission for International Religious Freedom — a bipartisan body backed by the American government — says India has “tolerated particularly severe violations of religious freedom”. Particularly, the commission’s vice-president says India’s new citizenship legislation “potentially exposes millions of Muslims to detention, deportation and statelessness”.
The world may have been late in reacting to India’s abetment of anti-Muslim terror, but it is positive to note that the global community is finally speaking up. For some time now, Sangh Parivar gangs have terrorised Muslims, be it due to allegations of eating beef, being ‘anti-national’ or spurious claims of spreading the coronavirus in India. The nightmare in India-held Kashmir, meanwhile, has been amplified due to the inhuman months-long lockdown enforced by the Indian military machine. The Muslim world — represented by the OIC — has largely remained quiet, or given lukewarm rebukes to India aside from a few notable exceptions. Moreover, the US and Europe — who are quick to pillory geopolitical adversaries over alleged rights abuses, but treat allies and trading partners with kid gloves — have also remained largely quiet, despite their self-professed dedication to fundamental rights. However, the ‘world’s largest democracy’ now stands exposed before the global community for its anti-Muslim agenda. It is time the world moved beyond words to take concrete steps to make India change its communal behaviour.


Childhood immunisation

THE spread of Covid-19 with all its troubling implications has led governments and world bodies to undertake damage-assessment exercises in various spheres of life. The challenge for the rest of the health sector alone is immense, with medical experts warning of perils ahead as the near-total focus on the coronavirus has thrown up difficult questions. Taking stock of the situation, Unicef has pointed out how countries in South Asia specifically have missed childhood vaccination targets as a result of the lockdowns. For instance, in Pakistan, one of the few remaining reservoirs of the polio virus, an already suffering vaccination campaign against the debilitating disease has been further weakened. Unicef has reported sporadic outbreaks of preventable diseases such as measles and diphtheria in Nepal, Bangladesh and Pakistan. The agency’s latest reminder during World Immunisation Week should propel the authorities into immediate action. True, it is a source of further tension for a country not known for giving the best deal to its children. But delaying immunisation can have its own, lethal, consequences. And although parental awareness regarding the absolute necessity of childhood vaccination has increased, extra effort is required from the government and those on the front lines of the war against the virus ie the medical corps, to not let attention be diverted from the need to protect children. Together, they must find ways to facilitate access to other medical services even in the midst of the pandemic.
Vaccination is a crucial area as are other medical cases requiring urgent care; the latter have been piling up for weeks now. A short-term solution might have to entail a cautious opening up of selected healthcare facilities other than emergency wards and special Covid-19 units. In the long run, the authorities might want to encourage visits to community doctors advising parents and administering the required vaccines to their children. Millions of children around the world have already been left out of vaccination programmes. Many more will be added to their numbers if the focus remains on a single emergency.


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