AMIDST the Covid-19 pandemic and the resultant curbs on international travel, the question of bringing back Pakistanis stranded overseas poses a major dilemma. The government recently announced the suspension of all international flights until April 4 to limit the spread of the virus as authorities ramped up efforts to contain it. The announcement caused panic amongst Pakistani citizens abroad as their return flights were cancelled or indefinitely postponed. Those trying to book flights for after April 4 are confronted with exorbitant ticket prices and the unavailability of seats. Moreover, the government is not sure whether it will resume international flights after that date. All this is causing distress to citizens stuck overseas, and pressure is building on the government to take action.
As Pakistan grapples with Covid-19, one thing is clear: there are no easy choices for the government. Given the havoc it has wreaked in far more developed countries, the government has taken an unpopular yet practical decision to halt international flights. The reality of authorities’ capacity to deal with the huge number of citizens who want to return was evident in the case of the Taftan returnees and poor quarantine facilities. Unless the government can test every returning passenger and make adequate arrangements to hold tens of thousands of citizens near airports, resuming international flights will be a disaster. At present, Pakistan has over 1,700 confirmed cases of the coronavirus and more than 20 fatalities — figures that are accelerating at an alarming rate and crushing the country’s inherently fragile healthcare infrastructure. Bringing citizens back from countries in the grip of the pandemic and without effective provisions will have devastating consequences.
In this situation, the government must provide support to stranded citizens through effective communication. Mixed messaging creates confusion and should be avoided. For instance, in response to the plight of citizens, the government briefly granted permission to PIA to operate four special flights to bring passengers back from the UK and Canada, but was forced to withdraw the offer as cases in both countries soared. The CAA’s earlier announcement that all returning passengers must provide a Covid-19 certificate, too, was unhelpful and only exacerbated their problems as mass testing is not easily available in many countries. Instead, embassies and consular staff should be directed to provide support to Pakistanis stuck abroad. Helplines must be established which provide steady updates and missions required to troubleshoot the challenges faced by citizens to the best of their ability. They must develop a strategy to manage the cases of those who have fallen ill, run out of funds or are seeking information regarding affordable accommodation. Missions in these countries should also interact with the authorities there to ensure that stranded citizens are provided with emergency visas to help prolong their stay. The message should be conveyed that in these extraordinary circumstances, Pakistani citizens have not been abandoned.
A BARRAGE of missiles fired by the Yemeni Houthi rebel outfit at Saudi cities over the weekend comes as a stark reminder that the situation in the Arab world’s poorest nation remains precarious even as the world battles the coronavirus pandemic. The Houthi projectiles targeted the Saudi capital Riyadh as well as the town of Jizan closer to the Yemeni border. No casualties were reported though a number of civilians were apparently injured in Riyadh. The strikes came on the fifth anniversary of the Saudi-led intervention in Yemen; Riyadh had taken military action in support of Yemen’s government against the Iran-backed Houthis. However, the intervention has resulted in the devastation of Saudi Arabia’s impoverished southern neighbour, with the Houthis far from defeated. There were reports that jets from the Saudi coalition had bombed the Yemeni capital Sana’a — currently in Houthi control — on Monday in apparent retaliation for the strikes on Saudi cities.
Considering the fact that the whole world, from highly developed states to those with more fragile infrastructure, is battling to keep the Covid-19 pandemic at bay, all parties involved in Yemen must cease fire and devote their efforts to confront the pandemic. In fact, this could be an opportune moment to declare a cessation to hostilities in all trouble spots of the world, including Yemen, as the UN secretary general has also said. The fact is that five years of war have devastated Yemen, and one shudders to think what would happen if a Covid-19 outbreak was reported in the country. As of now, WHO says there are no reported cases in Yemen, but in a state of war it is unclear how much testing is being done. Apart from the man-made disasters that have resulted from the war — death, injuries, malnutrition — Yemen current suffers from the world’s largest cholera epidemic; WHO says 1.3m suspected cases have been recorded. In such a miserable situation, should Covid-19 spread rapidly in the country, the results would be catastrophic. All forces must cease hostilities in Yemen, and the process to bring about a negotiated settlement to the imbroglio must be speeded up. It is essential that Yemen’s future is decided by its people, and that all sects and tribes are represented and respected in matters of governance. To prevent the escalation of Yemen’s humanitarian nightmare, an end to the ruinous war should be brought about swiftly.
AS the fight against Covid-19 rages on across countries, a second crucial battle must be simultaneously fought to end another menacing phenomenon: misinformation.
At a time when fear and panic stemming from the virus are on the rise, the sheer volume of information and ‘news’ being shared about the infection is reaching unprecedented heights. Mobile phone and social media users are being constantly bombarded with misinformation, and the vast number of people sharing unverified claims is compounding the issue.
These claims, which eventually circulate as mass forwarded messages on WhatsApp, range from incorrect and misleading information on the origin of the virus to its symptoms and so-called cures. There is a potential danger in falling for these unscientific cures. In Iran, where alcohol is illegal, 44 people died and hundreds were hospitalised after drinking homemade booze as advised by such messages.
In Pakistan, these messages have included harmless home remedies like drinking garlic water but also dangerous advice such as encouraging people to try ‘blowing hot air from a hair dryer through your nostrils’. This newspaper recently fact-checked a fake notification that was doing the rounds on social media, claiming that Pakistan’s health ministry had suggested that a prevention method was to keep one’s throat moist.
WHO has rightly declared this as an ‘infodemic’ — an excessive amount of information which makes the solution to a problem more difficult. Citizens must address their fears and queries by using legitimate sources of information. For global updates, the most reliable source of information is WHO. In Pakistan, people looking for accurate information must turn to the government and trusted news sources — while also being wary of ‘fake news’ ie photoshopped images which falsely purport to belong to an organisation.
In this crisis, it is the responsibility of citizens to exercise caution and be more discerning about the information they pass on. If the ‘news’ is not available on official channels and if one is not sure about its veracity or source, it is not worth sharing.