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Dawn Editorial 5 June 2020

Protecting the environment

EVEN though the novel coronavirus pandemic has put many burning issues on the back-burner, it still presents an opportunity to reflect on the direction the world had been moving towards in recent decades, and to course correct. Of course, the dream of a better world cannot come to fruition until we change our basic value systems. Since today marks World Environment Day, it is a good time to reflect on our attitudes towards the natural world, as we battle disaster on multiple fronts. While much of modern civilisation has been forced to pause, the effects of climate change — largely the consequence of decades of human recklessness — can still be felt. In Bangladesh, a cyclone has left thousands in need of humanitarian support. While cyclones and flooding are not out-of-the-ordinary occurrences in Bangladesh, they have intensified in recent years. But an even greater calamity may have unfolded had the government there not acted as quickly as it did to ensure 10,500 more shelters were available for those affected, along with overseeing a 70,000-strong volunteer force to mitigate the disaster. Additionally, sanitisers, masks, soap and water were made available to them, while social distancing methods were reportedly implemented. In a world that seems to be falling apart, with much of its leadership missing, in denial, or shifting blame, this is a shining example of the power of collective action and a government taking charge. Imagine if similar preventive measures were applied to the environment, keeping the long-term view in mind.
Five years ago, the Paris Agreement was drafted with the goal of reducing global greenhouse gas emissions. Five years later, global greenhouse gas emissions are said to have gone down, but primarily because of circumstances few could have predicted, rather than through human will and the formulation and implementation of environment-friendly policies. To curtail the rapid spread of the coronavirus, governments around the world had to enforce lockdowns, disrupting economic activities and travel. However, these lockdowns deeply hurt the poorest sections of society, amid much suffering and death — so there is little cause to celebrate. Scientists and experts are also sceptical of how long these changes will last, given the trends in recent history.
Then there is the fear that perhaps it is already too late: a recent study in Nature Climate Change says that, even if global greenhouse gas emissions were to be drastically reduced, the world’s oceans may still continue to heat up in the latter half of this century, further unsettling the already endangered marine biodiversity. But what feels like the end of times sometimes turns out to be a period of transition. Change is in motion: for the first time in more than 130 years, renewable energy sources have surpassed coal in the United States.


SOPs not followed

AS Covid-19 cases swell across the country, the deaths of some legislators who contracted the coronavirus are a tragic example of how close to home the pandemic has hit for so many families. Among the latest Covid-19 fatalities are two legislators from Punjab and KP who passed away after testing positive. Before this, a Sindh minister died after testing positive. In May, a JUI-F MPA and former Balochistan governor as well as a PTI MPA in Punjab passed away after contracting the infection. The number of lawmakers testing positive is also growing, with confirmed cases of legislators in KP, Sindh and Punjab. The figures look more worrying by the day. More than 4,000 new cases and over 80 deaths were reported in a single day — numbers that show a consistently rising graph.
The government’s strategy to curb this rapid spread relies solely on citizens following the SOPs. In many countries, including Pakistan, the SOPs include frequent handwashing, maintaining a certain distance from others, avoiding touching the face and eyes, but most importantly, covering the face and nose. In fact, sharing the federal government’s updated Covid-19 guidelines, Dr Zafar Mirza last week said that face masks are mandatory. Although it is unclear how the government plans to enforce this rule, scientific evidence shows that wearing masks can limit the spread of the virus. “It is prudent for the people to wear face masks with an intention to protect their fellow beings,” the guidelines say. Since the guidelines were announced, the prime minister was seen wearing a face mask in footage of a cabinet meeting released by his office last night. Raising eyebrows the day before, however, were official photographs of his visit to the ISI headquarters this week, in which Mr Khan was the only participant seen not wearing any kind of face covering. The same has been said about many of his ministers. This careless messaging on the part of the leadership raises several questions: how can leaders preach safety to the public if they themselves follow the SOPs inconsistently? Why has the government gone so terribly wrong in its Covid-19 messaging? After the government’s green signal for businesses to resume, ensuring universal compliance with the SOPs is perhaps the only barrier left to limit the spread of the virus to some extent. As cases and fatalities increase, the government must reflect on its own failures. The leadership must be more deliberate in its messaging.


Online classes

FOURTEEN-year-old Devika Balakrishnan’s lifeless body was found near her home in Kerala, India, on Monday: the first day of her school semester. According to the police, a suicide note had been left behind, with her last words: “I’m going”. Her father, a daily wage earner, said she was disheartened after she was unable to participate in an online class with her peers. Under pressure to perform well in a competitive society, student suicides are tragically not uncommon in India. To make matters worse, ever since a countrywide lockdown was imposed to contain the rapid spread of the novel coronavirus, schools have been shut down and classes are taught online. But modern technologies clearly have not reached everyone, and many students fear being left behind. Reportedly, Devika did not have access to television or a smartphone. Given the reality of such inequalities, particularly glaring in developing nations, there is genuine cause for concern that a large number of children will miss out on their education, further exacerbating socioeconomic inequalities within societies. While some universities in the West have decided to teach all their course material online, this is difficult to replicate in many other parts of the world.
In March, the UN reported that 166 countries around the world had shut down schools and universities in the wake of the pandemic, affecting some 87pc of the enrolled population. That same month, in Pakistan, hundreds of university students and instructors registered their complaints with the Pakistan Citizen Portal regarding problems they were having with their online classes, from the quality of the internet connection to the value of lectures. Just over 36pc of the population uses the internet, while accessibility is particularly pronounced in the rural and periphery regions such as former Fata, Balochistan, Gilgit-Baltistan and Azad Kashmir. The tribal districts, which have seen internet blockages in the recent past, have been particularly deprived of important services. The right to internet access has never seemed more urgent.


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