AS the official figures for daily new Covid-19 infections fall across the country, the prime minister wants to ensure that transmission rates continue to slow down as Eid approaches. At a visit to the NCOC over the weekend, Mr Khan said there should be strict implementation of SOPs and that officials should undertake the necessary administrative actions for smart lockdowns. He also stressed on the need for a strong awareness campaign to prevent any ‘resurgence’ of the disease during Eidul Azha when animal markets are flooded with purchasers.
The official figures for Covid-19 infections are indeed looking positive, but are in sharp contrast to the trend in most other countries where strict lockdowns are not in place. According to the WHO, the world saw the biggest jump in daily new Covid-19 cases on June 28 with 212,326 cases in 24 hours. Given what we know about the fast transmission of the virus, more clarity is needed on why Pakistan’s official cases are decreasing. This is a question officials and epidemiologists should examine very closely. It may well be that the government’s smart lockdowns have had some effect, and there could be other contributory factors as well. But a report by BBC Urdu, which has yet to be denied or corroborated by the government, revealed that graveyard burial figures from June 2020 in Lahore and Karachi showed a considerable increase when compared to data from the previous year in the same month. While Lahore registered 1,744 deaths in June 2019, this year there were 3,723 — with just 487 recorded officially as Covid-19 deaths. Similarly, in Karachi, burial data in 32 government graveyards showed 2,375 deaths in June 2019 and 3,594 burials in June 2020. Official Covid-19 burials in these graveyards were recorded at 118. An official quoted in the report said some families hide Covid-19 death certificates from graveyard authorities because of the stigma attached, therefore, it is likely that more than 118 were coronavirus deaths. The Edhi Foundation in Karachi, too, lent weight to this insight by saying that morgues processed more than twice the number of bodies in June 2020 than the previous year.
In light of this information and given that testing is far from the promised 100,000 per day, authorities must investigate why the official figures are so low. Why are more burials taking place in graveyards in major cities this year than in the previous year? Is it possible that some of them are uncounted Covid-19 fatalities? Or is there a possibility that patients with other illnesses are succumbing to them because they were reluctant to visit hospitals or seek medical attention? The government must look at the figures and determine whether or not they are linked to Covid-19. It is far too early to be optimistic — especially when there are fears that lockdowns may be relaxed in the run-up to Eid.
THE association of train drivers has called upon the Pakistan Railways authorities to focus on “rehabilitation of the [train] track for the safety of passengers, line staff and rolling stock” as the number of minor and major accidents involving significant loss of human lives and railway property continues to rise for some years. The association has also warned of protests if the drivers are asked to operate passenger or cargo trains on the existing tracks without ensuring regular repairs to make them less dangerous. Given the present state of affairs at PR, it seems highly unlikely that anyone from among the railway authorities is paying heed to this call for making the dilapidated tracks safer for train operations.
The railway is in a total mess because of a number of factors. For starters, it has failed to keep pace with rapidly changing technologies, improve services and invest in ground infrastructure or efficient rolling stock to make its operations safer. Once a popular mode of travel for a large majority of middle-class families, people now avoid trains for fear of their lives. Similarly, in the last couple of decades or so, PR has completely lost its cargo business to road haulage owing to the shortage of freight trains and a highly erratic service. Meanwhile, frequent political interventions for short-term gains, red tape, corruption, a highly inefficient management and a broken business model have made matters worse. Unscrupulous labour unions linked with political parties have also played their part in its downturn. Although the government is working to replace the ground infrastructure of the main line (ML-1) from Peshawar to Karachi with a Chinese loan, hopes for a sustainable turnaround hinge on a complete break from the past. The revival of the railway is not possible without the government foregoing its tight control over its management and freeing it from the clutches of an inefficient civil bureaucracy so that it may operate independently and make timely decisions in the manner of any private corporate entity. Moreover, the government would also need to invest in and develop dedicated freight corridors to win back the massive cargo business to make it profitable. Last but not least, the railway management should be responsible for only maintenance of the ground infrastructure. Privatising cargo and passenger train operations needs to be given serious thought. Without a complete overhaul, there is little hope for a functioning railway in the country.
Pressure on media
THE state of media freedom in Pakistan today is far from satisfactory. The last two years have seen growing pressures of all kinds on the media leading to shrinking space for freedom of expression. Journalism in a democracy is all about speaking truth to power, but doing so in this country carries consequences. The latest in a series of incidents signalling a growing lack of state tolerance is the suspension of the broadcast licence for Channel 24. Pemra has pulled the channel off air citing some licensing issues but the channel management says they are closing transmission because they cannot face “blackmailing” from the government. Hundreds of people will now lose their jobs.
The trend unfortunately is quite clear. The present government has piled pressure on the media through all means available adding to the existing financial woes of the industry. Recent years have witnessed unprecedented job losses and cutbacks within the industry. While some of this may be attributed to ‘market correction’, much of it is a result of policies pursued by the government in terms of advertisements and non-payment of arrears. At the same time, state pressure to toe the official line and not cross some red lines has led to self-censorship and muted critique by a majority of news organisations. Those that have resisted such pressures have faced punishment through various means including financial ones. Threats of physical violence are also frequently reported. All this undermines democracy and promotes a culture of intolerance and abhorrence for dissent. The culture flows down from the state to citizens at large, and the media becomes an easy prey for scapegoating. With the digital revolution gathering pace with each passing day, now is a good opportunity for the government to facilitate the media so it gains strength and adds greater value to the practice of democracy in Pakistan. The PTI government therefore needs to review its attitudes towards the media industry before hard won-freedoms are put under threat.