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Dawn Editorial 8 April 2020

On the front line

IN the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, with over 4,000 confirmed cases in Pakistan, doctors and medical staff in Quetta clashed with the police, leading to the arrest of dozens of them. The reason: the non-availability of personal protective equipment and medical kits for healthcare workers in the province, which has resulted in several of them contracting the coronavirus. The president of the Young Doctors Association has warned that most services will not be provided until they are given the necessary equipment and tools to tackle the sudden upsurge in cases over the past few weeks. Meanwhile, the DG ISPR informed the media that essential supplies had been dispatched to Quetta.
In fact, the battle is a larger one. Healthcare workers across the country — indeed, the world — have been affected. Even in the UK, there are doctors and nurses who have threatened to quit due to the shortage of PPEs, reflecting the tremendous strain on them as they work long hours with limited resources to protect their infected patients, while exposing themselves to the infection. As evidence suggests, even asymptomatic patients can pass on the virus to others. As early as February, when the first coronavirus case was detected in Karachi, there were warnings about shortages of essential items in public and private hospitals across the country. In one report in this paper, a healthcare expert lamented that only 1,200 respirators were available at the National Institute of Health in Islamabad, when the country required a total of 110,000 respirator masks, and 300,000 gloves were needed against the 100,000 available. While help has been pouring in from governments and private donors, and China has donated medical supplies including masks to Pakistan, it is not clear if these have reached the people who need them most. In KP, one doctor covered his head and hands with plastic bags to register his protest. The government launched an inquiry against him, only to withdraw it after the KP health minister intervened. Most tragically, doctors, too, have died after being infected with the virus: Dr Osama Riaz from Gilgit-Baltistan, and Dr Abdul Qadir Soomro from Sindh. In his last video message, the bedridden Dr Riaz joined his palms together and pleaded that the virus be taken seriously. He struggled to speak throughout the recording.
The coronavirus pandemic has exposed many flaws in governance around the world, but perhaps nowhere is this most drastically felt than in the neglect of essential healthcare services. A mentally and physically exhausted workforce that is severely underequipped is simply going to lead to more situations like Quetta, and more tragic deaths, which can threaten to undermine whatever infrastructure is in place. After all, doctors are only human. It is impossible to win this war against the coronavirus without these brave front-line defenders showing up at work each day. We cannot afford to lose them.

 
 

Uzair Baloch reappears

AS mysteriously as he had been spirited away by the security forces in 2017 — after an equally intriguing arrest the year before — Uzair Jan Baloch, chief of the banned Pakistan Aman Committee, has resurfaced.
On Monday, the once feared kingpin of the Lyari gang war in Karachi was produced in an anti-terrorism court in Karachi by jail authorities after the army’s V Corps, headquartered in the city, handed him over to them.
Uzair Baloch, according to the police, is the prime suspect in a rival gang leader’s murder, an operation carried out in a particularly gruesome manner.
The victim, Arshad Pappu, his brother and another companion were allegedly abducted from a social gathering in Karachi’s Defence Housing Society, taken back to Lyari, and slaughtered, with their bodies defiled for good measure.
The case could not be prosecuted after the military took Uzair Baloch into custody on suspicion of espionage and “leak of sensitive security information to foreign intelligence agencies”.
Indeed, much still remains unknown about Uzair Baloch, who fled Pakistan in 2013 in the wake of the Rangers-led operation against organised crime in the city.
There are wheels within wheels in his ‘career’, a mix of extremely unsavoury activities facilitated by (often contradictory) allegiances with the power elite.
However, while Uzair Baloch as leader of the most prominent gang in Lyari — not to mention a one-time PPP ally later turned sworn enemy — occupied a unique place, other gangs were also willing pawns in a deadly political game, one far bigger than appearances would suggest.
The consequences of that tussle extended to the rest of the city and its cynically exploited ethnic fault lines.
Those who suffered the most though from the immediate fallout were the hapless citizens of Lyari.
For years, they knew not a moment’s peace as armed gangs ran amok in the streets, battling it out over the proceeds of various rackets, and enticing the area’s youth into a life of crime.
In February 2017, a confessional statement by Uzair Baloch was submitted to a Sindh High Court bench.
In it were startling revelations about a purported nexus between the PAC, the PPP’s Sindh leadership and top police officials in land grabbing, extortion, gunrunning and various other criminal activities.
While these accusations must be transparently investigated, it must also be said that extended detentions, without plausible explanation, of individuals suspected of grave crimes against Pakistani citizens sully the state’s reputation.

 
 

Stranded in UAE

WITH Covid-19 turning the global order upside down, governments worldwide have been taking unprecedented measures to halt the spread of the contagion. The foremost of these is internal lockdowns, coupled with the temporary closure of borders. In the midst of such difficult circumstances arises the question of repatriating citizens wanting to return from foreign shores. As reported in this paper on Tuesday, around 20,000 Pakistanis stranded in the UAE are seeking to return home. Expectedly, these individuals are facing a tough time in the Emirates; some have lost their jobs or have not been paid by their firms, while the visas of others have expired. As per media reports, ‘‘hundreds’’ of Pakistanis gathered outside the consulate in Dubai on Sunday demanding to return home.
The plight of citizens stranded abroad is indeed a dire one, especially when jobs have been lost. However, the question arises: can the health system in this country screen, quarantine and treat such a large number of people were they to be brought back immediately? The best possible response to this difficult situation would be for the state to work in close coordination with the UAE authorities to ensure Pakistanis stranded in the Emirates have access to quality healthcare, housing and food until the coronavirus crisis dissipates. The UAE government should extend the visas of those whose documents have expired, while Pakistani missions in the Emirates must keep in constant touch with stranded citizens to assure them that the state stands by them in these trying times, and that they will be able to return as soon as it is feasible. By no means should citizens feel that they have been left in the lurch by their government at a time of a global crisis. It is a fact that every citizen has the right to return home at any time of their choosing. However, those Pakistanis stranded abroad should be encouraged to return at a more opportune time, when the danger that an easily transmissible infection poses to public health has reduced considerably.

 
 

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