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The Express Tribune Editorial 1 April 2020

PM’s address

Prime Minister Imran Khan has reiterated his firm position that there will be no full lockdown in the country as a measure to fight novel coronavirus which has claimed the lives of 25 Pakistanis, besides infecting nearly 1,900 others, as of Tuesday. The Prime Minister — while addressing the nation for a third time in about two weeks — based his stance on the argument that the 25% population of the country living below the poverty line would not be able to withstand such a harsh measure; and since a cash-strapped government is in no position to cater to them, a lockdown would not be sustainable.
The first time Prime Minister Imran had ruled out a lockdown, he had drawn a severe reaction from almost all quarters — but not this time around. This may have been because of a low number of cases of the infection and fatalities in the country currently, in comparison with the numbers in the neighbouring Iran as well as developed countries like the US, the UK, Italy and Spain. However, this relatively comfortable situation in our country must not turn the government complacent, and the PM and his whole team must keep a vigilant eye on the situation as it develops and be open to the option of beefing up the lockdown if and when needed.
The Prime Minister, meanwhile, also announced several measures as part of the government’s response to contain the virus. The measures include a PM’s Corona Relief Fund, assuring tax relief on donations and exemption from declaring the source of funding; a Corona Tiger Force to work alongside law-enforcers and administration personnel for provision of relief to those in need; provision of loans from SBP to the business concerns not terminating their employees; and opening up registration for those needing ration and those willing to provide it on the Facebook page of the Ehsaas programme.
It’s good to see the PM mobilise the government machinery to deal with the corona crisis. But national calamities demand a national response. While there was the need to come up a collective national action, the PM’s response package is richly embossed with PTI insignias like Tiger Force and Ehsaas programme.


Uncollected waste

It’s a point to ponder, and to ponder seriously. Environmental and public health experts have drawn the government’s attention to piling of garbage in Karachi and other urban areas of Sindh. They have asked the authorities to resume the halted waste disposal activities in the province as uncleared garbage could be a recipe for disaster in the midst of the raging coronavirus pandemic. Naeem Qureshi, the president of the National Forum for Environment and Health, says it is like inviting a disaster if disposal of waste is stopped during an epidemic. The uncollected waste would worsen public health issues in the prevailing situation; it would undo the efforts being made towards containing the deadly virus. Other experts have voiced similar concerns.
The Sindh government has exempted the local government department, municipal agencies, the Sindh Solid Waste Management Board, the KWSB, and the KMC from the lockdown. The experts have asked the government that those engaged in clearing waste should be provided with protective gears for their safety. According to one estimate, Karachi generates 12,000 tonnes of trash per day. Considering the devastation uncleared garbage could cause in the presence of the deadly virus, the Sindh government should order resumption of clearing of trash on an emergency basis. It would make its proactive campaign against Covid-19 more effective.
Even in normal circumstances, lack of cleanliness plays havoc with people’s lives. There are many such instances from the past from different parts of the world when epidemics broke out causing death and devastation on a large scale. Around 20 years ago, a virulent plague epidemic had broken out in the city of Surat in Gujarat state of India due to piling of garbage. Perhaps, this was the last plague epidemic reported in the world in the recent past. Then there was no such thing as the coronavirus pandemic. This is no time for politicking. Coronavirus does not discriminate, so do other epidemic diseases.


As Yemen war continues

After the UN Secretary General called for stopping all wars and just hours after UN Yemen Envoy Martin Griffiths called for a ceasefire in light of the coronavirus pandemic, Saudi Arabia and Houthi rebels in Yemen continued firing rockets at each other. Ironically, Yemen’s government, the Houthis, the Saudis, and Iran had all praised the UN after its call for calm. The Saudi-UAE coalition carried out between 19 and 25 airstrikes on Yemen’s capital Sanaa. No human casualties were initially reported by local media, although 70 horses were apparently killed and 30 injured, according to some reports. Airstrikes also hit several towns in Hodeidah province, including the Salif and Bayt al Faqih districts.
The attacks on Sanaa were in response to the Houthis firing two ballistic missiles towards Riyadh and southern parts of the kingdom. The Saudis intercepted both. Although Yemen has not reported any cases of the Covid-19 coronavirus yet, this is partly because the country is already in the middle of the biggest humanitarian disaster in the world. The fact that Saudi strikes have frequently hit hospitals and relief camps means that Yemen’s already weak healthcare system had become non-existent after years of war. The strikes also marked a slide back to even worse times, as Sanaa had not been hit by the Saudis ever since they began indirect talks with the Houthis in September.
The escalation came after a relatively calm start to the year and further reduced hopes that a peace agreement of some sort might be in the offing. Some analysts have been debating why the Houthis would have escalated fighting at this time. The short answer is that they had the advantage of having nothing to lose. With the world, including Saudi Arabia, focusing on the coronavirus pandemic, the Houthis, who have reportedly been gaining ground in the war, did not want to give up their advantage. But the way Saudis returned fire serves as a reminder that in this war, like most others, nobody really wins.
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