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The Express Tribune Editorial 1 February 2020

Coronavirus: our response


It’s indeed not an easy situation for Pakistan to be in. The choice is between “leaving its citizens in China at the mercy of the mysterious coronavirus” and “bringing them back risking the deadly infection to spread in the country”. Pakistan’s refusal to evacuate its citizens is being interpreted as an admission of its incapacity; a declaration of its helplessness; and a sign of its callousness towards the terrified countrymen stranded in China and their worried family members anxiously awaiting their return – especially when several countries like the US and Japan have already pulled their citizens out and several others, including India and Bangladesh, have been preparing to.
With the World Health Organization (WHO) declaring an international emergency and expressing concern “not [on] what is happening in China but what is happening in other countries”, the Government of Pakistan may have a point in deciding not to evacuate its citizens from the virus-stricken China. It does amount to a plausible justification that “Pakistan is acting in line with WHO’s guidelines and China’s action plan to contain the epidemic” that has assumed uncontrollable proportions, having spread to each of the 31 Chinese provinces and reached at least 19 other countries, including Thailand, India, the UAE, France, Canada, the US, Japan and Australia – killing more than 200 people and infecting around 10,000 others worldwide.
Still it’s painful to hear Dr Zafar Mirza, the Prime Minister’s Special Assistant on Health, advising “our loved ones in China [to stay there]”. It’s true that we are a country which is even struggling to nip the long-known viruses in the bud, and are in no position to cope with a virus whose cause is yet unknown, let alone its cure. It’s true that we are no America or Japan which have the wherewithal to deal with a virus having the human-to-human transmission potential. It’s true that we are no Australia that can make arrangements to quarantine its evacuees on an island, about 2,000km from the mainland.
But we can’t act like silent spectators as 30,000 of our countrymen, according to Prime Minister’s Adviser on Overseas Pakistanis Zulfi Bukhari, stand stranded in China. But the question is: how far can the state of Pakistan realistically go about taking care of the plight of its citizens at risk of getting infected by a killer virus other than just conveying a message of reassurance and hope? The government must first ensure that our students – about a thousand of them, according to reports – have their money needs fulfilled. Many students have taken to social media, complaining that they have run out of money and the government’s monetary assistance has not reached them.
Locally, the government must immediately declare a health emergency and devise health protocols not only to prevent the spread of the virus to Pakistan, but also to ensure that in the undesirable event of a spillover, the necessary arrangements are already in place. There is an urgent need to close the border with China; ban the seafood imports from the country; equip airports with proper screening facilities; and keep our health practitioners abreast with the latest knowledge and information about the virus. Besides, there is also the need to identify all those who have travelled between Pakistan and China during the last couple of months and approach them for screening purposes, and quarantine those that are suspected. As a future measure, the government must also set aside some budget to account for the purchase of a vaccine which the scientists are working to develop, and arrange for quarantine zones.
We can’t afford to act like a pigeon with closed eyes.


Women in workforce


Pakistan has little female participation in its labour force – hardly 32%. Even out of this small figure, 73% of the women work in the agriculture, fisheries and forestry sectors. Only a minuscule proportion of educated women is in the workforce. Dr Sania Nishtar, Special Assistant to the Prime Minister on Poverty Alleviation and Social Protection, has emphasised the need for increasing the inclusion of women in the country’s labour force as a means to empower them. Her pronouncement takes on special significance in the backdrop of the existing situation. Prime Minister Imran Khan’s government is, however, taking steps towards increasing women’s participation in economic life.
Speaking at the 10th International Women Leaders’ Summit recently in Islamabad, Dr Nishtar said Pakistani women were playing a vital role in different sectors and stressed that “no country can dream of progressing if half of its population stays at home, not engaging in any productive endeavours.” Mentioning the government’s flagship poverty alleviation Ehsaas Kifalat Programme, she said the government was making meaningful efforts to ensure active participation of women in economic activities, and was striving to ensure better health facilities to women. She rightly observed that working women brought benefits for entire families.
In view of the increasing attacks on girls and women by sexual predators, the need of unity among females becomes all the more necessary. If women take unified action against predators, this would considerably deter aggression against them. Now unified action by women and girls has become more important than ever before. It will spur the government to enact laws aimed at curbing violence against them and children. They can pressure all provincial governments to give approval to the Zainab Alert Bill. Now the law can be implemented within the Islamabad Capital Territory only. At the summit, women achievers Commodore Gulnaz Ahmed, Brigadier Nadia Hayat and Squadron Leader Ambreen Gul shared their struggles and challenging experiences with the audience to inspire them to set higher goals in life. Here, we should not forget the sacrifices made by female and male polio workers.


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