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The Express Tribune Editorial 21 March 2020

IOK and Covid-19

Pakistan is now urging the Indian government to lift the occupied Kashmir blockade because of the Covid-19 coronavirus outbreak reaching the disputed region. One case has already been reported in the occupied territory, although the actual numbers are likely to be higher. Already under a draconian lockdown, a new government order on Tuesday extended existing restrictions on internet speed till at least March 26. This is ostensibly to “prevent misuse of social media applications”, but it puts the entire populace of IOK at further risk due to the difficulty in getting information. Kashmiris have been quoted by the Indian media as saying that the restrictions on internet speed are unacceptable at a time when easy access to reliable information about the virus is crucial.
In Pakistan, the Foreign Office spokesperson hit a similar note, stressing that lifting restrictions is necessary for people to obtain full information and to ensure the provision of essential items and medical supplies. Pakistan had also raised this point during the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation teleconference, when Special Assistant to the Prime Minister on Health Dr Zafar Mirza said, “Opening up communication and movement would facilitate dissemination of information, allow distribution of medical supplies and allow containment to proceed unimpeded.”
Then, as now, the Indian government ignored the point. Their external affairs ministry is too busy issuing statements about how “The Union Territory of Jammu and Kashmir is an integral part of India” (even though such a statement goes against UN Security Council resolutions) and then having the audacity to call the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor illegal because it passes through AJK, which is part of the same dispute. And it is unlikely to change direction. Even respected Congress leader P Chidambaram, a staunch opponent of the Kashmir lockdown, said on Thursday that the government must order an “immediate lockdown of all our towns and cities for two to four weeks” to contain the novel coronavirus outbreak in the country.
Although Chidambaram was not referring to internet access, his comment does reflect that Kashmir will move to the backburner as India grapples with the coronavirus crisis.


Single national curriculum

The poor results of the Central Superior Services examinations and those conducted by provincial public service commissions in recent years give a good idea of the deplorable state of education in Pakistan. One reason for this state of affairs might be the existence of different curriculums in schools. In prestigious elite English-medium schools, curriculums prepared by well-known international universities are followed and their exams are also conducted by international universities. Urdu-medium and so-called English-medium schools follow curriculums prescribed by indigenous education departments.
The wide gulf in the level of competence — this is not beyond some proficiency in speaking and writing English though — between those educated in prestigious English-medium schools and those in other varieties of schools is evident in daily experience. So it was in the fitness of things that the PTI-led government after it assumed power decided to introduce a uniform curriculum in schools, including religious schools, across the country. It rightly felt that different curriculums are leading to a fractured national psyche. The government is working in right earnest towards this aim. Recently, it announced that a uniform syllabus for class 1 to 5 had been completed but would take a year to implement it in all schools. The phase-2 curriculum (class 6 to 8) would be ready by March 2021 while the phase-3 curriculum (class 9 to 12) would be completed by March 2022. Therefore the uniform curriculum for all classes would be enforced by March 2023.
Now it is unclear whether students in all schools will be provided with textbooks of all subjects in English or not. This raises some pertinent questions like: Will students in public schools, with their weak English, be able to learn fast their subjects in English? Are competent teachers available in such schools to teach subjects in English language? The government should be mindful that such a situation does not slow down students’ learning abilities.


No time for politics


Only a few countries in the world are now left uninfected with the novel coronavirus. With virtually the whole world suffering, this is an unusual crisis in the history of the globe. And unusual crisis require unusual responses. Sadly though, our political class, in general, continues to behave routinely. As usual, the government and the opposition don’t seem ready to shake hands with each other — well, not as a precaution to avoid contagion — even for this big a national cause. The two sides are still hesitant on giving up on their political rivalry and working in concert towards fighting the novel challenge. If a crisis as big as Covid-19 — one that has wreaked havoc with almost every aspect of life even in the most advanced countries of the world and has now crossed into our borders with its full fatal potential — has failed to provide a common ground for the two to act, then what will! If they cannot act in unison now, they never will.
A few sensible voices have, however, emerged. In a gesture of companionship, PPP chairperson Bilawal Bhutto Zardari on Thursday announced a ‘no criticism policy’ regarding Prime Minister Imran Khan and his government over their handling of the situation. With his tone free from bickering and loaded down with concern, the young leader called upon the political class not to “waste our energies over criticism, blame game and political point-scoring” and “play our role in this fight”. Khawaja Saad Rafiq, speaking upon his release from jail on Thursday, hit a similar note. The PML-N leader offered his party’s full cooperation to the government over the fight against coronavirus though, the conciliation offer should have rather come from the Sharifs.
This is indeed time for a concerted response. Our leaders must keep aside their political and ideological differences — at least for now — and play their role in dealing with the unprecedented challenge.
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