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The Express Tribune Editorial 4 May 2020

Under growing threat

Startling information about the working conditions for our frontline soldiers in the war against the Covid-19 coronavirus has been revealed by the National Emergency Operation Centre. At least 444 healthcare workers have tested positive for the virus, 191 of which came in the past week alone. Over 100 each belong to Punjab and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa. By April 29, at least 216 doctors, 67 nurses and 161 other healthcare staffers had tested positive, including 138 that required hospitalisation. At least eight deaths have also been reported from Sindh, Gilgit-Baltistan, Balochistan, Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, and Islamabad.
The government’s claims of concern for healthcare workers are looking even emptier than before. While doctors are protesting over the unavailability of personal protective equipment (PPE), Special Assistant to the Prime Minister on Health Dr Zafar Mirza claimed on Thursday that the government was “worried about medical workers” and would soon launch a programme for their protection. For at least eight healthcare workers, it will not be soon enough.
The SAPM also claimed that the government is providing PPE but it “not being used rationally”. He topped this off by saying the government “will train medics on the proper use of PPE.” This means the government believes that supply shortages is not a problem, but rather that medical professionals do not know how to use medical equipment. Either Mirza, himself a medical doctor, has gone all-in to defend the government’s failure, or he is telling the truth, and our doctors are terribly trained. Neither scenario has any silver lining.
Still, we are inclined to believe the former, especially since the federal government’s handling of the quarantine has been astoundingly erratic. Even the PM doesn’t appear to agree to the policies he is signing off on. While the lockdowns have immensely impacted the economy, there are ways to allow the economy to reopen while enforcing social distancing. Doctors are divided on this, but generally, they have been more concerned by the people’s refusal to follow quarantine and distancing rules during the lockdown. If the government could actually get citizens to act as responsible citizens, maybe it would not need to complain about its own lockdown.


Inescapable cycle

When it comes to international relations, nothing quite pushes the mind to anxiety like defence spending. Perhaps it is the immediacy of its violent potential that triggers a slight tinge of panic. Merely imagining the images of war is enough to convince one that the tools to wage it are a bad idea. Even so, as bitter as the pill may be to swallow, spending on defensive capabilities is an inevitability for some nations at least. In an ideal world we would all get along but the ideal exists only in the imagination.
The problem to deal with when designing defence policies is the problem of information. As various internal and external pressures driving competing states’ leaders to certain actions, it becomes virtually impossible to figure out intentions even in the best of cases. And then there is fact that one nation’s actions are seldom perceived by another as the former intended.
The annual report by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (Sipri) revealed that India last year moved to the third spot on the list of the world’s biggest military spenders, behind just the US and China. Although its military budget actually contracted as a percentage of its overall outlay, the development nonetheless shows where New Delhi’s ambitions lie. Some of it may be chalked down to Narendra Modi’s personal obsessions, but as last year’s misadventure revealed, much of India’s populace too supports a more belligerent approach to the region.
The Sipri report also revealed that Pakistan’s own defence spending has risen by 70 per cent over the course of the previous decade. Last year, it was one of the four countries outside of the Middle East to spend over four per cent of its GDP on defence. Until February last year, it would have been easier to be critical about this. But certain actions and reactions lock rival nations on a course that grows harder and harder to change.


LGs in Punjab

Sometimes government decisions leave people both bewildered and bemused. A few days ago, the Punjab government announced that the defunct union councils would discontinue public services from May 1. The Punjab Local Government and Community Development Department has intimated all deputy commissioners, designated as the heads of District Transition Teams of their districts, in this connection through a notification. The notification, inter alia, said the services rendered by the union councils up to April 30 this year would be subject to ‘audit and administrative scrutiny’. This decision, seen together with a series of earlier decisions relating to local governments, raises intriguing questions.
CM Usman Buzdar deferred the local body elections due to the situation in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. In May 2019, the Local Government system, constituted under the Punjab Local Government Act of 2013, was replaced by the Punjab Local Government Act of 2019, and under the new law, all local governments were dissolved and elected representatives were sent packing. Around 33 petitions have been filed in the Lahore High Court challenging the dissolution of the local bodies, but it has not conducted hearings for the past several months. The latest decision would add to the problems of the people besides causing consternation. Also, there are reports the next LG elections in Punjab would be held on non-party basis.
The government has come in for scathing criticism from the opposition. The decision is raising intriguing questions about the intentions of the government especially because of the timing and circumstances surrounding it. Observers say it shows things are not going smoothly for the PTI government. Several political bigwigs are facing NAB cases. They are likely making behind-the-scenes moves to influence the course of politics to get out of their predicament. There is the ‘political loneliness and idleness’ of the once ‘active’ Shehbaz Sharif. The decision about UCs and the idea of ‘Tiger Force’ indicate that all is not well.
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