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The Express Tribune Editorial 6 April 2020

Digital pandemic


History will record the spread of COVID-19 as the biggest challenge faced by mankind and the modern infrastructure we are so dependant on. With millions around the world forced to self-isolate at home, the pandemic, which has now claimed more than 50,000 lives worldwide, has left people with no option but to turn to the internet as a source of communication and to conduct what is now known as the new normal of working from home. Before March 2020, no one had thought about how the world would change so much in just a few weeks. No one had thought we would be locked in self-isolation and so dependant on the Internet for almost everything from ordering essentials to making bank transactions and to even conducting the affairs of the government. This drastic and near-overnight transition has been a shock for many of us — some not so tech-savvy others somewhat aware but certainly not prepared for the challenges of the digital transition.
But for one group, the spread of COVID-19 came as good news — the cybercriminals celebrated the transitions and were perhaps even waiting for the world to make the societal shift online — unprepared and unguarded. Since March 2020, when the world was turned upside down by the spread of the virus, these cyber gangs have made the most of this global health disaster. From hacking critical information to private classroom meetings, we have seen all sorts of cyber assault headlines in the past few weeks. At a time when life is already so disrupted and desperate preventive measures, such as social distancing, leave us with no option but be to more dependent on the internet, the world needs to pay attention to the vulnerabilities of our digital space. While public health and cybersecurity are different problems, the COVID-19 pandemic has brought our attention to an important issue — which invites a reconsideration of national and global cybersecurity strategies and policies.


Stranded abroad


It comes as a major comfort to Pakistanis stranded abroad and their families who were losing hope about their loved ones as international flights ground to a halt following the Covid-19 pandemic. Islamabad announced a week-long repatriation flight programme starting Saturday for bringing back its nationals stuck overseas amid quickly diminishing options for their homeward-bound journey as tight restrictions kick in. Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi has said 17 repatriation flights will be flown between April 4 -11.
The plan was unveiled the same day a special PIA flight, PK-782, flew 194 Pakistanis back from Turkey to Islamabad who had similarly been stranded in the friendly country. According to the spokesperson for the national flag carrier, the passengers have been shifted to a quarantine centre set up at a hotel after being screened and tested for the virus. They will stay there for 24 hours and be allowed to leave after their tests return negative. Likewise, evacuation of foreigners from Pakistan is also taking place. A charter plane left for the US from Islamabad the other day with over 300 American citizens, including 17 diplomats, on board. Canadians, too, embarked on home journey a day earlier on two special flights green-lighted by Islamabad at Toronto’s request.
Under the latest plan approved by the National Coordination Committee on the Covid-19 pandemic, phased repatriation would be carried out under which priority would be given to those held up in transit, followed by those, whose visas were expiring. Pakistanis working or studying overseas would be third on the priority list, according to the foreign minister. Before this week-long operation, the national flag carrier had operated special flights to bring back stranded Pakistanis from Saudi Arabia, Dubai, Qatar and Thailand.


Suicide in capital


A 45-year-old man committed suicide by self-immolation within the Red Zone in Islamabad on Friday leaving a trail of questions both about its circumstances and the quality of security in the sensitive area. The unfortunate man burned himself to death in the Red Zone, an area which is supposed to be heavily guarded, in the capital city. The man walked into the highly fortified zone carrying a bottle of petrol and a match box, sprinkled the petrol on his body and set himself on fire. He was rushed to the Pakistan Institute of Medical Sciences (PIMS) hospital where he died. The ease with which the man entered the Red Zone with a bottle of an inflammable material puts a question mark over the quality of security provided and the alertness of the personnel deployed there.
There are several versions of the circumstances that led the unfortunate man, a resident of Murree, to take the extreme step of taking his own life. The police said a case had been registered against him in Murree of child abuse around seven years ago, and he was disowned by his family. On the other hand, his brother said he was unaware whether there were any police cases against him. The man named Faisal Mehmood in his dying declaration in the hospital blamed the police for harassing him. A suicide note found in his pocket too alleged that the police registered ‘false cases’ against him and caused him harassment that was leading him to kill himself. How a suicide note was discovered from a man who died on serious burn injuries? Why did not the suicide note reduce to ashes is something bewildering.
A judicial inquiry has been ordered into the case to ascertain the causes leading to the suicide and how the man entered the Red Zone on foot without being offered resistance by the security personnel then present there. The probe will, hopefully, clear the mist.
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