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The Express Tribune Editorial 7 March 2020

The growing scare
The coronavirus disease (COVID-19) has now infected almost 100,000 people in nearly one-third the world, with more than 3,300 deaths recorded. Even though China remains the worst-affected country with 80,000 cases, more than 5,000 cases have been detected in Europe, mostly in Italy, and thousands more in Iran, the Far East, and North America. Nearly 80 countries of the world are now reporting cases, and the disease can apparently jump from humans to animals such as dogs, according to reports.
The World Health Organization (WHO) is calling on countries to “pull all the stops” to control the spread of the deadly virus. Last week, WHO officials raised the risk assessment of the disease to its highest level. Although the world health body is still not calling the disease a pandemic, reports from the worst-affected countries paint a sorry picture.
In China, hospitals are struggling to deal with the increasing number of cases, and people have been urged to refrain from going to hospitals unless they have acute symptoms. Schools and colleges have been closed in Italy, while all public events have been cancelled. Even Saint Peter’s Square in Vatican City looked empty. The same was the case in Saudi Arabia, where the Holy Kaaba was temporarily closed for disinfection. The Saudi Arabian government also expanded a rare suspension on pilgrimages to the holy cities of Makkah and Madinah by foreigners and locals amid rising concerns about the spread of the fatal infection.
The Saudis were likely taking a cue from the outbreak in Iran, where the initial outbreak appears to trace back to pilgrims in the holy city of Qom. All provinces of the country have now reported confirmed cases. All six confirmed cases in Pakistan so far have also been among pilgrims returning from Iran. Fortunately though, the situation in Pakistan is pretty much under control, considering that it is surrounded by countries where the virus has spread to serious levels, including of course China, the epicentre for the spread of the disease.
In the US too, at least 19 states have reported cases, with health experts noting that the federal government’s delayed response means that many states are still without testing facilities. Congress recently sent an $8 billion emergency bill to President Donald Trump’s desk, but he continues to spread confusion about the disease. Most recently, he countered doctors who said the virus had a death rate of over 3% by claiming he “felt” that figure was too high and it should be under 1%.
Meanwhile, global markets are crashing, and efforts to bolster them have only had limited success. The International Monetary Fund has announced a $50 billion support package for countries hit by the virus, but fears persist over what will happen if more cases pop up in less developed countries which lack the healthcare infrastructure to tackle the disease. Only a handful of African countries, for example, have reported cases so far. Even in Pakistan, reports are emerging that students and businessmen returning from Iran are being quarantined in the same quarters as pilgrims, who were at a much higher risk of infection.
Meanwhile, age-old rivalries are standing in the way of a unified global response. Conspiracy theorists in the US are claiming the virus was a Chinese biological weapon. Iranian generals are claiming American bombs were the source of the virus. The Saudis claim Iran was allowing illegal border crossings. And although Pakistan is not blaming anybody yet, it is only because all of the worst-affected countries happen to be allies.
Another building collapse
In recent years, a considerable number of buildings have collapsed in cities of Sindh, including Karachi, resulting in many deaths. Many have suffered injuries and many life-long disabilities. Conditions worsened so much so that the Supreme Court instructed the provincial government to act to stem the rot. In the past week, the provincial government suspended 28 officials, including directors and deputy directors, of the Sindh Building Control Authority (SCBA). While inquiry is underway against these officials, on Thursday a five-storey building collapsed in Gulbahar area of Karachi leaving 13 dead and at least 38 others injured. Doctors say most of the deaths had been caused due to head injuries. Several of the injured are in a serious condition and they too had suffered injuries in the head. The five-storey building was constructed around three years ago and the sixth storey was under construction. The building was in a congested lane. Rescue officials said it appeared that pillars of the building were weak besides there were other flaws in the structure. All this points to negligence and corruption. This takes on added significance because of the frequent collapse of buildings.
There are instances where it has been established that additions to buildings had been allowed beyond the permissible limits. It is mostly such buildings that have collapsed. It is obvious why officials of the SBCA turn a blind eye to unauthorised constructions. The government has ordered an inquiry into the Gulbahar building collapse. It is hoped that now the government moves seriously to eliminate underhand dealings, inefficiency and mismanagement.
After the recent suspension of 28 officials of the SBCA, there were press reports quoting knowledgeable sources that the officials whose suspension orders were issued had been working till the suspension notices were served to them. Some of the officials were working for the SBCA while they were already facing NAB inquiries for acquiring assets beyond their known sources of income. A raid by a NAB team on the home of a senior official of the SBCA had reportedly led to the recovery of large amounts of money, several luxury cars and other valuables.

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