With more than a hundred thousand Covid-positive cases and deaths in excess of two thousand, Pakistan now ranks at 15th in the world on the list of coronavirus-infested countries. The cases of the lethal infection are now coming thick and fast — nearly 5,000 a day on an average — and daily deaths are also numbering between 70 and 100.
While the number of confirmed cases was bound to rise due to a rise in the number of tests conducted daily, the percentage of positive cases — 20-24% — over the last 10 days or so is actually what indicates how fast the virus is mushrooming now that the lockdown restrictions have been eased across the country. Besides, a sample testing done in Lahore by the Punjab healthcare authorities presents shocking statistics about the prevalence of the deadly disease in the provincial capital. The tests that had been carried out nearly three weeks back revealed that “no workplace and residential area of any town [of Lahore] is disease-free” with Covid-positive cases as high as 6,70,000. One wonders how better could be the situation in other big cities in the country.
The infestation of the virus in the community can be gauged from the fact that hardly any social class or a segment of the society is spared from it. While front-liners, including doctors as well as security personnel, charity workers and journalists, are already known to have been infected in big numbers and losing lives as well, now we have been coming across news of legislators, lawyers, sportsmen, showbiz personalities, etc falling sick with the virus. Some of them are even counted among the total casualties. Even an honourable Supreme judge has remarked that they “have also been feeling the heat” of the community transmission.
While we are mainly banking on the behavioural response of our people to the reigning pandemic as to its containment in our country, it’s worrying to note that a big percentage of people still have doubts about the very existence of any lethal virus in the country. Now wonder, the prescribed SOPs are being violated with utmost disdain. It’s time for the government to go about enforcing the SOPs through harsh punishments and penalties.
Another building collapse
A five-storey building collapsed in Lyari locality of Karachi on Sunday night leaving a middle-aged woman and a man dead and eight others injured. Many were still trapped under the rubble of the building when these lines were being written. According to the Sindh Building Control Authority (SBCA), the building was 35-40 years old. It was built on 400 square yards. The government says the building had been declared dangerous in March and notices were served on the residents to vacate it. Most residents had vacated the building and the remaining were leaving when the building came crashing down on the ground. Governor Imran Ismail has blamed negligence and corruption on the part of the SBCA for the building collapse and the resulting loss of life and property. Like the CM, he too has sought a report on the unfortunate incident. He claimed that many tall buildings were under construction in congested localities of Lyari without proper permission.
This is the third incidents of building collapse in Karachi in the past six months. Earlier in March, a five-storey building had collapsed in Golimar in which 25 of the residents had died. As is customary, the provincial government had ordered an inquiry into the incident. We, however, do not know what was contained in this report and many other such reports and whether any heads rolled or not. Or whether heads have ever rolled in such incidents? It is common knowledge that those who intend to construct buildings, whether private persons or professional builders, have to pay hefty illegal gratification to government officials at various levels and stages. Unauthorised construction of buildings continues in different parts of the city with government officials turning a blind eye to such activities exposing unsuspecting people to hazards of various kinds. It’s an endless cycle of perpetual corruption and perpetual destruction. We can only cultivate hope.
Oil supply crisis
Petroleum Minister Omar Ayub Khan has accused oil companies of profiteering and threatened to cancel their licences while denying there is a fuel shortage. But oil companies accuse the government of canceling oil imports when prices were dirt cheap because of the currency reserve crunch brought on by hot money flight after the Covid-19 pandemic started. This is the same hot money crisis that competent economists had warned about when the government began its devil-may-care strategy to bolster sinking currency reserves many months ago. In April, India told state-owned oil firms to bolster reserves when global rates fell to a two-decade low. We slashed imports. That in itself is a damning indictment of the government’s planning.
And as the government tries to blame the ongoing fuel crisis on oil companies, reports are emerging that this is another attempt to pass the buck. One such report suggests the blame should actually be placed on the ECC for rejecting a new price mechanism proposed by the Petroleum Division. While the math is somewhat complicated, the most significant change would have been to allow refineries to adjust prices every two weeks instead of once a month, protecting them from price fluctuations. Due to lower prices during the previous month-long base period, the refineries chose not to produce rather than lose money.
While on the face of it, this would play into the government’s claim that oil companies are profiteering, there is a problem with that argument. If the oil companies were, as they claim, unable to cover the cost of production at the government’s price, there is no reason for them to produce. Shutting down then becomes a loss-reduction strategy. The government can’t tell them to become loss makers just to make itself look good. This approach is summarised by the finance ministry openly saying the government was cutting fuel prices “despite the global trend of increasing POL prices”. The government could do several things to make life easier for people, but forcing private businesses to run losses to achieve this should not be an option.