Pakistan’s Coronavirus Ordeal becomes worse as Ramadan starts

With over 10,982 confirmed cases and 230 deaths, Pakistan’s Covid19 response has been marked by indecision, lack of clarity, and disregard of human lives by the government and the country’s mullahs. 

With Ramzan starting this Friday, Pakistan is the only Muslim majority country that has not asked people to pray from home. Instead the government has put forth a series of measures or Standing operating procedures for mosques to follow while they stay open! According to PM Imran Khan, “it was now the responsibility of ulema to ensure the people follow the standard operating procedures (SOPs) for collective prayers.”  Not only doctors and healthcare professionals but activists and others have appealed against this government decision.

According to veteran human rights activist and columnist, I.A. Rahman “what happens in the country in the immediate future will depend on how well or otherwise the challenges peculiar to the month of Ramazan are faced by the government and the people. The former will be tested for its ability to persevere with measures necessary to fight the coronavirus epidemic, and the latter will be required to prove their strength in preferring reason to emotion and narrow interest. And both need the will and capacity to deal effectively with the powerful pressure groups the month of fasting will throw up.”

Rahman, noted that the government decision, which was contrary to those of fellow Muslim countries like Egypt and Saudi Arabia, was based on pushback from interest groups like the mullahs and shopkeepers and vendors. “Why did the religious leaders strike a pre-emptive blow at the government? It is possible some scholars genuinely believe that they have a right to hold congregations in mosques regardless of the pandemic threat. Their indifference to requisites of their own safety is understandable though their lack of concern for the safety of the fellow namazi is not.” Also, “The second pressure group that could undermine the fight against Covid-19 comprises the huge number of beneficiaries of what may be described as the Ramazan economy. For a very large number of shopkeepers and vendors, Ramazan is the month of unbridled profiteering. They charge exorbitant prices for fruits, vegetables and other requirements for iftar. Even where raising prices is not possible, and no special bazaars are allowed this year, the demand for syrups, sugar, milk, bread and many other foodstuffs goes up in the month of fasting.”

Finally, as the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) noted there is “an absence of clarity in the federal government’s measures – a clarity without which it cannot hope to curb the pandemic and create space for the country’s already fragile healthcare system. The government in Islamabad has sown confusion among the population by relaying mixed messages about the lockdown and inciting its supporters in Sindh to undermine the actions taken by the provincial government. Instead of learning from the experience of more developed countries that have suffered hugely at the hands of this pandemic, the federal government remains indecisive. Worryingly, despite clear warnings from the Pakistan Medical Association, it has allowed congregations in Ramazan under pressure from certain clerics, even though this contravenes lockdown decisions in other Muslim countries. When a large part of the population across Pakistan is at risk, it is deeply disappointing to see the federal government indulge in scoring political points against a provincial government, while capitulating to the big business and religious lobbies.”

Pakistan Establishment-tied Propagandists advance Coronavirus Conspiracy Theories!

Pakistan has always been one of those countries where you can find conspiracy theories of all kinds and even those beyond the pale of imagination. As this Herald article of 2015 stated “What is the wildest conspiracy theory pertaining to Pakistan?”

However, Covid19, has combined the anti-American, pro-Chinese, pro-Islamist and pro-military conspiracy theories to create some conspiracy theories that we would laugh at if the proponents weren’t serious.

According to Hyper-nationalist Zealot Zaid Hamid the U.S. is behind the Covid19 pandemic because it needed to force people to stay home, watch television through smart TVs (all of whom are regulated by the US deep state) and their cellphones (that too are under US surveillance).

Such anti-American conspiracy theories are not limited to Hamid alone, former politician and member of the PPP, Faisal Raza Abidi alleged on a television show that the US created Covid19 to prevent China from rising economically and also hurt countries -like Italy and Iran – that were building close ties with China. 

HRCP to Govt: Provide relief to daily wage workers impacted by COVID 19

The novel coronavirus (COVID19) has spread to all countries and at the last count Pakistan had over 200 cases. The response of most countries, based on the recommendations of health specialists, is social distancing, close schools, offices, shops and businesses and work from home. While this may be easy for white-collar workers, it is impossible for daily wage workers.

The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) issued a statement asking the government to protect “the poor and vulnerable, particularly on daily-wage labourers and workers who rely on the ‘gig economy’ to keep their households afloat.” As HRCP noted “It is not charity, but the responsibility of the state, to ensure food security and access to healthcare for all its citizens.”  

As HRCP stated, “Even if saved from illness, low-income groups will still contend with acute food insecurity. The lack of adequate social safety nets, such as paid leave and medical benefits, means that the overwhelming majority of workers and their families are especially vulnerable in this crisis. HRCP is sorely disappointed with the economic policies of the incumbent government, which has failed to deliver for the majority population. It is time to shift priorities, from subsidising rich individuals and institutions in the name of stabilisation and growth, to putting the wellbeing of ordinary citizens at the centre of any policy planning. The Commission demands that immediate cash and food transfers be organised for the poor and for daily-wage earners, in addition to ensuring their access to free medical care in these testing times. HRCP also demands that health workers, who are at the frontlines of this emergency, be provided the protective gear they need to do their jobs safely and effectively.”

15 million Pakistanis are affected with Hepatitis B & C

At an event, jointly organized by Pakistan’s Ministry of Health Services, Regulations and Coordination (NHSRC), the Aga Khan University and the World Health Organization (WHO), on the occasion of World Hepatitis Day 2019 global campaign, it was announced that 5 and 10 million people are affected with hepatitis B and C respectively.

Further, “thousands of new patients are added every year due to lack of prevention, testing and treatment resources as well as inadequately screened blood transfusion, improperly sterilized invasive medical devices and unsafe injections. Unnecessary injections are widespread and shockingly high numbers of untrained healthcare professionals are delivering such injections to unsuspecting people in Pakistan.”

According to a new study released by WHO “investing in eliminating hepatitis can bring cost savings, because instead of paying for long-term care required for liver cirrhosis and cancer, people would access hepatitis testing, treatment or cure while they are healthy.”

According to an ambitious plan the government hopes to eliminate viral hepatitis B and C infections in the country by 2030 by “scaling up hepatitis prevention, testing and treatment services. In support of the Prime Minister’s initiative, NHSRC also announced new national plans for injection safety, safe blood transfusion, and national infection control guidelines. The implementation will be overseen by the newly created National Task Force of the Ministry.”

No Parks, No Libraries, No Cinema, No Music Events: Sorry State of Pakistan’s Youth

Physical activity and sports are critical to the growth and development of youth. The 2017 United Nations Human Development Report for Pakistan, however, portrays a sad story about the Pakistani youth and their involvement in social and civic activities.

Based on the 2015 Youth Perception Survey, “of 7,000 odd youth surveyed, when asked about access to recreational facilities and events, 78.6 per cent said they had no access to parks, 94.5pc had no access to a library, 97.2pc had not been to a live music event, 93.9pc had not been to a sports event, 93pc did not have access to any sports facilities, 97pc had not been to a cinema — and 71.7pc reported that they did not have access to or attend any of the above activities or events.”

According to a column in Dawn, it appears that Pakistan has gone backwards in this arena as well. During the 1980s, “more than three decades ago, we had regular physical education sessions and had sports in our school: cricket, hockey and football in particular, but also table tennis and a couple of other sports. There were regular inter-class tournaments, and the school teams participated in inter-school tournaments. More than the school though, our neighbourhood had lots of children, and we used to have teams for almost everything. Some of the teams were even organised as clubs. We attended different schools, were part of different social and economic groups, but we played together and played almost any sport we could get excited about. When the Pakistan team played cricket, we all played cricket. When Pakistan used to win hockey tournaments, we would all catch hockey fever. We used to play cricket or hockey almost every evening, and matches were played on the weekends. The experiences of my friends, of around the same age group, is also similar.”

Further, “even elite schools do not seem to give the same importance to sports that they once did. We hardly ever hear of inter-school tournaments now. Even at the college and university level, sports have lost some of their importance. When Government College used to play Islamia College at cricket, it used to be quite an event in Lahore. We do not hear about such matches anymore. At a recent public event, Najam Sethi also lamented the demise of school-based sports activities. He also linked Pakistan’s poor performance in sporting events at different levels to the demise of school and college level sporting activity. Schools used to be nurseries for cultivating cricket talent. They are no longer so. Colleges and universities, at one point, were producing players who would go on to make their name on the international stage. This does not happen anymore.”

Finally, “the issue is not just about sporting performance. It is much deeper and broader. Sports are activities that not only shape the body, they shape the mind as well as the community. People learn to work, play and interact with each other through communal activities. They learn how to perform individually as well as collectively, as members of a team. They learn how to cooperate and how to compete. A lot of this is about citizenship. Sports can be an important element of education, and an effective and meaningful way for engaging our youth. But, for this to happen, we have to start thinking locally again. Schools have to become the hub for supporting sporting activities. Local governments and communities have to step forward to provide the needed support. Resources are important, but, the willingness and ability to organise is even more essential than money. Local governments have to create spaces (grounds, tracks, courts, etc) but these need to be managed by schools and/or local groups.”