Pakistan’s Covid Response Ignores the People’s Needs

The Pakistani state’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic has been slow and fumbling. In addition, as human rights advocates have noted the plights of the ordinary people of Pakistan from Covid19 have been ignored while those of various lobbies – religious lobby, profiteers and beneficiaries of Eid shopping and Eid-eve travelers – have been protected.

In a recent column in Dawn, human rights activist and columnist, IA Rahman wrote, “Under the fig leaf of SOPs, which were respected more in the breach than the observance, the ulema held congregations in mosques more or less as they pleased, took out processions in violation of an understanding with the authorities and invited condemnation for the latter for taking action against them. The traders demanded freedom to open their businesses and they got it not only from a sympathetic government but also from the Supreme Court.”

Further, as Rahman notes “Meanwhile, the government moved away from the regime of lockdown, which was never enforced anywhere due to the prime minister’s repudiation of the idea. Figures were fed to the media that more people were dying due to various causes, including road accidents than to the epidemic, and the virus deaths were too low to justify a lockdown. Besides, it was argued that normal economic activity could not be suspended forever. A decision to live with the virus was taken. The choice between living and dying was left to the people though nobody could vouch for their amenability to discipline.”

This, as Rahman notes, resulted in “coronavirus cases in the country quadrupled over the month of fasting, from 12,000 to more than 50,000. The number of children affected also rose by a similar margin in 20 days (between May 2 and May 24). There were up to 50 deaths and 2,500 fresh cases in a single day. The target of 40,000 tests per day was never achieved. However, the government carried out a massive drive to prevent millions of workers, who had lost their sources of livelihood, from dying of hunger. Civil society distributed foodstuff on a large scale. There have been no reports of casualties from hunger.”

In the end as Rahman asserts “Pakistan chose to move in the opposite direction; it moved away from democracy and put a premium on partisanship, sidelined the experts, and quiet coordination was outside its experience.”

Mohammad Hanif: People of Balochistan deserve better

Baluchistan is by territory, the largest province of Pakistan, and yet it has been the most neglected and abused part of Pakistani territory. International human rights organizations have often reported on the ‘kill and dump’ policy followed by the Pakistani state.

In a scathing column, one of Pakistan’s well-known authors Mohammad Hanif, wrote: “It’s often said that Balochistan has immense economic potential, its mountains and rugged planes holding gold and minerals and other potential goodies that can transform not just Balochistan but the entire country. People of Balochistan often complain that Pakistan wants its natural gas and gold and minerals but has no interest in its people.”

Hanif criticized the appointment of Javed Jabbar, who served in General Musharraf’s cabinet and has become a key promoter of the military’s narrative,  to the 10th NFC to represent Balochistan. Poking fun at Jabbar as “pioneer adman and filmmaker and writer of many books,” Hanif writes “Why would a man as accomplished as him accept a position for which he is not qualified, but also many people from Balochistan find his nomination suspicious. Maybe all he wants is a seat on the table. Doesn’t matter what table, don’t care what chair, just get me in the room, as Don Draper of advertisement drama Mad Men used to say. JJ doesn’t even care which room. His inique reason: “45 per cent of the territorial dimension of my national identity is derived from Balochistan!” More than the percentage it is the exclamation mark that is scary. Is it something that just occurred to him? You wake one morning and say “hip, hip hurray, one is 45 per cent Baloch”. Maybe one can also claim that one’s gender dimension of national identity is 51 per cent woman, or all of us are a fraction of a fraction of Jahangir Tareen.”

Hanif notes “Even the incompetent residents of Balochistan probably remember that Jabbar had a seat on the table with Musharraf who threatened to kill Akbar Bugti on live TV and then went ahead and did it. The insurgency that followed gave Balochistan a whole new generation of orphans. Some are still confused about being orphans as they don’t even know if their fathers are dead or just missing. That’s our state at its best: first make them orphans and then send in a suave man, a compassionate man to heal their wounds.”

Hanif ends his column noting sadly “maybe it’s not about Balochistan, it’s about our enlightened entitlement. Just get us in the room with the big boys. There is that big little troubled place called Balochistan, yes.”

On May 31, after the humiliating criticism, Javed Jabbarr has resigned from acting as Balochistan’s representative in the NFC.

Is Cynthia Ritchie to Islamabad, what ‘The Spy’ was to Damascus?

A Caucasian (white) American woman, Cynthia D. Ritchie, living in Islamabad for the last several years, has recently created a storm with an abusive tweet about former Prime Minister, Mohtarma Benazir Bhutto.

She is one of several self-styled ‘Gora Pakistanis’ who praise Pakistan on social media while enjoying Pakistani hospitality though she goes farther than most in supporting the current ruling party (PTI), abusing its opponents, defending the Pakistan army, and attacking its critics.

Ritchie is supposed to be a ‘social media influencer.’ But she is not published outside Pakistan, her film on Pakistan has been seen mainly by Pakistanis, and her social media following is also largely among those Pakistanis who feel good at seeing a white skinned person praising their country.

It makes one wonder who she is influencing.

There have been rumors that ‘Cynthia Baji,’ as she is known to her supporters, or ‘Ritchie, the Bitchie,’ as she has been nicknamed by those she routinely abuses and attacks, enjoys the support of ISPR or other powerful quarters in the country. Cynthia herself brags about he connections to the security establishment in her social media posts.

Cynthia Ricthie has cultivated an image in Pakistan of being an American who supports Pakistan. But there is no evidence that she has done anything to support Pakistan in America. She has never testified before Congress, written an oped in a U.S. newspaper, or appeared on U.S. television. Nor has she registered in the U.S. under law as a lobbyist for Pakistan.

In an article on a Pakistani website, Cynthia Ritchie “describes herself as a global citizen” and claims that “her childhood desire to be Indiana Jones led her to Pakistan and the love for [Pakistan’s] people keeps bringing her back.” India Jones, as we know, was a fictional adventurer and professor of archaeology, not a self-proclaimed media consultant with no post-graduate education.

Still, Ritchie churns out great words for those who want to hear positive things about Pakistan from foreigners at a time when most international news outlets do not say enough good things about Pakistan. But what is the point in a foreigner saying good things about Pakistan to Pakistanis. Where is her media influence when it comes to the international media?

Moreover, nobody knows how Cynthia Ritchie pays for her lifestyle, her residence in Islamabad’s posh E-7 neighborhood where nuclear scientist Dr. A.Q. Khan once lived, her travel, or the boozy parties that attract powerful members of Rawalpindi-Islamabad society.

If someone in the Pakistan government or armed forces is paying her to praise Pakistan to Pakistanis, that is a waste of Pakistan’s meager resources.

Moreover, those who have watched the Netflix series ‘The Spy’ would notice the similarity in the conduct of Cynthia Ritchie and the show’s chief character, the real life Israeli spy, Eli Cohen.

Cohen arrived in Damascus, Syria in 1961, pretending to be of Syrian origin and to love Syria. He praised the Baath Party and cultivated ties with senior military officials. He even became a confidante and adviser to the Defense Minister. In 1965, he was discovered as a spy while transmitting intelligence to Israel by wireless.

By the time he was discovered, Eli Cohen had done much damage to Syria. His ‘affectionate’ and seemingly harmless gestures contributed to Syria’s military defeat in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. Cohen’s most famous achievement was the tour of the Golan Heights in which he collected intelligence on the Syrian fortifications there.

‘The Spy’ ostensibly pretended to sympathize with soldiers exposed to the sun, and helped plant trees at different positions, supposedly to provide shade. During the 1967 war, the Israeli army used the trees as targeting markers for their artillery. This resulted in Israel being able to capture the Golan Heights in two days.

It is interesting to note that all the so-called ‘Gora Pakistanis’ who shower praise on Pakistan to win access and influence in Pakistan started showing up after the U.S. raid on Abbottabad targeting Osama bin Laden. Is that just a coincidence or did someone discover a new technique for embedding intelligence gatherers in a Pakistan that had become more security conscious?

Praise is a deadly weapon and foreign intelligence services must have noticed the Pakistani desire for international praise and ‘positive image of Pakistan.’ Have they exploited it by sending the likes of Cynthia Ritchie, who became known only after their arrival in Pakistan? Spies usually have simple back stories and their background is always mired in secrecy.

Little is known about Cynthia Ritchie’s life before she found proclaimed her ‘love for Pakistan.’  On social media, she describes herself as ‘World Traveler. Communications Consultant. Producer.’ But Ritchie has yet to complete her Master’s in Strategic Communications from George Washington University and, except a strong social media presence and occasional articles in Pakistani media, she has no serious track record as a Communications Consultant.

According to an earlier article on New-Pakistan, “There used to be a website, which had her biography but it has been disabled since New-Pakistan raised questions about her qualifications.” Now that website is only password accessible –hardly how eputable international media consultants operate.

When her bio was accessible, Ritchie claimed that she had made “ TV commercials for AT&T, Political Campaigns, HGTV” but did not explain what political campaigns she worked on or what she did on HGTV—”an American basic cable and satellite television channel,” which primarily broadcasts reality programming related to home improvement and real estate.”

It is clear that Cynthia Ritchie is, at least, a charlatan, and possibly an individual who might pose a threat to Pakistan’s national security by living in Pakistan and embedding herself in Pakistan’s ruling party and the military officers’ corps.

A person with no security clearance and an unexplained past shows up on stage with known propagandists for Lashkar-e-Taiba and attends parties with the rich and famous as well as the influential and powerful.

Do not be surprised when an India-American operation targets Dawood Ibrahim or Hafiz Saeed the night after Cynthia Ritchie boards her final flight out of Islamabad.

Pashtuns Remember Last Year’s Massacre of Peaceful Protestors

It is one year since the Khar Qamar massacre. On May 28, 2019, 14 people were killed and more than 24 wounded after gunfire erupted near a Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement (PTM) protest against enforced disappearances in the northwestern Pakistani region of North Waziristan. Soldiers fired on unarmed protestors led by the two MNA’s of the region, Ali Wazir and Mohsin Dawar, near a checkpoint in the Khar Qamar area of North Waziristan.

The SAATH Forum, a group of Pakistani activists and dissidents, released a statement marking the first anniversary of this massacred and demanding an independent commission to investigate this killing of innocent civilians by Pakistan’s security forces.

The statement is below

Government to use Covid-19 fund for interest payment

Pakistan’s economy was in doldrums even before Covid-19 hit. Just recently Moodys issued an alert and placed Pakistan on a watch list of countries that may default on private foreign debt.

On Wednesday, according to a report in The Express Tribune, the federal government. “allowed diverting Rs10 billion from the coronavirus relief funds to pay interest on loans taken to retire circular debt and approved terms of negotiations for debt restructuring to reduce electricity tariffs.”

Further the Economic Coordination Committee (ECC) of the cabinet “allowed allocation of Rs10 billion from the PM’s Covid-19 relief package as a stop-gap arrangement for the payment of interest on the Pakistan Energy Sukuk II for a period of six months or amendment to the Nepra Act whichever is earlier, according to a finance ministry handout.”

The ECC also “approved the terms of reference for negotiations with power generation companies” in order to “reduce the capacity charges of power generation companies through synthetic financing.” However, as the Tribune story pointed out “the government is unlikely to secure any major relief. Currently, the front-loaded tariffs of all the power generating units, whether in the private sector or in the public sector, have resulted in consistently higher tariffs at the consumer end, according to the finance ministry.”

Yet, as per the government’s own estimates, “debt refinancing might face several issues. Depending on the size, each generation project could have a consortium of 5-6 long-term lenders, on average, including banks, local and international DFIs, export credit agencies, bilateral and multilateral as well as private lenders. Refinancing each project, one by one, may not be feasible. Most lenders may not agree to extend their maturities given the credit profiles. Secondly, building consensus in each consortium will take a longer time. Also, the government will have to replace the existing guarantee on the debt portion of the projects with the individual government of Pakistan/sovereign guarantees instruments. According to the terms that the ECC approved, the projects, having three years or more left in their debt, will be eligible for the scheme. The scheme will be applied across-the-board, however, projects having material reasons will be exempted from the scheme. The debt payment to be spread over 10 years after the current repayment period power tariff will be lower than the prevailing tariff during the initial years, however, in the remaining period of 10 years, additional tariffs will be charged to the consumers.”