In December 2019, we heard that people were dying in Wuhan city of China. This was particularly chilling news for Pakistan as hundreds of Pakistani students were studying there. The entire city was locked down for months and we received scores of messages from Pakistani students asking to be evacuated. But it was decided that their Chinese hosts could look after them better than the Pakistani authorities.
From the very beginning, the entire world knew that that the COVID-2019 virus epidemic will spread around the world. What did our national leadership, especially our federal government, do in the face of such startling news? Nothing.
Isolation and quarantines are tools used in the early stages of fighting the Coronavirus, we were told. It seems that Imran Khan’s administration took this a bit too literally. Instead of leading the people in the fight against the deadly virus, the government under Imran Khan has gone into isolation and quarantine.
Most people expected the Coronavirus to spread in Pakistan via China but we actually got it from Iran, a place frequented by thousands of Pakistani pilgrims. Iran is now the worst victim of the virus and its woes are compounded by conservative policies of the regime as well as the cruel sanctions imposed by the United States.
We also have some cases from various European countries which have now become the epicentre of the virus, with Italy leading the pandemic.
By the end of February, hundreds of Pakistani pilgrims were pushed from Iranian side to Taftan. Now the figures were touching several thousands. Because of the worsening situation in Iran, the Iranian authorities did not entertain Pakistan’s requests to keep them till Pakistan had made its own arrangements.
Since the border areas and immigration are federal subjects, the federal authorities attempted to handle it with the help of the Balochistan government. Special Assistant to Prime Minister Dr Zafar Mirza was leading the efforts. However, the way these pilgrims were treated became a case of the worst mishandling ever.
In the name of quarantine facilities, these pilgrims were put together in herds. The entire exercise turned out to be a mass incubation facility and a huge nursery to transmit and spread the deadly virus.
Even more alarming were reports of infected pilgrims leaving the so-called quarantine facility at the behest of some influential people, including some members of the federal cabinet. Reports of the absence of leadership in the Punjab also began pouring in, suggesting that many pilgrims returning to the province were not properly traced, let alone tested.
There are reports of suspected cases of Corona virus with and without symptoms entering the country unnoticed. The only arrangements made at Pakistani airports so far have been filling up of useless forms with passengers declaring that they were not sick. Many passengers, who might have been the carriers of the virus, did not have symptoms of the disease and no fever as they moved through our airports.
Now a full-blown crisis awaits the country. A country of over 200 million people is at the risk of an unmanageable challenge. The speech by the prime minister on Tuesday night – three months after the epidemic erupted in our neighbourhood – was too little and too vague. These precious three months were wasted by the government which could have risen above by providing leadership and uniting the entire country. Instead, it chose to continue its war against the opposition, media and also creating countless distractions to shift the peoples’ attention from its poor governance.
As a fresh existential threat knocks on our doors, there is still time to minimize the damage, only if the prime minister and the national leadership play their part.
In a democracy, the government and the opposition along with the free media and the independent judiciary have to act like an orchestra, with every instrument playing in sync. If we want to minimise the damage, the leadership will have to rely on the national elements of power we have at our disposal today.
The parliament has to play its part. With all safety and security protocols in place, they have to lead. Bodies like the Council of Common Interests have to be activated to have a daily video session, besides the National Coordination Committee already formed after the extraordinary meeting of the National Security Committee.
The challenge we face today is similar to the 2005 earthquake. At that time, a Federal Relief Cell was created under the prime minister, along with a dozen or so focal persons from law enforcement, foreign office and other federal agencies.
Since this is a national emergency, procurement of essential items to fight out the epidemic can’t be held hostage to red tape and harassment of the PPRA rules and the ignominious NAB. The parliament would have to make necessary legislation, should that be needed.
At this stage, important safety equipment for health workers, doctors and the patients is required. These can’t wait for long winded approvals and other procedural delays and red tape. The civil society must support the effort as well. Many times the business community can procure the required items faster than the lethargic governments and its bureaucracy. The government will have to loosen its taxing and duty regulations to allow the import of the necessary items. Of course the foreign office and the overseas Pakistani community have a great window to perform here.
An important component to fight the current epidemic is necessary devolution of powers. The district administration should not have to wait for orders from the provincial or federal capitals to enforce security and safety measures. Besides voluntary social distancing and other safety protocols, the affected population will have to go through isolation camps and effective quarantines, unlike what was practiced at Taftan.
The district administration and other authorities need emergency powers to declare gyms, stadiums, academies, hostels, schools, colleges, guest houses and hotels into isolation and quarantine facilities and emergency medical camps.
Does it sound like a tall order? Absolutely. Can we do it? Yes, we can. Inaction will be monumental criminal negligence. History will not absolve us if we don’t act now.
The writer is a journalist based in Islamabad