State of anarchy

20 May 2020


The writer is an author and journalist.
The writer is an author and journalist.

NO more lockdown or smart lockdown. It’s now a free-for-all. What had already started some time ago now seems to have the sanction of the country’s highest judicial authority. Even the pretence of restrictions on movement has been swept aside.

What pandemic? We are a blessed people anyway. No big deal if a few thousand people are killed by the virus; business must not be stopped.

It’s unconstitutional to close down markets and commercial activities even on weekends, says the Supreme Court order. The ruling has set aside the executive orders aimed at streamlining the reopening of the economy.

It’s now more than business as usual, with all constraints almost gone. With the floodgates fully opened we are witnessing a virtual breakdown of order. Encouraged by the apex court ruling, the federal government has gone further by opening all kinds of transport services including railways.

Why would citizens follow SOPs if they are made to believe that no contagion is threatening their lives?

For a government that had long rejected the idea of lockdown, the order is seen as a vindication of its position. Even the mantra of ‘smart lockdown’ has now disappeared from the government’s lexicon. No wonder, the PTI has been celebrating the court order despite the fact that many see it as infringing on the executive domain.

Ironically, the same court in March had ordered the streamlining of a national policy in order to deal with the coronavirus infection. The court instructions had resulted in the formation of the National Command and Operations Centre and the National Coordination Committee led by the prime minister with all the provincial chief ministers a part of it.

Despite differences over the approach among the stakeholders, these forums had really worked well in coordinating efforts and containing the spread of the infection. But the latest court ruling has struck down several decisions taken by the NCC.

The court also questioned whether the coronavirus is really a pandemic in Pakistan. “There are other serious ailments prevailing in the country from which people are dying daily, and those ailments are not being catered for, and the coronavirus, which apparently is not a pandemic in Pakistan, is swallowing huge money,” the court said.

The court’s observation appears contrary to the WHO’s declaration of Covid-19 as a global pandemic. Hundreds of thousands of people have died and millions of others have been infected across the globe by this deadly disease. Countries may have adopted different approaches to dealing with a problem of biblical proportions but there has not been any denial of the contagion threatening human lives. It cannot be compared with non-infectious diseases or deaths in car accidents. Denial that the country is facing a serious public health crisis will have disastrous consequences.

Pakistan would perhaps be the only country in denial about the pandemic. That raises questions about the measures that are required to deal with this unprecedented public health challenge. How can the citizens be expected to follow the rules if they are made to believe that there is no contagion threatening their lives?

Most worrisome is that all precautions are being set aside while the registered number of coronavirus cases across the country has reached 45,000 with almost 1,000 officially recorded deaths. Pakistan is among the 20 worst Covid-19-affected nations, even if comparatively the death toll is low here.

In fact, doctors and other experts maintain that these figures don’t provide an accurate picture of the seriousness of the situation. According to them, Pakistan is in phase one of the blind spot of the epidemic curve, where there is a huge discrepancy between diagnosed cases/reported fatalities and the reality.

“This is due to a combination of the fast-spreading, silent nature of the virus [through carriers] and defective diagnostic tools, leading to massive underestimation of active cases as well as misdiagnosed fatalities,” they maintain. “This is because the authorities have lost the ability to trace cases, which is a sign of transition to phase two.”

There are several examples of countries that have seen an explosion in their coronavirus death toll; they had not taken the pandemic seriously in the initial stages. With hundreds of doctors and paramedics affected by the infection, the country’s fragile health system is already under pressure. The number of cases is bound to climb exponentially with unregulated reopening of daily life.

It is indeed an alarming situation compounded by the doubts being raised about the fast-spreading nature of the infection. One shudders to think what could happen over the next few weeks with crowded and congested marketplaces and social-distancing measures being flaunted without a care.

Seemingly encouraged by the Supreme Court order, the clerics are also set to defy the rules and are saying they will open mosques for prayers. Although the federal and some provincial governments had already relaxed restrictions during Ramazan, the Sindh government had continued the ban on congregational prayers under lockdown.

A statement signed by a group of leading clerics said that since nothing was sure about the coronavirus pandemic, Muslims couldn’t leave religious rituals out of fear. Last week, thousands of people joined religious processions taken out in various parts of the country in defiance of the ban.

Interestingly, the federal government has not only been actively backing the clerics threatening to defy the ban on congregational prayers, but also inciting traders to violate the restrictions imposed by the Sindh government. Now some are calling for imposition of governor’s rule in the province. When the country needs unity more than at any other time, the ruling party is doing everything to intensify political polarisation in the country.

It is apparent that the federal leadership lacks seriousness and is not able to effectively deal with the existential crisis. It has unnecessarily created a controversy by putting the economy before public health. The issue is of balancing the two. The latest court order and the federal government’s misplaced views have pushed the country into a state of anarchy in times of pandemic.

The writer is an author and journalist.

Twitter: @hidhussain

Published in Dawn, May 20th, 2020