Superspreader protests

Updated 19 Oct 2020

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IT is the season of protests in Pakistan, but these public gatherings couldn’t have come at a more problematic time. Citizens crushed by food inflation, gas and power crises and the general sluggishness of an economic slowdown are seething with anger — so much so that they are prepared to flout prevention protocols and take to the streets even as Covid-19 cases climb.

Yesterday, the PPP hosted the second rally under the PDM banner in Karachi where crowds congregated to protest and also to pay tribute to those who lost their lives in the Oct 18, 2007, attack in the city. Prior to that, the PDM power show in Gujranwala saw thousands packed at a stadium for long hours. Even earlier, the Karachi Ulema Committee protested in the city against the killing of Maulana Adil. In Islamabad, thousands of government employees from various departments all over the country staged a sit-in last week to protest against the price hike and ‘anti-employee policies’ of the government. Along with the public, the political parties, too, are under pressure as they view the pre-Senate election period before March as their ‘do or die’ moment.

While there is no doubt that these citizens and political parties are coming out due to genuine concerns and that they are exercising their democratic right to protest, the pandemic and its devastating consequences cannot be ignored. Here, both opposition party leaders and the government have to show responsibility.

At the opposition rallies, most leaders themselves are not wearing masks, nor asking their workers to wear them. With such blatant disregard for Covid-19 SOPs, it is only inevitable that these occasions will be superspreader events and put thousands of people at risk.

The government through its policies and demeanour has alienated both its political opponents and ordinary people, both of whom seem to have decided that the ongoing economic and political crisis is a bigger threat than the coronavirus that has wreaked havoc in many countries.

It is a difficult time but it will become more dangerous if the government and political leaders continue to ignore the threat posed by the virus. The positivity rate is the highest since August; health workers and hospital staff are once again beginning to feel the pressure of increased hospitalisations. The public’s grievances, anger and frustration notwithstanding, these mammoth gatherings of people standing next to each other, and not wearing masks cannot continue.

The government must provide relief to the people and engage with the opposition for the greater public good. Being tone deaf and combative will only make things worse: the winter months are approaching and could spell disaster, especially for those with respiratory illnesses, given the increasing Covid-19 cases. Better sense must prevail among the political leaders in this country across party lines.

Published in Dawn, October 19th, 2020