Dawn Editorial 18 December 2020

Alarming numbers

IN a dark manifestation of the dreaded consequence of lax prevention practices across the country, it emerged on Wednesday that the single day Covid-19 death toll soared to an alarming 105. This grim figure is now the second highest daily death toll due to coronavirus complications since the first peak in June, with 124 deaths being the highest fatalities in a 24-hour window. But while the summer peak saw a strict lockdown, a palpable public messaging drive to educate people about the virus and a healthy amount of fear of Covid-19, the second wave this winter is missing any sense of urgency. Mass public gatherings as well as private indoor socialising is continuing in full force. In Pakistan, people appear to be ‘enjoying’ the winter season as they did before, with a spate of weddings and parties. Our politicians, too, appear to have pushed the Covid-19 threat to the far corners of their minds as the opposition parties continue their public meetings at the cost of their own and their supporters’ health.
As we cross the 9,000 death mark and daily infections exceed 2,500, this complacency is astounding. According to the prime minister’s adviser on health, the virus has been transmitted to parts of the country which remained unaffected during the first wave of the pandemic. More than 300 ventilators are occupied by critically ill patients across cities at the moment, and this figure is rising fast. According to the National Command and Operation Centre, the current fatality rate is 2pc with a median age of 61 — a gloomy reality which should send alarm bells ringing everywhere. Hospitals are getting fuller and healthcare workers are facing the brunt of the public’s collective irresponsible behaviour. Unlike the June period, which was followed by weeks of lockdown and when precautions and awareness were visible, this second time the tragedy could be far worse due to a devil-may-care attitude. Social media posts about people contracting and dying of the virus are becoming more frequent, with some of those who have ‘recovered’ shedding light on the debilitating effects of the virus long after they have tested negative.
In all of this, the government has failed on two fronts. Not only does it have no plan of action to stem the rising tide of cases, it has also not been able to convince the public about prevention mechanisms. A simple yet effective prevention protocol such as wearing a face covering is being openly ignored everywhere. Government representatives and leaders appear to be doing nothing more than making requests of people. In a nation where public trust in institutions is historically shaky, this strategy of relying on citizen responsibility yields little success. The government must view the sombre picture being painted by the data and take quick, effective decisions to lower the number of cases.



Provincial autonomy

THE government’s decision to “devise a mechanism to hold provinces accountable” for how they spend money they receive as their share from the federal tax pool under the NFC award is at best illogical and at worst lacks a constitutional basis.
It will also be seen as an attempt by the centre to deflect public attention from its own failings in implementing reforms to boost tax revenues, cutting back on its own growing current expenditure and reducing its size despite the devolution of several major functions to the federating units after the passage of the landmark 18th Amendment.
The move is going to be interpreted by critics as a likely assault on hard-won provincial autonomy with a view to extending greater federal authority over the provinces, especially those ruled by the opposition parties. More importantly, the way in which the government has put across its intentions to control provincial spending choices gives the impression as if it is giving them money as charity. Islamabad must understand clearly that federal taxes are collected from the territorial jurisdictions of the provinces with their consent and part of these funds is transferred to them under a constitutional scheme.
Additionally, the provinces get the powers to spend their money the way they want to from their assemblies. Therefore, any plan “seeking to improve the mechanism for funds distribution” will require radical constitutional changes.
However, there are no two opinions on the urgent need for implementing extensive financial governance reforms to slash non-essential expenditure, plug financial leakages and create greater fiscal space for undertaking social and economic development and making provinces truly accountable to their citizens rather than to Islamabad.
That will involve significant changes in the budget processes and investment in technology at every tier of the provincial government. Also, the process of administrative and financial devolution launched with the 18th Amendment will have to be taken further down to the district and even lower tiers. The elected representatives, rather than bureaucrats, at every level — from the federal to the local tier of government — should have the final say on how public money is spent.
The provinces should stop looking towards the centre for cash outside the NFC mechanism every time they need resources to fix their own mess. The centre would do everyone a service by helping the provinces reform their budgets and devolve powers to the local government instead of trying to take from them to pay its own bills.



Biden & Yemen war

AS Joe Biden prepares to enter the White House next month, one foreign policy item that should be on top of his agenda should be ending American support for the brutal Saudi-led war in Yemen. Riyadh intervened in the Yemeni theatre in March 2015 to push back the Iran-supported Houthis, who had swept into the capital Sana’a and had overthrown the Yemeni government. However, the Saudi intervention has been a humanitarian disaster, with the Houthis firmly ensconced in their positions and the hapless people of Yemen having to constantly dodge death from all sides. Moreover, the civil war and foreign intervention have caused conditions to deteriorate further in Yemen — the poorest country in the Arab world — with decimated infrastructure and a state of chaos prevailing across the country. According to Doctors Without Borders the country’s health system has collapsed. And while all sides in the conflict have indulged in atrocities, the Western-backed coalition has bombed schools, funerals and markets, resulting in an unacceptably high civilian death toll. Much of this turmoil could be prevented if the US, UK and other Western states pulled back their support for this failed intervention.
Mr Biden has said he wants to review support for the Yemen war, though it should be noted that American assistance for the Saudi campaign began when he was vice president during the Obama administration. Donald Trump had only continued to support the conflict Mr Obama and Mr Biden had got the US involved in. However, perhaps time and circumstances have taught Mr Biden that this war is morally reprehensible, and must end. Many observers have noted that once Western support dries up, it will be very difficult for Riyadh to continue the war effort. Already the UAE, which was at the forefront of the campaign along with the Saudis, has distanced itself from this intervention, maintaining a largely symbolic role. It is time Joe Biden does the right thing and convinces Riyadh that the Yemen war cannot continue.



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