Dawn Editorial 21 November 2019

Polio resurgence

THE impact of political polarisation in Pakistan is beginning to show in the country’s anti-polio efforts. In a scathing report, the International Monitoring Board has attributed the vicious resurgence of polio in Pakistan this year to a “lack of political unity”. Describing the polio programme and related efforts as “a political football”, the report states that the recent resurgence of polio cases — 88 so far this year, including seven of the more dangerous P2 strain that had been eradicated in 2014 — reflects “a massive reversal of the trajectory to global polio eradication”, and that too in less than a year. Pakistan reported more than 80pc of the total global polio cases this year, with the crippling disease detected in areas that had been polio-free as recently as the beginning of 2018. This is not the first time that lack of political consensus with regard to the anti-polio efforts has been pointed out. But the present report has drawn greater attention to the internal factionalism caused in large part by the prevailing brand of national political discourse. It has also highlighted the extent of damage to whatever progress Pakistan had made in it is anti-polio efforts over the years with the help of international donors.
In fact, deep political divisions are not specific to polio. Similar verbal sparring and blame games have hampered attempts at dengue control in Punjab and KP, as they have in Karachi where even municipal services such as garbage collection have been politicised. In addition, arbitrary bureaucratic changes and the inertia that has beset the civil service after the last elections have contributed to the crisis in provincial polio programmes. The fact that the polio programme, for all its flaws, has managed to continue is a tribute to the efforts of our polio workers who have had to face hostility from misinformed parents and threats to their lives by religious extremists.
The prevalence of polio was highest in 2014 when 306 cases were reported and the IMB had advised Pakistanis travelling abroad to carry immunisation certificates. However, the government had managed to restrict the active polio virus to a handful of locations in the country by 2018 and reduce the number of cases to eight. With Prime Minister Imran Khan’s announcement to lead the vaccination drive himself, the PTI-led government appears well-intentioned. But it has allowed its petty rhetoric and open disregard for other political players to get in the way, leaving it with very little political capital to be able to have a constructive dialogue even on an issue as apolitical as polio eradication. One hopes that the government will reflect on the findings of the report so that it can lead a joint effort by all provincial health authorities and politicians to work towards the eradication of a national and global health risk affecting the future of millions of children.


Curbing optimism

FOR the first time in four years the external deficit of the country has recorded a surplus, though a nominal one and only in the month of October. There are grounds for cautious optimism here that at least one of the critical deficits in the economy is being bridged steadily and the course of direction is the correct one. But a closer look at the numbers shows that such optimism, cautious as it might be, should be restrained. Much of the improvement owes itself to increasing foreign currency inflows into Pakistan government debt mainly because of the high interest rates on offer here compared to regional countries. Secondly, a large one-off payment made by the telecom companies for licence renewal has suddenly spiked the foreign investment numbers. Third, a dip in oil imports has helped constrict the trade deficit more than anything else, while exports show only a marginal increase. It is hard to see how any of these factors can be reliably considered as a sustainable foundation on which to build the external sector’s strength.
What must be emphasised is that the current account deficit will reappear the moment the government guns for growth. At the moment, the slowing economy is the biggest reason for the slackening of the deficit, but once growth returns it is difficult to see how the deficit will be kept in check. Surely, the development itself — a current account surplus after years of sustained deficits — is an important milestone for the economic managers. But for the rest of us, it is merely a blip along a long road that must include sustainable reforms and improved competitiveness. Sadly on that front, there is no real progress to show. The recently announced national tariff policy claims to address some competitiveness concerns, particularly for exports, but whatever has been released of it thus far shows little more than antiquated thinking that belongs to the 1960s. Even the words ‘infant industries’ were mentioned in it, though one wonders what infant industries requiring tariff protections the authors of the policy may have in mind. For that we will have to wait for the full list of tariff protections that the policy aims to bring. In the meantime, all we have is a declining deficit that in part owes itself to luck, in part to a slowing economy, and in part to high interest rates.


Israeli settlements

EVER since the establishment of the state of Israel, most US governments — both Democrat and Republican — have maintained a policy of steadfastly supporting Tel Aviv regardless of its atrocious behaviour towards the Palestinians. But few American administrations have backed Israel’s atrocities as openly as the Trump White House has. Whether it was the recognition of the holy city of Jerusalem as Israel’s ‘capital’, or accepting the illegal Israeli occupation of Syria’s Golan Heights as valid — all flying in the face of international opinion — Mr Trump and his team have spared no effort to humiliate the Arabs and reward Tel Aviv for its land grab. The latest in this long list of one-sided moves is the statement of US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in which he has bestowed America’s blessings on illegal Israeli settlements. The establishment of such settlements in the West Bank “is not per se inconsistent with international law”, said Mr Pompeo, while adding in the same statement that the US “remains deeply committed to helping facilitate peace” between Palestine and Israel. How stabbing the Arabs in the heart by allowing Israel to occupy their land can facilitate peace is only something America’s top diplomat can answer.
The fact is that the US has hardly ever been an honest broker in the Arab-Israeli conflict. But under Mr Trump’s watch, all pretence of neutrality has been dropped, which has had deadly implications for the Palestinians. Knowing that the world’s sole superpower will cover for them, Israel’s establishment has pulled out all the stops in expropriating Palestinian land, and shedding Arab blood without compunction. While the UN and EU have both opposed the annexation of illegal settlements, there appears to be little the international community can do other than express ‘regret’ over Israel’s behaviour. The Zionist state — particularly the right-wingers within the Israeli power structure — is doing everything it can to kill the two-state solution. With no hope of a viable state, the Palestinians will continue to resist and face the ugly reaction of the Israeli military machine.


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