Dawn Editorial 24 November 2020

Putting all at risk

THE collective recklessness of our political parties, including the opposition and the ruling PTI, has resulted in an alarming increase in the number of Covid-19 cases in the country. In recent weeks, rallies in major cities, a huge election campaign in Gilgit-Baltistan and a mass funeral for the TLP chief have demonstrated how far removed the coronavirus threat is from the minds of our political leaders.
While the PML-N, PPP and JUI-F took the lead in calling supporters to superspreader gatherings under the PDM alliance banner, the Jamaat-i-Islami was responsible for a similar folly in Swat as thousands assembled for a public meeting called by the party. The PTI, too, is guilty of pre-pandemic style electioneering in GB as well as for holding big conventions in the capital.
The actions of the political leaders who lead these parties are supremely irresponsible and betray a careless approach to a virus that has destroyed lives and livelihoods all over the world. Even more disappointing is that the opposition is likely to skip a critical meeting of the Parliamentary Committee on Coronavirus Disease this week as part of their decision to spurn the National Assembly speaker whom they accuse of biased conduct. For all these reasons, it is hardly surprising that global health expert Zulfiqar A. Bhutta in a piece for this paper described the Covid-19 public discourse and the response in Pakistan as “akin to watching a crash landing in slow motion”. The PDM, then, would do well to put off all its rallies until safer times arrive.
The lowering of the curve in August saw both the provincial and federal authorities adopt far too relaxed an approach to preventive practices and resume public activities with a gusto that would have made one think that the pandemic was over. Unfortunately, that is far from the truth.
The reality is dreary: Covid-19 cases are rising to dangerous levels, with a national positivity ratio racing past 7pc. In Azad Kashmir, KP and Sindh, this ratio is even higher at 11.45pc, 9.85pc and 9.63pc respectively. In Punjab, the cities of Rawalpindi, Multan, Lahore and Faisalabad are becoming hotspots, whereas cases in Gilgit and Islamabad are also rising. According to the NCOC, the number of critically ill patients admitted to hospitals with Covid-19 has increased two-fold in the last fortnight. The average daily death toll in the last seven days was recorded at 35. Worryingly, nearly a fifth of total positive cases are from educational institutions. Why these figures are not self-explanatory for political leaders is anyone’s guess.
This head-in-the-sand attitude is unacceptable and warrants a dramatic change. Those responsible for improving the lives of Pakistani citizens are, instead, putting them at risk. If the present rising tide of positive cases is not stemmed, infected patients will be helpless as hospitals become overwhelmed. The people and healthcare workers of this country deserve better.



Iran’s overture

THE US-Iran relationship has been characterised by confrontation ever since 1979, when Tehran, following Ayatollah Khomeini’s Islamic Revolution, broke away from the American orbit and chose to chart its own path. There have been several ups and downs — mostly downs — over the past four decades, but Donald Trump’s four years as president were arguably the worst when it came to the bilateral relationship. At one point, following the American assassination of Iran’s top general Qassem Soleimani in Iraq earlier this year, it seemed as if war was imminent. Moreover, the American unilateral exit from the Iran nuclear deal, and Washington’s ‘maximum pressure’ policy targeting the Iranian economy, ensured that both states remained in a state of perpetual confrontation. Now, with Joe Biden headed to the White House, the relationship may go back to being far less combative. As a spokesman for the Iranian foreign ministry told a press conference on Sunday, “carefully considered exchanges” between Washington and Tehran are possible despite America’s “repeated crimes”. Mr Biden has also earlier indicated he may return to the nuclear deal.
Indeed, engagement and dialogue are always preferable to combative rhetoric, especially in a tinderbox such as the Middle East. However, considering the high-pitched rhetoric that has been emanating from Washington during the Trump era, re-engaging Iran will not be easy. The powerful conservative faction in Tehran will be even more wary of dealing with the US, especially after the Soleimani strike and the American exit from the nuclear deal. If Mr Biden is serious about reopening channels with Iran, he needs to put in place confidence-building measures. For a start, he can start peeling away the layers of American sanctions that have contributed to destroying Iran’s economy. These sanctions have scared away foreign investors even after Iran was given some relief under the nuclear deal. However, considering Joe Biden’s closeness to Israel, talking to Tehran will be tough. For example, Benjamin Netanyahu, in a reckless statement addressed to the US president-elect, has said “there can be no going back” to the JCPOA, while America’s Gulf Arab allies, now working in lockstep with Tel Aviv, will also protest loudly any attempts by Mr Biden to soften his Iran policy. The challenge before the new incumbent of the White House is considerable. Either he can ignore such pressure and extend the hand of peace to Iran, or continue on a collision course with Tehran.



Food expenditure

INCREASING food prices are perhaps the last thing that people, especially those falling in the low-middle-income bracket in a pandemic-hit economy, need. But that is precisely what they are getting in spite of the repeated official rhetoric against the ‘mafias’. For more than one year, rapidly increasing inflation, particularly the runaway prices of food items, has become the new norm in the country. Even though CPI inflation has come down to around 9pc during the last two months after peaking to over 14pc in January, the pace of increase in food prices continues to test the economic pain threshold of low-income groups. Consequently, a vast majority of people are finding it hard to manage their already impoverished lifestyles because of their growing daily expenditure on food items.
Data from the Pakistan Bureau of Statistics for the month of October shows that rural food inflation rose much more rapidly when compared to the urban food price hike. Food prices in the urban areas had gone up by 13.9pc and by 17.7pc in the rural areas, according to the published data. Initially, food inflation was pushed by the increasing shortage of wheat and sugar in the country. However, the current wave of inflation is mostly driven by the sharp hike in prices of fresh vegetables such as potatoes, onions and tomatoes, as well as items like pulses, eggs, etc that are used on a daily basis by the low-middle-income segments of the population. The State Bank of Pakistan has in recent months repeatedly pointed out that supply-side constraints and disruptions are to blame for this crippling increase in food prices, which have almost everyone worried. But despite being aware of the problem, we have yet to see a strong effort on the part of the government to address the issues that have been responsible for driving the prices upwards. It is an indictment of the rulers of the day when citizens do not have enough to feed their families.


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