Dawn Editorial 27 December 2020

Gas mystery

ONCE again, a suspected gas leak in Karachi’s Keamari locality has raised questions about safety protocols and risk mitigation at the port. In less than a week, over 20 patients were rushed to Ziauddin Hospital, showing signs of similar symptoms. Tragically, four shortly passed away. Before that, on Dec 18, nine patients from Keamari had checked in because of breathing problems, mentioning a noticeable ‘pungent’ smell in the air. If the hospital had not released a statement about their recent patients — detailing the similarities with cases from an earlier gas leak that took place in the same neighbourhood, in which residents complained about dizziness, stinging eyes, itchy throats, chest tightness and breathing issues — few would have heard about this case. It seems lessons have not yet been learnt from that horrific accident in February — in which 14 residents died while around 500 fell sick after a ‘mysterious gas’ enveloped a part of the coastal city — and it is not clear what measures, if any, were put in place to prevent a similar tragedy.
More worryingly, the ‘source’ of the leak was never ascertained and the case remained inconclusive, despite a petition filed by a man who lost his mother during that fateful period, and despite the protests that broke out in the aftermath. This lack of transparency and answers would keep any thinking citizen up at night. Furthermore, finger-pointing seems to have become the preferred tactic for deflecting blame in Sindh politics, following each catastrophe, as each authority passes the blame onto the other. No one takes responsibility, and no one is held accountable. Unfortunately, the death and suffering of certain people and neighbourhoods barely creates a ripple in the public consciousness, let alone generates the necessary outrage that leads to promises of change. Indeed, chemical or industrial leakages are usually the result of human negligence and of not undertaking proper risk assessments or failure to implement safety standards. Without accountability and greater transparency, another accident is simply waiting to happen.



A dangerous man

THAT one of the most dangerous and devious militants in Pakistan may be on the verge of gaining his freedom is a disturbing prospect. On Thursday, the Sindh High Court set aside the provincial government’s detention orders for Omer Saeed Sheikh and three others convicted for the abduction and murder of Daniel Pearl and directed they be released forthwith. It is the latest development in a case where there have been several unexpected twists and turns. Eight months ago, the SHC appellate bench overturned the death penalty handed down to Sheikh in 2002 as the main accused and acquitted him and his accomplices of murder and kidnapping for ransom. However, it found him guilty of abducting the American journalist and sentenced him to seven years’ imprisonment. Given Sheikh had already been incarcerated for 18 years, his release was imminent. The Sindh government moved quickly and filed an appeal in the Supreme Court — as did Daniel Pearl’s parents — and also detained the men under the Maintenance of Public Order. In the recent hearing however, the government was unable to convincingly argue the case for the men’s continued detention. Following an interim order temporarily barring their release, no further progress has been made on the appeals in the apex court.
Sheikh’s criminal career is a chilling profile of a wily and ruthless man. He was serving time in an Indian jail in connection with the kidnapping of several foreign tourists in that country in the mid-1990s, when he was sprung from prison in 1999 on the demand of militants who had hijacked an Indian airliner and were holding the passengers hostage. That was followed up by the grisly episode of Pearl’s abduction and murder in January 2002. Even while behind bars, Sheikh continued to display an implacable zeal to act on his extremist convictions. Suspected of having played a role in one of the assassination attempts on Gen Musharraf, he even contrived to intensify India-Pakistan tensions around the time of the Mumbai attacks by making hoax calls to Pakistan’s then president. That he was convicted for Pearl’s murder was a feather in Pakistan’s cap where the battle against militancy was concerned. However, the appeals process highlighted the appallingly shoddy investigation process which allowed many co-conspirators to escape even being charged. One hopes the apex court resumes hearing the appeals quickly so that this dangerous man remains behind bars.



Lethal second wave

PAKISTAN’S second Covid-19 wave saw its deadliest day this week, with 111 deaths reported in 24 hours. These coronavirus-related fatalities, of which 11 were out of hospital, took place just two days before Dec 25 — Christmas and the Quaid’s birthday — holiday events that see a surge in public activity.
Ahead of this, the National Command and Operation Centre had issued guidelines saying that social visits and family get-togethers should be avoided. It urged that Christmas shopping should only be restricted to “minimal essentials” and crowding in markets was not advisable. “The traditional gift exchange and large-scale home gatherings are likely to increase transmission so they should also be avoided.” While such advice was indeed appropriate given the spread of the virus across cities, it is hardly followed. What incentive is there for those celebrating Christmas to follow the rules when there is no enforcement of lockdown, and other mass gatherings such as political rallies and weddings are in full swing?
The graph for coronavirus deaths and new infections in the country is getting more worrisome by the day. The figures are horrific, and point to continuing death and despair. Some 80 to 100 deaths and new cases ranging between 2,000 and 3,000 on average are being reported each day. Unfortunately, testing, which peaked at around 48,000 tests in 24 hours about 10 days ago, has fallen to below 40,000 per day. Why this is so, and why the government is unable to rapidly expand testing, is a mystery. Since the beginning of the pandemic, Pakistan’s daily testing has been abysmally low. For a country of 200m people, our per capita testing rate is among the lowest in the region. At one point this year, the authorities explained away low testing by saying that citizens were not testing enough, which — if true — points to a failure of public health messaging.
The collective response of both federal and provincial authorities has been hugely disappointing in the second wave. A far cry from the success story during the first peak, Pakistan is hurtling towards an abyss as it sleepwalks its way into a crisis that could see its healthcare system collapse.
At the centre, the authorities have utterly failed to convey the seriousness of the pandemic to the public. The Sindh government, of which key members have tested positive, continues to irresponsibly partake in the PDM’s public rallies. In KP, the cases and positivity ratio are climbing as the provincial government ignores WHO advice for a full 15-day lockdown in Peshawar, and opts for ‘smart’ lockdowns instead. The Punjab government’s at-home isolation policy, too, is in tatters as the province leads in the numbers of daily reported Covid-19 deaths and doctors advise a rethink. All around, there is a severe lack of sensible and humane leadership. The citizens and healthcare workers of the country deserve better.

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