Dawn Editorial 4 May 2020

Risk to medics

CORONAVIRUS infections among hospital staff in the country have risen at an alarming rate.
According to data shared by the National Emergency Operation Centre on Thursday, almost 191 more healthcare providers tested positive for Covid-19 within a week — a 75pc jump from the previous week, taking the number of confirmed healthcare worker cases to almost 450.
Nearly a quarter of this staff was working in critical care units, whereas the majority was attending to patients in other wards of the hospital.
With the highest confirmed cases of health workers reported in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Punjab, Balochistan and Sindh are not too far behind.
While there is some relief that one-fifth of those infected have recovered, the situation remains serious as, since the end of February, at least nine medical professionals have succumbed to the virus.
The figures paint a grim picture. Each statistic for active cases of healthcare workers represents a doctor, nurse or other hospital staff member who is now in isolation, at home or quarantined in hospital.
Not only does this mean that there are less medical workers attending to patients, it is also a huge blow to the morale and mental health of the medical community.
These individuals, at great personal risk, don their masks and gloves every day to engage with confirmed Covid-19 patients and, at times, have to watch their patients die.
Though living through dread and fear, these heroes continue to show up and be the backbone of our healthcare system even as they face an epidemic of stress.
The government must do everything in its power to protect our healthcare workers. Priority must be given to manufacturing or procuring personal protective equipment; ramping up daily testing — which is still less than half of the targeted 25,000 — and training healthcare staff on how to limit the spread of the virus inside the hospital through strict protocols.
Unfortunately, doctors in almost all the provinces have either taken to the streets to protest the lack of PPE or shared their fears with journalists. Last month’s scenes of doctors protesting the lack of equipment in Quetta, and being baton-charged by police were ghastly.
The federal and provincial governments must plan ahead and ensure that such savage episodes are never repeated. Doctors’ pleas to authorities for better protection and restricted public movement must not go unnoticed.
Top officials should engage with the healthcare community to understand and address their concerns. Finally, if the rate of infections among medical workers continues to grow, the government must not be defensive about an extension in the lockdown.
The prime minister is right to note that Pakistan’s cases are not as bad as those of Italy and the UK. But he should not forget that our healthcare system is also far less sophisticated and developed than the one in those countries.


HRCP report

FOR far too many, life is a series of insurmountable challenges that prevent a full realisation of individual potential. In its latest annual flagship report, the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan has again shone an unflinching light on the slew of injustices visited upon society’s most vulnerable citizens. The fact is, Pakistan continues to fall short in protecting women, children, members of religious minorities, etc. Instead of strengthening institutions and implementing rights-based legislation, the state tends to respond reactively to isolated incidents, that is, if they provoke a certain level of public outrage. Such an approach does not facilitate systemic change. Sadly, human rights do not figure at the top of the state’s priorities. Consider that the National Commission for Human Rights is lying dysfunctional since last May. That said, in a departure from the past, the government has not rejected its contents out of hand. While listing some of its achievements in the human rights arena, it has candidly acknowledged that rights violations in several respects remain unacceptably high.
Archaic notions of honour continue to fuel all manner of violence against women, and prevent their unfettered access to health, education and employment. Pro-women legislation has been on the statute books for years now, but the centre and provinces have shown unforgivable laxity in putting those laws into practice. Sexual abuse of minors is coming to light in ever more horrific forms, such as child labourers being victimised in mines in Balochistan. The newly enacted Zainab Alert law will hopefully to some extent serve its purpose in tracing abducted minors, if it is properly implemented. Child labour laws are flouted with impunity, and cases of horribly abused minor domestic workers create only a temporary stir. Forced conversions of members of religious minorities continue unabated, and for one community in particular, the freedom to worship exists in name alone. Access to justice remains elusive for the people, with close to 1.8m cases pending before the court. While model criminal trial courts introduced in 2019 disposed of many cases swiftly, long-term criminal justice reforms are still awaited. Resolution of enforced disappearances moves at a glacial pace, if at all. Civil society must be steadfast in pushing back against regressive and anti-democratic elements. Curbs on freedom of opinion and expression only serve those who want a fragmented society closed to reason, unwilling to debate — and all the more easy to control.


PIA: living in denial

THE PIA management’s decision to annul working agreements with various employees’ associations may have been sudden but not unexpected. The present PIA management, which chose Labour Day to derecognise these associations with immediate effect, was showing signs of impatience with some of these groups, especially the one representing the airline’s pilots, for some time. Indeed, almost all these associations were without legal bargaining rights and operated as pressure groups to protect the interests of the company’s officers and other staffers including pilots, cabin crew, engineers, etc who were not represented as such by the Collective Bargaining Agent. So for the time being these groups no longer enjoy quasi-legal, collective representation unless a court grants them relief against their employer’s decision.
The airline made the decision a day after the government placed it under the Pakistan Essential Services (Maintenance) Act, 1952, for six months to allow it to rescue, evacuate and repatriate thousands of Pakistanis still stranded in different countries. The government and the PIA management evidently felt that the persistent demands of pilots and cabin crew for better safety measures in accordance with the requirements of social distancing for the security of both staff and passengers had been hampering efforts to bring back stranded Pakistanis. Once it was declared an essential service, it became easier for the airline to revoke agreements and derecognise these associations. The presence of these groups is often cited by policymakers and successive airline administrations as a major reason for the decline of the national flag carrier into a bankrupt organisation. That is true, but only partly. Blaming trade unions and other such groups in public-sector organisations for their ruin is to live in denial. If public-sector enterprises such as PIA are in a mess today it is because of years of incompetent management, faulty policies, lack of investment and so on. Overstaffing and uncooperative employees have played only a small role in their downturn. The suppression of trade unions and banishment of such associations will only add to the woes of these enterprises.


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