Dawn Editorial 4th June 2024

Measles resurgence

THE alarming rise in measles cases across Pakistan signals a burgeoning public health crisis that demands immediate intervention. Latest reports show the disease wreaking havoc in cities in Punjab. With around 3,400 cases since January this year, the situation in the province is dire. Several fatalities have already been reported, with some pending confirmation. This trend is echoed nationwide, including in Sindh and KP, though the more significant outbreaks have been reported from south Punjab. Measles, a highly contagious viral disease, poses severe risks to children, especially those who are malnourished or unvaccinated. Complications include pneumonia, encephalitis, severe diarrhoea, dehydration, and blindness. The recent spike in cases among infants younger than nine months is particularly of concern, as the standard vaccination schedule starts after this age.

So what has led to such a spike? A key driver is low vaccination rates, which the WHO has consistently warned the world about. The Covid pandemic disrupted routine immunisation services worldwide, leading to a significant drop in vaccination coverage. Misinformation and the global ‘anti-vax’ movement added fuel to the fire. The result is a backlog of children around the world who are at high risk. In Pakistan, malnutrition has exacerbated the severity of measles and its complications. To address this escalating emergency, the government must intensify vaccination campaigns. It is encouraging that during the upcoming anti-polio campaign, the government plans to simultaneously check for measles cases and administer measles shots to children in some areas. This must be extended to all cities. Alongside, public health education campaigns are crucial to raise awareness about the importance of the jab and early intervention. Improving access to healthcare services in underserved areas and addressing the nutritional needs of children is equally vital. Of particular importance is accountability among health officials to prevent negligence. The government must act swiftly.

Published in Dawn, June 4th, 2024

China sojourn

AS the prime minister begins his five-day visit to China today, investment — particularly to reinvigorate the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor — will top the agenda. Shehbaz Sharif is due to meet the top tier of the Chinese leadership, including President Xi Jinping, and will visit various regions as Pakistan seeks to attract substantial Chinese investment. Of course, how many of these pledges materialise into much-needed dollars flowing into Pakistan, and the attendant infrastructure and jobs, remains to be seen. For the moment, the mood on both sides seems positive, and the challenges standing in the way of realising CPEC’s second phase can be overcome if both capitals deal with these proactively.

Envisaged over a decade ago, CPEC has been touted as a ‘game changer’ by the state, while critics have termed it a ‘debt trap’. A more dispassionate analysis suggests that the multibillion-dollar scheme has been beneficial to Pakistan, bringing online a number of power projects, as well as expanding the road network. Yet many promises remain unfulfilled; for example, the special economic zones have yet to open for business, while Pakistan is saddled with billions in Chinese debt. Therefore, Prime Minister Sharif’s visit presents an opportunity to address these challenges. With regard to Beijing’s concerns, the safety of its workers in Pakistan will naturally be near the top of the agenda. The March terrorist attack in Dasu in which five Chinese nationals were killed exemplifies the security challenges Pakistan will have to overcome if it seeks to attract more qualified Chinese manpower and funds to take the next phase of CPEC forward. Unless the scourge of terrorism is neutralised, other foreign investors, too, will be wary about bringing their money and people to Pakistan. Moreover, some media reports point to Chinese concerns regarding bureaucratic bottlenecks and political instability that stand in the way of smooth project operations. Perhaps this is the raison d’être of the SIFC — to assure investors of continuity in policies. Pakistan should also be mentally prepared to deal with the geopolitical blowback of expanding CPEC, particularly ‘feedback’ from Western capitals unhappy about deepening Sino-Pakistan ties. It is difficult but possible to maintain an equilibrium between the West and China. Also, the benefits of new projects should flow to underdeveloped communities, specifically in Balochistan and KP, to ensure that growth is equitable.

Published in Dawn, June 4th, 2024

Cipher acquittal

YESTERDAY afternoon, Imran Khan and Shah Mahmood Qureshi stood acquitted of the charge of compromising state secrets.

‘Traitors’ for a grand total of about four months and one week, the two have been vindicated by the Islamabad High Court of charges brought against them in the infamous ‘cipher case’, as it came to be known.

While the detailed verdict is awaited, it is worth recalling that this was the most serious of the three convictions former prime minister Imran Khan had been slapped with in quick succession in the days leading up to the Feb 8 general election. Both Mr Khan and ex-foreign minister Mr Qureshi had been handed 10 years’ rigorous punishment each for, in the eyes of the presiding judge, ‘leaking’ a secret cable and thereby compromising the safety, integrity and credibility of Pakistan’s secure communication system with its diplomatic missions abroad.

The conviction had precluded Mr Qureshi’s right to participate in the general election; Mr Khan had already been deemed ineligible by an earlier conviction in the Toshakhana case.

The verdict had been secured on the state’s third attempt at prosecuting the case. Two earlier trials were aborted by the IHC after it found serious irregularities in the proceedings. Even then, the trial court’s sentence was almost immediately slammed by the legal community; many had criticised the abnormal circumstances in which the trial was completed. This was the same case, it may be recalled, in which the court had denied the two defendants their right to appoint their own counsels or cross-examine the prosecution’s witnesses, even though the prosecution had sought the maximum penalty of a death sentence.

Even then, the biggest charge the two were found guilty of — compromising the country’s secure diplomatic communication system — was undermined by the Foreign Office shortly after, when it affirmed through a statement that its communication system had been audited and found to be safe and protected. There was, therefore, near unanimity in the legal community that the verdict would be overturned: it was not a question of if but when.

In retrospect, Mr Khan and Mr Qureshi committed a historical blunder and caused an international diplomatic incident by using the cipher as a political prop; however, this was never reason enough to punish them under laws originally meant to prosecute traitors and foreign spies. That, as prime minister, Mr Khan chose to use sensitive diplomatic communications for selfish political reasons, imperilling diplomatic ties with the country’s largest trading partner, should have been left as something for voters to ponder.

Instead, our state, in its desperation to victimise another ex-prime minister, once again left them looking like more of a hero than they perhaps deserved to be. There are lessons aplenty in this saga: but will our state ever learn?

Published in Dawn, June 4th, 2024

June 13, 2024

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