Dawn Editorial 7 June 2020

No infection control

IF someone were to draw on everything the world has learned about Covid-19 in the past six months and write a playbook about what not to do in the event of a high-fatality pandemic, our government’s strategy could comfortably feature as a case study of what happens when the wrong decisions are made. Where many countries rightly rely on data, mass testing, and science-led strategies to enforce lockdowns and limit the spread of Covid-19, our government has been defensive, slow to act and adopted a hands-off approach in which citizens are left to protect themselves. This week, the prime minister sent the same message: that people should protect themselves and that there will be no lockdown. He also appeared to imply that countries that locked down were somehow impractical. “What did these countries gain from strict lockdown? Their people lost jobs, poverty increased while cases of the coronavirus continued to increase there,” he said, in a statement that contradicts the falling graph of Covid-19 infection rates and deaths in many countries including the UK, Italy, France and Spain.
That the government’s approach has not changed even when Pakistan’s daily death rate is climbing and the total number of Covid-19 cases (advancing rapidly towards the 100,000 mark) has surpassed those of China, a country with a population of over a billion people, is troubling. It betrays denial on part of the government and is at odds with everything epidemiologists have advised. What is more alarming is that the authorities ignored the fact that many countries have lowered transmission and death rates by enforcing strict lockdowns and distancing. The crucial ‘R number’, a key factor used by many countries gauging the coronavirus pandemic which refers to the ‘effective reproduction number’ of Covid-19, is largely missing from the national conversation. An R figure that is even slightly greater than one can lead quickly to a large number of cases due to the virus’s exponential growth. Where many countries have understood this as a crucial threshold and have committed to locking down again if the figure surpasses one, Dr Zafar Mirza has admitted that Pakistan’s R value is two — with no lockdown or restrictions in sight. What is even more worrying is that the government has abandoned its earlier policy to quarantine international travellers coming to Pakistan — a decision which will increase both new and community transmission cases. Travellers will now arrive at the airport and go straight home without waiting for their Covid-19 results, possibly infecting members of their household, who will, in turn, infect many others.
The coming weeks look very grim. The government’s undeclared adoption of herd immunity may destroy the social and healthcare fabric of this country and further cripple the economy and the poor whose plight is used as a justification for doing little to prevent the virus from spreading.


Women voters

ELECTIONS embody the very essence of democracy but a huge number of women in Pakistan are excluded from the exercise because their names are missing from the electoral rolls. Last year, the Election Commission of Pakistan had released its district-wise data for male and female registered voters in the 2018 polls, which revealed that the gender gap among voters was a whopping 12.54m. On Wednesday, the chief election commissioner called for urgent measures, including an awareness campaign, to address the issue. Of the 20 districts with the widest gender gap, no less than 17 are in Punjab. In fact, two Punjab districts — Lahore and Faisalabad — account for more than one million of the differential. Of the remaining, two are in KP and one in Sindh.
Despite repeated electoral cycles, women’s political participation appears to be on the decline rather than on an upward trajectory. Consider that in the 2013 polls, the gender gap between voters was considerably less at 10.97m. That the discrepancy should have increased during the 2018 elections despite concerted efforts to enhance the female component of the electoral rolls is a matter of concern. In an effort to underscore the importance of women’s participation in elections, the ECP for the first time declared it mandatory to have at least 10pc of votes in each constituency cast by women. That also gave men a stake in ensuring women voters’ turnout. In fact, re-polling was ordered in a Shangla constituency because only 4.01pc of registered women voters had cast their ballot. The overall environment too on the surface appears more conducive to women’s political participation, with TV news channels providing a platform for vocal female politicians, and a considerable amount of women-friendly legislation having been enacted. Clearly, however, there remain impediments to women’s participation in the political arena that are resistant to change. These are anchored in patriarchal traditions that keep women outside decision-making processes. There are still areas where local representatives of political parties strike tacit deals to discourage women from voting, and then use the convenient pretext of ‘culture’ to justify their absence from the hustings. The matter must be taken up by the federal and provincial governments and at the highest levels of every political party. District administrations and local party workers must be ordered to ensure that every woman eligible to vote is registered. At the very least, the gender gap between male and female voters must be bridged.


Insecure police

THE transfer earlier this week of Lahore Police’s investigation and operations chiefs has added fuel to the perennially heated debate over the level of autonomy allowed to the law-enforcement force. Voices emanating from the police department — some of those recorded in news features — speak of an uncontrollable urge on the part of the executive in Punjab to toy with official postings. And in this game that the provincial set-up is accused of constantly engaging in, senior policemen are the most frequent victims. This is also the case in other provinces where police find themselves subject to the whims of the government, making it difficult for them to carry out their duties honestly. Those who try to do their job are publicly humiliated. At a time when the virtues of modern governance are often stressed as crucial to the democratic functioning of the state, the image of the police force leaves a lot to be desired. There must be accountability of all at all stages and the misuse of power must be dealt with with an iron hand. But at some point, the government will have to find a way to ensure security of tenure for a police officer involved in the delicate work of enforcing the law against great odds. That task will be difficult since it would require pulling the current chief executives out of their insecure zones.
It is about time we moved to the next point — if the ever-widening rift between the exploiting politicians at the helm and the easily used police officers allows us to. No one seems to take into account the negative effects that the constant reshuffling of the police force, including very visible public officials, can have on the public. The people are likely to view all abrupt police transfers not only with suspicion, but also fear. The more the number of such transfers in a city, the greater the number of insecure police officers there will be. A city with so many insecure officers will also be insecure.


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