Dawn Editorials 25th May 2023

Monkeypox alert

PAKISTAN’S current economic realities and the state of its health infrastructure fly in the face of lofty claims about healthcare and disease control. It is clear that this country can ill afford another health emergency; this time monkeypox. This week, two cases of the virus were reported in Pakistan, taking the tally to five. Although too few to set alarm bells ringing, the figure is sufficient to put intense awareness and precautionary steps in motion.

The disease is not new to the world; it dates back to 1970 and has since risen from time to time. Last year, when Britain threw up the highest number of cases in the world, WHO had rolled out a detailed list of symptoms — skin rash, lesions, swollen lymph nodes, fever and others — stating that mpox is spread through contact with infected humans, animals and surfaces and the smallpox vaccine can be used as a protective measure. In August, the organisation reported over 18,000 cases from as many as 78 countries, and another 23 cases were recorded in India in December. Disregarding the contagious nature of mpox, Pakistan’s preventive actions have been inconsequential. An outbreak can be averted with informed communities and health personnel so that hazards are confronted capably. Consequently, task forces at airports to halt transmission and an overseeing body to screen vulnerable groups — health workers, the young and the poor — isolation and diagnostic facilities, are ample moves to keep safe. Although the virus does not present mass fatal danger as it passes away of itself in two to four weeks, the WHO did flag its fatality with 3,413 deaths recorded till July. Therefore, free provision of smallpox vaccination is an almost fail-safe move as it is 85pc effective in pre- and post-exposure to the infection. Far-reaching deterrents are necessary for children, those with poor health and complications and to save large swathes of the population from a painful, epizootic condition.

Published in Dawn, May 25th, 2023

Balochistan question

FAR from the power centres of Islamabad, Rawalpindi and Lahore lies Balochistan, a vast land where misery prevails with its people forsaken by the state and caught between armed separatists and security forces. Though the Baloch separatist insurgency is currently in a low phase, militants continue to attack security personnel, and the situation in the province is far from normal. Every so often, the military announces that leading Baloch separatists and their cadres have given up their arms, and promised to work for the betterment of Pakistan. The capture of Gulzar Imam Baloch, alias Shambay, which was announced last month, largely follows the same script. The former head of the banned Balochistan National Army was produced before the media on Tuesday, where he declared his willingness to serve as a bridge between the state and Baloch militants. Apparently, Gulzar Imam has realised the waywardness of his earlier path, and has vowed to play a role for the development of Balochistan through peaceful means.

As mentioned above, several Baloch fighters have earlier laid down their arms in similar fashion. Yet the question remains: if hundreds of armed men over the past many years have abandoned the gun, why does the Baloch insurgency persist? One explanation is the involvement of hostile foreign actors, which Gulzar Imam also brought up during his meet-the-press event. While it is true that evidence points to the deeds of malevolent foreign forces in Balochistan, the malaise affecting the province has far deeper, localised roots. Principally, many of Balochistan’s people feel they are marginalised; there are good reasons for these feelings. The fact is that the province is, in many areas, decades behind the rest of Pakistan. And the primary responsibility for the pathetic state of affairs lies with the administration, particularly the establishment, which practically controls the province. Parading ex-militants who now have become ‘ardent supporters’ of the official narrative may have a limited effect. But to really take the wind out of the separatists’ sails, Balochistan must be brought into the national mainstream, its people made partners in the province’s progress. This can only be done when the elected representatives of Balochistan’s people have actual power to steer their province in the right direction, and ensure that the popular will is respected. Militarised solutions to political and socioeconomic problems will not bring peace to Balochistan.

Published in Dawn, May 25th, 2023

Banning PTI

THE idea would be unthinkable in any self-respecting democracy, yet here we are again. The government is considering banning the PTI over the events of May 9 and 10, according to Defence Minister Khawaja Asif.

Though Mr Asif has said whatever decision is taken will be referred to parliament, can we expect restraint after both the government and legislature, despite repeated warnings from concerned observers, endorsed the army’s proposal to try ordinary citizens under military laws?

Clearly, this is the season for bad ideas, and the government appears to be tempted to test another one out. It ought to remember, though, that banning parties cannot win it votes. If anything, the move would likely further antagonise a large section of voters and weaken the legitimacy of whatever government takes the reins from the current one.

Mr Asif’s remarks may have been aimed at projecting that his government has great control, but they also ended up underlining how bereft of ideas the PDM has been in mounting a political offensive.

Indeed, the government seems to realise its vulnerable position, which is why free rein is being given to the shadow state to deal with the challenge posed by the PTI. These elements have gone about this task with signature, ham-fisted violence.

The practice of labelling and treating entire social/cultural groups as ‘traitors’ is as old as our country: one has only to ask anyone living in the peripheries of what they have been made to suffer on this count. Nonetheless, it is unsettling to see the state displaying its deplorable aspects in the heartlands.

It is true that PTI’s senior leadership has displayed a remarkable lack of spine by preferring to leave the party or relinquish their post within it — unlike so many politicians of other parties who have, at one time or another, fearlessly faced the establishment’s wrath. Yet, the state’s tactics have been criticised by even those without sympathy for PTI and Imran Khan.

Insisting on severely punishing the PTI for its mistakes is no answer. Banning the PTI tells its support base that there is no space for them in the Pakistani political system.

If these people are not to be allowed to express themselves through the ballot box, which forum will they turn to? The PML-N exalted democracy when it was down and out.

The ‘vote ko izzat do’ slogan that kept it alive after 2018 resonated with the public because it called for respecting the vox populi. Its leaders should now not appear so willing to sacrifice their principles at the altar of political expediency.

The government has been repeatedly warned that it may be going too far — to its own detriment. It should heed those warnings and reconsider the path it plans to take.

Published in Dawn, May 25th, 2023

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