Dawn Editorial 31 December 2020

PDM’s differences

AN internal crisis is brewing within the Pakistan Democratic Movement alliance and the days ahead call for some difficult decisions that will have far-reaching consequences. Even as they say they share a common democratic goal, the challenges for each opposition party in the PDM are quite different, as are the leadership’s individual positions on the political spectrum.
The JUI-F, which has the least to lose, is taking the hard-line stance that all PDM lawmakers must resign. The PML-N, however, has considerable numbers in both the national and provincial assemblies, but unlike the PPP, it is not part of a government in any province and therefore would be less affected in the case of mass resignations. It is also bearing the brunt of the government’s controversial accountability drive and facing increasing pressure with the arrest of Khawaja Asif by NAB and the continuing detention of key party figures such as Shehbaz Sharif and Hamza Shehbaz. With no indication that the PML-N will scale down its demands, there could be trouble ahead.
Among the PDM parties, it appears that the PPP is alone in its reluctance to resign en masse. By urging PDM members to tread carefully and evaluate the consequences of resignations from each angle, it has clearly signalled its hesitancy and has left the final decision on the issue to its central executive committee and not the alliance. The party’s suggestion of consulting constitutional law experts is valid, as resigning from the assemblies is an extreme decision that could have serious political repercussions.
Resignations before the Senate elections would give the governing party an open field to ensure a majority in the upper house which is a continuous body unlike the National Assembly. The PPP’s question regarding what would happen if the government called for by-elections is also one that may be important for all PDM component parties to consider — for, as challenging as it appears, a by-election could take place as the government is showing no signs of relenting. Interestingly, while the parties speak with one voice from the same platform on one day and deny talks of a rift, the following day they make contradictory decisions. Some say the difference of opinion between Asif Ali Zardari and Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari may be a reason for this, as the former president might want to leave room to build bridges with the establishment.
This inconsistency, reflected in individual goals and evidenced in each party’s approach to the resignation issue, signals confusion within PDM ranks. While it is not clear how it will affect the ‘long march’ on the capital, which is part of the alliance’s final-stage strategy, it doesn’t bode well for the future of the alliance. For now, the PDM needs to address its internal challenges if it wants to avoid disintegration, and take its next steps on the basis of reason, not emotion.



MDCAT controversy

A LARGE number of students from Peshawar to Karachi to Quetta continue to protest against the Pakistan Medical Commission as the controversy over the PMC’s abrupt decision to ‘centralise’ the Medical and Dental College Admission Test from this year refuses to die down. The alleged inclusion of out-of-course questions in the test taken by more than 121,000 students aspiring to medical education from across the country, the lack of transparency in the way the examination was conducted, and discrepancies in the results announced have compounded the issue, putting the national regulator of medical education in the dock. Many affected students have already taken the PMC to court over ambiguous questions and faulty candidate data. The Sindh government and doctors’ associations have also put their weight behind the protesting students, demanding that the power to conduct MDCAT be returned to the provinces. By taking 14 questions out of the test and awarding as many marks to each student, the PMC has indirectly admitted that the process was flawed from the get-go.
Yet the PMC administration appears to have taken a rigid stance on the demands of the affected students instead of resolving the issue amicably. At the very start of the process, the commission had been advised by senior doctors and others to wait for a couple of years before conducting a centralised MDCAT. It was also warned that the students had not been given adequate time to prepare for a combined test since all provinces teach separate medical curricula. Instead of heeding their advice, the PMC not only decided to go ahead with its plan but also did away with the practice of supplying carbon copies of answer sheets and putting answer keys on its website for the sake of transparency. The deadlock created by the commission’s attitude is unlikely to resolve itself with the passage of time as hoped by the PMC management. It is also not possible to hold such a massive exercise again. So what should be done to break this stalemate? The best way forward for the PMC is to agree to requests to recheck papers and recount the marks scored by candidates. It should also make public the questions it had decided to take out of the test because these were ambiguous or not in the syllabus. These actions should not only help end the controversy but also build public trust in the regulator.



New variant arrives

JUST as Pakistan crossed the sobering milestone of 10,000 dead from Covid-19 came the news that at least three cases of the highly contagious coronavirus variant first detected in England have been confirmed in this country. As per the Sindh health department, 12 samples were taken from UK return travellers, of whom six were found to be positive for the virus, including three with the variant, named B117. When information emerged that the first case of B117 in the UK may date back to September, meaning it has had ample time to spread to other countries, authorities in Pakistan expected it to arrive on our shores sooner or later. In order to stave off the inevitable, the National Command and Operation Centre had recommended that flights from the UK be suspended, and also issued new guidelines for passengers from the UK by restricting travel for anyone who has been in that country 10 days prior to arrival. For Pakistani citizens coming back home from the UK, the NCOC now requires a mandatory PCR test before boarding as well as after landing. These measures will be in place until Jan 4, 2021. The Ministry of National Health has reiterated that the variant does not cause a more severe form of the illness.
In a country where access to a vaccine against the coronavirus is still several months away, the very fact the contagion could spread faster — by 56pc, according to studies — is of enormous concern. People by and large are not demonstrating the level of awareness and precaution that is needed, and this can only be chalked up to ineffective public messaging on the health emergency. If more individuals get infected with B117, there would be proportionately more people requiring medical intervention, which would put further stress on our already overstretched health system. We just managed to pull back from the brink during the first wave. The new variant could signal that this time around, the worst is yet to come.

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