The Express Tribune Editorial 31 December 2020

Mutated Covid cases


Several people across the country have tested positive for the new Covid-19 strain that was first detected in the UK, raising fresh questions about whether air travel restrictions should have been applied sooner. And while ‘only’ five cases had been detected by Tuesday — all from overseas — it raises new concerns about how we will avoid an explosion of cases, given people’s refusal to follow social distancing rules and other restrictions. In the last week, even before the British strain cases were detected, we had been seeing some of our worst days for infections and deaths since the pandemic began.
The new strain is about 50 per cent more contagious than the original one, according to the University of London, and while most reports suggest it is not deadlier than the original, the increase in total cases could lead to hospitals being overloaded and sick people being unable to access treatment. This is further strengthened when we recall that senior government health officials, the cabinet, and the PM himself have freely admitted the weaknesses in our healthcare system. And while the NCOC is crediting the measures already taken for helping to detect the five British cases, we have no assurance that undetected cases are already out there. Even though track and trace efforts for their contacts are also underway, there is a high chance of cases slipping through. This will only increase as more cases are detected.
Extending travel restrictions relating to the UK should be a given. The only question is whether or not to enhance them to include Pakistanis. The UK has little justification to object. After all, it is their own political leadership that sat on the news of a new strain for weeks, if not months. Instead, we have seen several other countries reporting cases of the UK strain in recent days. This includes the US and India — the two worst-affected by the original strain. If the British government had been honest, the country’s post-Brexit trade dealings would not have included becoming an exporter of deadly diseases.



Khawaja Asif’s arrest


Former foreign and defence minister Khawaja Asif has formally joined the sizeable ranks of PML-N leaders and associates who have been under NAB probe over questionable wealth. Some of them are languishing in jails while others have been freed on bail after detentions spanning more than a year, in some cases. Asif was arrested — kidnapped, according to Maryam Nawaz — by a NAB team on Tuesday evening after he had come out of an important party meeting in Lahore convened to discuss the future line of action regarding the combined opposition’s anti-government movement.
NAB says that the total assets held by Khawaja Asif swelled from Rs5.1 million in 1991, when he was elected senator, to Rs221 million in 2018, and he needs to justify his ballooning income by providing the source of earning. Public representatives should have their each and every penny accounted for, and there should be no compromise on that. But we have seen many opposition leaders being kept in NAB custody only to be bailed after long periods, without their assets-beyond-means cases reaching a logical conclusion. There are instances where even the filing of a corruption reference with the accountability court has taken months. Nawaz Sharif and his daughter Maryam Nawaz are exceptions in that they both stand convicted over corruption, but their cases too are far from concluded, currently going through the appeals stage in superior courts.
While the low conviction from accountability courts may be attributed to weak prosecution, the opposition claims that the hollow grounds could never have ended in convictions and alleges that the long imprisonments are mere tools of political engineering. Interestingly, the opposition also finds some significant takers, the honourable Supreme Court judges, for these particular grievances of theirs.
Meanwhile, Khawaja Asif’s arrest has dimmed the hopes of a grand national dialogue any time soon. It will rather add to the prevailing political tension — given the government’s hardening stance that the opposition is a cabal of looters which deserves no pardon, and the opposition’s certitude that the arrest is a part of the government’s political victimisation campaign



Vehicle auction scam


When people try to live like rajas and maharajas in democracy, financial and other sorts of scandals do occur, off and on. The Anti-Corruption Establishment Punjab has unearthed a mega scandal that cost the exchequer a whopping loss of 300 billion rupees through a vehicle auction scam. ACE has registered a case against scores of officers, including five directors of the provincial Excise Taxation and Narcotics Control Board, suspected of their involvement in the fraud. Of the 18 officers named in the scam, ACE has arrested an excise and taxation officer. Others are on the run. Dishonest officials had been carrying out the dirty business of auctioning stolen and smuggled trucks, buses and other vehicles on the basis of forged auction papers for the past several years.
The investigations, starting in 2017, revealed that the registration of 7,013 vehicles was fake and another 4,000 had been registered on the basis of unauthentic vouchers, and the record of many vehicles could not be verified. During the course of its probe, the anti-graft body sought from the excise department verification of records of thousands of vehicles registered over the past several years. The excise department informed ACE that it had no record of 4,397 vehicles registered from 2015 to 2018.
The modus operandi of the scamming officials recalls to mind a recent financial scandal where millions and billions were found, deposited by unknown persons, in the accounts of poor push-cart vendors (kelaywallahs and thelaywallahs). In the false registration of vehicles, as many as 1,290 vehicles have been found registered in the name of an employee of the main accused in the case. Another 996 vehicles had been registered in the name of a stamp vendor. Both men are unaware that such large numbers of expensive automobiles have been registered against their names. ACE is in contact with NADRA to obtain full details about all those involved in the fraud. Uncovering of this mega scam shows that all fraudsters are not too clever to go undetected.

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