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Editorial | Government’s Attempt To Downplay Coronavirus Pandemic Deplorable

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Iran’s government has told citizens that failure to follow its guidelines for a lockdown could result in millions of deaths. This came after a significant failure of the ruling regime to gauge the nature and scope of the problem – as well as unnecessary posturing by hardline religious elements in that country.

Our own Prime Minister’s singularly uninspired address to the country cannot be put down to the novelty of the challenge that countries like Iran were dealing with.

Consider: for weeks since Pakistan’s first Covid-19 case, federal-level authorities downplayed the threat from the pandemic. All this while, they allowed the Taftan border quarantine to become a veritable petri-dish before scattering its hapless inhabitants all over the country. New cases have appeared in all four provinces by now. Numbers are slated to rise exponentially with all the tragic certainty that we have seen in other countries. After some unnecessary wastage of time, the mass gatherings at stadiums for PSL cricket matches were wrapped up: the tournament will continue but stadiums are to remain empty.

The people of the country nervously awaited word from the man who led us all into Naya Pakistan.

The PM finally deigned to address it all with yet another of his boilerplate addresses “to the nation”. One is left wondering as to what the concrete measures to be taken are. In fact, the only provincial administration which took the threat halfway seriously until the present moment, the Sindh government, was omitted from the PM’s address with characteristic sullen disregard. This is indicative not just of his usual contempt for those who he chooses to see as opponents, but also of his lack of appreciation for the sort of thing that the federal government needs to be doing on a larger and more effective scale. That latter lacking in the PM’s understanding of the situation could – God forbid! – end up costing the country valuable lives if the Covid-19 contagion spreads as currently projected.

Meanwhile, another spectacular failure of policy and imagination – with potentially catastrophic consequences, God forbid! – is the capitulation of the Punjab government to the most deadly form of religious obscurantism. We refer here to Chief Minister Usman Buzdar’s assurance to religious clerics that the functioning of mosques in the country’s most populous province will continue as usual. While countries across the sectarian, religious and political spectrum in the Muslim world have been creatively applying Islamic traditions of community solidarity and prudence to public religious sites, Pakistan’s political and religious elites have responded to the crisis with callousness.

A site as holy as the Kaabah in Saudi Arabia is now subject to precautionary measures. Iran, after immense suffering caused by irrational claims about religious shrines and their ability to defeat the Coronavirus, has now halted Friday prayers until the pandemic passes. Kuwait’s authorities resorted to a modified version of the azan from mosques – which specifically asks the faithful to pray from home. The latter have apparently relied on a tradition that goes back all the way to the State of Madinah which is much referenced in Naya Pakistan.

At this moment, the Chief Minister of Punjab has assured religious clerics that mosque functionality in the province will remain normal: a commitment that is as unwise as it is unsustainable. Not only would any large gatherings contribute to spreading the virus even faster, if cases rise as projected, the authorities will be forced to reverse this policy later and enforce lockdowns.

Those in Pakistan with access to information on the scale of the global pandemic are now left to a nerve-wracking wait – as they hope for course correction from those in charge of the country. Hopefully, that can be done before the contagion gets out of hand.

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