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Keeping Mosques Open During Ramzan Will Risk Millions Of Lives

In an effort to maintain its populist streak, the government has allowed the mosques to remain functional for regular prayers and Taraveeh during Ramzan. The absurdity of this decision can be gauged from the fact that mosques are closed for public in most Muslim countries and will remain so indefinitely until the epidemic is under control, writes Ali Zaidi.

The onset of COVID-19 shook the entire world and caught many countries by surprise. But it is debatable whether the global spread of the virus can be attributed to mere surprise. There is a strong case to be made for suppression of information and world leaders and international organisations such as WHO’s failure to take timely preventive measures.

Even when the viral outbreak had gone global and was spreading rapidly through much of Europe and North America, the casual attitude and lackluster response by many world leaders is stupefying. Only when people began dying in Iran and Italy, the world was suddenly jolted out of their deep slumber. Rooted in arrogance and ignorance by equal measures, the early response or lack of, to the pandemic caused an exponential rise in the number of affected people worldwide.

The global public health emergency exposed serious vulnerabilities in the global capacity to tackle and arrest the spread of communicable diseases. The International Health Regulations 2005, of which 194 countries are signatory, proved ineffective to arrest and contain the initial spread of coronavirus.

The member states were required to implement the precautionary measures prescribed by W.H.O to isolate and contain the spread of coronavirus, however many countries initially failed to properly implement the requisite protocols for containment. This presents a compelling case for a unified and binding international legal regime and response system that sets out binding rules, protocols, regulations, procedures as well as strict penalties for non-compliance thereof. Moreover, the W.H.O should set-up global emergency funds for providing emergency assistance to developing nations for tackling epidemics and preventing further contamination and spread of communicable diseases.

Having little resources to allocate for large scale screening, testing and social isolation of people is a major challenge for many developing countries. It is a hindrance in the effective implementation of the International Health Regulations by the member states.

Like many other countries, the government here also appeared to be taken by surprise. Screening counters were set up at the major airports, but initially only patients coming from China were screened, this was despite the global nature of the outbreak. The quarantine center established at the Taftan Border for the screening and detention of the pilgrims returning from Iran was a health hazard. It was haphazardly put together, lacked basic facilities and adequately trained and equipped staff.

This colossal mistake became a major source for further spread of coronavirus in the country.  The attendees of religious congregation in Raiwind were also responsible for spreading the virus in the country. The Punjab government’s decision to cut short the annual religious gathering at Raiwind came too late, as by then thousands of people from all over the world had already gathered in and around Lahore. The Ijetama became a breeding ground for the pandemic in Punjab, and despite the lockdown of Raiwind, hundreds of attendees were still able to leave the premises and, in all likelihood, carried the contagion back with them.

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There seems to be an absence of foresight, planning and leadership in the federal government’s response against the pandemic. The delay in the enforcement of lockdown saw the numbers of coronavirus patients swell throughout the country. When the Sindh government imposed the lockdown in the province, the federal government was still downplaying the possibility of contemplating such a step. The PM in his speech cited economic concerns and initially refused to impose a lockdown, but later through surprising turn of events, the decision was reversed overnight and the military was called ‘in the aid of civilian administration’ under Article 245 and a nationwide lockdown was imposed.

There is an acute shortage of medical kits and safety gear for the healthcare professionals in the country, this happened when the P.M himself had admitted that he had been monitoring the coronavirus situation since January. The shortage of safety gear and protective kits for doctors and nurses implies that hundreds of doctors and paramedic staff are treating Covid-19 patients without any protection. It is being reported that the rate of coronavirus infections in doctors and paramedics is growing rapidly, the Nishtar Hospital in Multan was reportedly the most affected, where a large number of healthcare professionals were tested positive for coronavirus.

This sparked nationwide protests by the healthcare professionals, and the police in their usual fashion is using brute force to quell the protests. It was a grim and painful sight – the nation’s first line of defense against the outbreak being manhandled for demanding basic protective gear.

With little to show for in terms of actual progress in slowing down and curtailing the spread of coronavirus, the government took the populist route, in what appears to be a bid to gain public approval and acceptance, a 1.2 trillion rupees relief package for the poor segment of society was announced, along with a bevy of other shenanigans such as the Tiger Force. The rationale of the ‘Tiger Force’, a force comprising inexperienced young people, when thousands of experienced and trained government health workers are already available is difficult to comprehend. The financial strain of employing and maintaining the force has to be considered, especially at a time when intelligent and smart allocation of funds is the order of the day keeping in view the limited resources at the disposal of the government.

Last week the federal government announced certain relaxations in the lockdown. The decision to enforce the so-called smart lockdown by the government not only threatens to eliminate all benefits that may have been gained during the lockdown but it could also perpetuate a dangerous perception in public that the danger has passed, causing people to lower their guards and becoming vulnerable.

In an effort to maintain its populist streak, the government officially reopened mosques for regular prayers and Taraveeh during Ramzan.  The absurdity of this decision can be gauged from the fact that mosques are closed for public in most Muslim countries and will remain so indefinitely until the epidemic is under control. The religious lobby resisted the government’s decision to close down mosques during the lockdown, and thousands continued to gather in mosques for Friday prayers.

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Some guidelines have been issued for the worshippers to follow but whether those guidelines will be effective remains to be seen. There is also a possibility that this decision may be viewed as discrimination against religious minorities, because churches and temples are still closed throughout Pakistan but mosques have been allowed to open.

The unofficial policy so far has been to under-report the numbers in Pakistan, maybe it is something we borrowed from the Chinese playbook, but now even the Chinese government is reconsidering their policy of under reporting the numbers after facing much criticism from the world. Here it could be in part owing to the limited capacity of the government and private labs to test people and partly as an exercise in public relations.

Keeping the number of patients artificially low creates the perception that things are well under control and the government is doing well. However, it also hides the true magnitude of the epidemic – a mistake that could prove to be fatal. The government had used this gap in information to their advantage when they built their case for relaxation in the lockdown on the idea that the epidemic is under control within the country and it is not spreading as fast as they had expected, but they perhaps overlooked the crucial bit of information that it is spreading nonetheless.

This poses a serious risk to the well-being and safety of the public. The economic cost of the lockdown and its consequences are undeniable. It is a crisis in making. However, the damning consequences of coronavirus far outweighs the economic benefits from resuming the industry at this stage. The government had already announced an economic package for the industries as well as the most affected families in the country, continuing the lockdown at this stage for another few weeks would have helped curtailed the epidemic in the country. At this stage, thousands of people are possible carriers of the contagion and now with relaxation in the lockdown, the risk of transmission has risen manifolds.

There is a visible tussle between the federal government and the Sindh government over the pandemic. At a time when joint and concerted efforts are necessary to protect people, the polarization between the two governments is spreading uncertainty in public. Few days into the relaxation of lockdown, and with an unseen enemy lurking among us, the streets are now populated with people warming up for the upcoming Ramzan.

Tailor shops are open, and soon bazaars and markets will also open. How effectively people are able to practice social distancing in the coming few weeks will determine the fate of pandemic in the country.

The most vulnerable segment of society is usually the most affected in pandemics, with high poverty rate and restricted capacity of the healthcare system in Pakistan, the daily wage earners, factory workers, laborers and construction workers are the ones most likely to suffer the brunt of Corvid-19, if god forbid the numbers of infection continue to rise at their present rate.

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