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Editorial | Violations Of SOPs At Religious Processions Expose State’s Inability To Govern

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Pakistanis were appalled to see videos circulating on the internet of various events that were held throughout the country in commemoration of Yaum-e-Ali on Friday, apparently in defiance of government restrictions and Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs).

In these visuals of massive crowds, it is clear that there is absolutely no concern for social distancing. It is almost as if the defiance of good sense in the middle of a pandemic adds to the display of religious fervour.

In fact, such ideas have been promoted among the public, not just by some religious clerics, but by a figure as high up as the Prime Minister himself – who linked concern over the Coronavirus to a lack of “confidence”. Or even more recently, federal minister Asad Umar, who has apparently been formulating Pakistan’s response to the pandemic, could be heard saying that we cannot live a life of fear, etc. It is only a short step from such statements to the position taken by some clerics – across sectarian lines – that if you start following social-distancing protocols that have been prescribed all over the world, it is somehow an admission that you lack confidence in the Divine.

But there is a much deeper problem which was once again put on display yesterday: the lack of the Pakistani state’s capacity to govern. There has been a stream of concessions by authorities to various pressure groups who oppose proper social distancing measures. Whether it is the lifting of an already flimsy lockdown for “economic” reasons, or capitulating to clerics’ demand for congregational prayers and optional Ramzan devotions such as Taraveeh and Aitekaaf gatherings, there is one unifying strand running through it all. That is the failure of the government to draw a line in the sand and stick to it.

There is only a continuation of the same reluctance to govern in yesterday’s massive Yaum-e-Ali gatherings and the sectarian counter-gatherings. Some reports even suggest that the PM himself is adamant that SOPs in marketplaces and other public gatherings not be enforced too strictly.

Meanwhile, government figures appear to be hinting at a Boris Johnson-style “herd immunity” gamble, while citing the discredited example of Sweden – which, for not imposing a lockdown, is already paying the price of a death rate several times greater than its Scandinavian neighbours who enforced social distancing.

Official numbers for infections and deaths are rising at an unsettling rate, as was predicted. The government insists that the public will somehow come out of this pandemic more lightly than Western countries, Iran and China itself – except for economic woes. So far, authorities in Pakistan have not really shared any concrete reasons for such optimism on the public health front. When they do comment, the reasons that they cite are patently discredited theories.

Currently, for Pakistanis who are keeping abreast of Coronavirus developments across the world, there is only one source of hope: that somehow, the government knows something game-changing that the rest of us do not. The alternative is too alarming to contemplate.

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