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Vilifying Lockdown Is A Move By Government To Cover Up Its Incompetence

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When a leader of Imran Khan’s stature vilifies a recognised public health measure and portrays it as a weapon of the rich against the poor, he is not only instigating civil war but also ignoring both western and Islamic traditions as well as standard practices and health advisories that have stood the test of time, writes Nida Usman Chaudhry.

Quarantine is a standard public health measure when it comes to infectious diseases. Its use as a preventive measure against such diseases is as old as the Plague of Justinian that erupted in 541-542 AD.

In Islamic tradition as well, Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) is reported to have advised quarantine as an effective measure against contagious diseases. He said, “Do not place a sick patient with a healthy person.” (Sahih Bukhari). As early on as 706 and 707 the sixth Umayyad Caliph Al-Walid built an isolation ward in one of the first hospitals in Damascus to isolate those infected with leprosy from others and this practice continued throughout the Ottoman rule.

As trade and travel grew, a number of plagues affected Europe in the 14th century onwards including the most devastating bubonic plague or black death of the mid 14th century, small pox in early 16th century and the Spanish flu of the 20th century.

What we have learned so far from the elaborate history of plagues and pandemics across centuries is that when pandemics hit, medical measures alone are not sufficient. They need to be supplemented by effective and well-coordinated social and civic measures in order to contain and/or slowdown the spread. In such times, reducing mortality and avoiding breakdown of social and economic functions often become competing and conflicting concerns. However, the standard operating procedures across centuries have been very clear and until vaccines and cure are found, the only way to contain the spread and save lives is via responsible physical distancing, hygiene, and lockdowns.

Even our Islamic tradition supports this notion as the Holy Prophet (P.B.U.H) is reported to have said, “If you hear that there is a plague in a land, do not enter it; and if it (plague) visits a land while you are therein, do not go out of it.” (Sahih Bukhari)

Confinement and travel restrictions however, do not just relate to border control and also apply to several other facets of our society which fall prey to pandemics. For instance, life as we know it comes to a halt as schools and businesses are shut down and gatherings are prohibited or limited affecting freedom of movement of people, right to work and to go to school. But these public health measures act to lower the contact frequency and play a crucial role for managing the disease by front line officers and medical staff. Such measure can buy valuable time for a cure or vaccine to be made which in turn could save lives and protects right to life. Altogether, the public health measures and the medical measures when combined decrease the number of infected persons. History teaches us that these two anti-pandemic measures combined can save lives and slowdown the outbreak in a society.

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The question really being asked here is which of the fundamental rights do we prioritise in times like these and the answer to a health official would always be – life, the right to life as opposed to right to work or to education. To a policy maker however, the concerns may well be very different and they may argue as they do that socio-economic implications of lockdowns on the society at some level also violate the right to life especially when vulnerable groups such as daily wage workers are affected. Consequently, they might die of hunger or helplessness.

While that may be true and one must accept that income inequality does have dire consequences for the poor, especially when they are unable to access their opportunities to earn a living. It is nevertheless, a dangerous and irresponsible narrative to vilify lockdowns as if they were a ‘western conspiracy’ and ‘elitist oppression’ on the poor. It is simply untrue to say that they were imposed without a thought for the poor by the elite, given that it is the government of the day that has the power to issue notifications as regards the lockdown in a state or province of the state and not the ‘elite’.

In Punjab for instance, it was the Home Department of the Government of the Punjab which imposed Section 144 via its notification dated 23rd March 2020 to address the Covid-19 pandemic and which clearly states that, “whereas, there has been an increase in the number of pandemic corona virus cases in the province of Punjab as well as Pakistan which may have devastating effects on human lives. Hence, it is mandatory to take all possible measures to contain the further spread of corona virus on war footings”. As an immediate preventive and speedy remedy necessary to ensure public safety, conserve lives and maintain peace and tranquility in the province of Punjab a lockdown is imposed with certain exemptions for the necessary and essential service providers.

Sindh had imposed this curfew much earlier under the able leadership of Murad Ali Shah and other provinces followed suit. These decisions were based on recognised health advisories and precedents as regards pandemics and their response and not on the whims and wishes of oppressive elite. To say otherwise would be to reject the centuries old wisdom and experience and if not deliberately and willfully, putting the lives and health of people at risk.

It is for this reason that the recent speech of the premier on 30th April 2020 at COMSTECH, was disturbing and frankly, incorrect, particularly, where he stated that “elite ne faisla kerliya saray mulk keliye” and imposed a lockdown. Coronavirus affects the rich as well and because they cannot go abroad for treatment or travel, they rushed towards a lockdown without giving a thought to the daily wage workers.

It is important to ask which elite the premier was referring to. PM Khan is a member of that elite and his government imposed the lockdown. Was he implying that someone else is in control and overrides his decisions? PM’s remarks were rather telling. Furthermore, these measures are not historically unprecedented so it must be asked why this dangerous and false narrative of pitching the poor against the rich?

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In the same speech, the premier later contradicted himself and admitted, with reference to Singapore, that the plague spread more widely through the immigrant workers crammed in one room with the ease in the lockdown such that they had to go back to containment mode.

When a leader of Imran Khan’s stature vilifies a recognised public health measure and portrays it as a weapon of the rich against the poor, he is not only instigating civil war but also ignoring both western and Islamic traditions as well as standard practices and health advisories that have stood the test of time.

The real reason why poor people have it hard is because of the existing income inequalities which exacerbates the implications of such infectious diseases on them be it in terms of their life, health, economic or other opportunities.

The truth is that developing countries like Pakistan have not been able to develop the social infrastructure and improved healthcare and social security for their people to improve their standard of living – a fact which even the premier acknowledged in his speech. One may agree with the notion that more investments in social, health and education sectors is needed to address the challenge of the existing and increasing divide in face of pandemics on the vulnerable groups in the long-term. But this shouldn’t be done at the cost of immediate short-term measures such as lockdowns and physical distancing which can help protect lives. If confinement is not observed and lockdowns are not implemented in a country like Pakistan, there is serious danger that poor would be among the most adversely affected; a) because their living conditions are more susceptible to contagion and b) because they have limited means to access healthcare and are not in a position to afford it privately.

At this point, what is needed is perhaps to ensure that a lockdown continues while enabling and facilitating the relief efforts, both public and private, so that the hardship faced by the most vulnerable classes of persons including daily wage workers, sanitation workers, women, children, elderly and the differently-abled are minimised. There is a need to take collective action and to come together to support fellow beings and to prioritise their life over other human rights at least for the time being because economies can be revived but human beings cannot.

If the government is serious in addressing the class divide, they should coordinate efforts to improve these fundamental services and in making them more accessible across the board rather than painting a vile picture of rich against the poor. Instead of working towards redistribution of wealth towards greater equality and uplifting all peoples, which the premier expressed as a desired goal, this narrative of shifting the blame to the rich is at best a means to distract the population from the real challenges and inefficiencies of those who are in representative and governing roles.

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