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Underwhelming response

Severely hit by COVID-19, Pakistan has nevertheless resisted calls for a general lockdown, with the worst effects of this governmental negligence evident in Balochistan

Underwhelming response

With 456 detected positive, Pakistan is the most severely hit South Asian country by the Coronavirus pandemic. 'Coronakratch' — an acronym for the pandemic of 'Coronavirus, king of all crashes' — has been coined by Frédéric Lordon, Director (Research) at Centre de Sociologie Européenne (CSE), under Centre Européen de Sociologie et de Science Politique (CNRS), who has penned a 3,000-plus word essay in 'Le Mondediplomatique' on the issue. Two reportedly succumbed to the ravages of SARS-CoV 2, mutated in the global media as COVID-19. SARS-CoV-2 is actually "the seventh coronavirus known to infect humans; SARS-CoV, MERS-CoV and SARS-CoV-2 can cause severe disease" unlike HKU1, NL63, OC43 and 229E which are associated with mild symptoms.

The largest number of confirmed infection is in the province of Sindh, followed by Balochistan and Punjab with 81 and 78 persons, afflicted with the highly infectious 'novel pneumonia'. Obviously, there is 'complete chaos' in the Sindh capital Karachi, where healthcare workers have been taking on the COVID-19 scare as hundreds of people flock to Karachi's top five government hospitals, such as Agha Khan University Hospital and Jinnah Hospital Karachi, to get tested. A sense of an unnerved collective psyche is explicit. "If we refuse, based on their history, they turn around and get angry and some even get downright abusive. People are counselled but they don't maintain social distancing," stated an infectious disease specialist at Dow University of Health Sciences, Karachi, Dr Shobha Luxmi.

The situation is more socially traumatic in Balochistan, where over 70 per cent people below the poverty line struggle for survival. Taftan, a small transit border town, about 630 km south-westward from the Baloch capital Quetta, resembles China's Wuhan where the pandemic was first sprouted. With a population of approximately 14,000 people, mostly poor, the town is the main border entry point between Pakistan but too under-developed to provide the basic infrastructure for over 70 per cent of inhabitants. In February-end, Zafar Mirza, Special Assistant on Health to Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan, visited the town to term the arrangements satisfactory, without caring to meet pilgrims whose living conditions are pathetic. Most of them are Shiite but camped on the other side of the border which remained sealed since mid-February. The step-motherly attitude towards the Baloch by Islamabad (read the ruling Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf) is unforgivable.

All said and done, the contagion keeps escalating. According to the Pakistan Ministry of Health's daily situation report, until March 18, of the 1,621 tests, 241 were positive. But that is hardly 10 per cent of the people who needed to be tested. Yet, Pakistan with a population, crossing 220 million, is not yet under lockdown, though there is a general ban on public gatherings — including weddings, social gatherings and congregations. Schools and other educational institutions would remain shut until April 3. All shopping centres, cinemas, public parks, non-essential government offices and other locations are under mandated closure for an indefinite period. Furthermore, the federal government has already closed its land borders with Afghanistan too, while screening all air travel passengers.

At least 800 Pakistani students are trapped in Wuhan, China. Islamabad shows no interest in evacuating them. Their parents are aggrieved and have been in protestation. The stranded Pakistani students expressed their anger to the foreign media in Beijing. The NBC news channel telecast the mood of resentful students widely. Hafsa Tayyab, a student, regretted, "We came to know that our country is not going to evacuate us." Her uncle, Muhammad Ashfaq Sandhu, said via WhatsApp: "The government is not listening, I don't know why they are not listening. They should take care of their children now. This is the time, our one and only demand is to evacuate our students or at least ship them from the epidemic centre."

Some Pakistanis welcome PTI government's reluctance to bring them back on the plea of risk of importing infection. One Akber Zeb Pirzada tweeted: "We should send donations and aid to China, not just because they are Pakistani but because they are people. They need support but it is unwise to import a disease back here that can kill millions knowing half of the population isn't even vaccinated."

Globally, the only good news is that the conspiracy theories behind the pandemic have been rubbished. Scientists of Scripps Institution in a paper titled The proximal origin of SARS-CoV-2, published in Nature Medicine online daily inferred, based on extensive scrutiny, "Our analyses clearly show that SARS-CoV-2 is not a laboratory construct or a purposefully manipulated virus."

French academic Frédéric Lordon, who coined the term "Coronokratch", smells in the pandemic the 'good taste not to last too long and to tighten a little in time its geographical spread, it can pass without too much breakage. But it may also not. A committed Marxist, he is keener to note the crumbling neoliberal global system which is disorganised with irrational spanners at its hitherto unassailable neo-managerial rationality. IPA

Views expressed are strictly personal

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