Questions after Wuhan

What are the people doing? It seems it’s business as usual.


Kamal Siddiqi March 02, 2020
PHOTO: REUTERS

Till a week back, when I arrived in Karachi from a trip
abroad, the health screening process involved a couple of clueless staffers at a barrier before immigration wearing substandard surgical masks using thermometers to check
the temperatures of incoming passengers. The only question they asked was whether any passenger was arriving from Africa. That’s it.

I don’t know what Dr Zafar Mirza is on when he says that rigorous screening have been put into place at points of entry across Pakistan. The only checks seem to be in Islamabad – the rest of Pakistan has been left to its own devices.

The situation seems worse at the land borders where even these checks were not in place till a week back. Instead of trying to understand the gravity of the problem, the government is trying to show what a good job it is doing. We are being led by short-sighted people.

Now consider this: with a full-blown pandemic in the making with its origin in China, we decided much into the crisis to close flights from China. That too after many weeks.  But the overland border remains open. That is a bigger problem.

With Iran, where we are not sure of the extent of the crisis, the land border was closed but flights kept coming in - even after the government said they were suspending flights. We are still not serious about Iran and Afghanistan. There is no restriction on travel to those countries. We haven’t figured out what to do with Pakistanis stranded in those countries either.

Let us not fool ourselves. This problem will grow, the question is whether we are properly understanding the nature and extent of what we are about to face. The world is slowly moving towards lockdown. We also should be taking measures to ensure that it does not cripple us in the days to come.

Instead what we see is that rumours are flying all over. The media is leading the way. All sorts of stories are making the headlines because of which there is a state of panic amongst many people. Such news-persons need to be taken to task. PEMRA should be taking action under its code of conduct.

What are the people doing? It seems it’s business as usual. Shaadis and festivals are in full swing. Markets and malls remain thronged. Restaurants and cinemas continue to trudge along. People are not sure what to do and what not to. There is no sense of washing hands and keeping clean and maintaining hygiene. Many seem to think that by wearing a substandard surgical mask, they can stay safe.

And no, this is not God punishing the Chinese. The virus has spread beyond borders and neither is this some sort of chemical warfare conspiracy. And yes, it affects God-fearing Muslims as well.

The problem isn’t whether we are finding new cases. They are surfacing all over the world. The issue is how we are handling the crisis. What have we put into place to deal with the situation - where do we take those who test positive? What campaign are we running to detect new cases. What should people do by way of preventive measures?

With regards to the Pakistani students in Wuhan, it is best to bring them back. This isn’t about Pakistan-China friendship. China will not be offended. It is our nationals in distress in a foreign land. We could have flown them and put them in quarantine, just all other countries -from the US to Sri Lanka, did with their citizens caught up there. Instead we have abandoned them in the hope that if we ignore them long enough, the problem will go away.

Where is the leadership in Pakistan in what is emerging as one of the world’s biggest challenges this year and possibly in years to come? This muddling through will not help us. The PM and his cabinet needs to wake up and with the advice of internationals experts - preferably the Chinese who know most about how to handle this situation, put together an action plan that gives us some direction. And please let any commission be headed by an expert in the field not some civil or military bureaucrat. It is time to do something serious.

Published in The Express Tribune, March 2nd, 2020.

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