Pakistan’s fight against COVID-19 has been marred with controversies since the time the first few cases were reported towards the end of February. It was attributed to the return of Shia pilgrims from Iran via the Taftan border. So far about 10,000 positive cases have been reported with more than 200 deaths; but Pakistan has been reportedly under-reporting the number of cases each passing day. This underlines that the pandemic might be spreading very fast in the country.
Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan’s half baked attitude on fully implementing ‘lockdown’ and yet opening up businesses and the decision to open Mosques for prayers during the holy month of Ramzan; and on top of it, Islamabad’s desperate attempts to continue politicking on the Kashmir issue, accelerating the cross border terror has cast serious doubts over the Khan government’s policy and its seriousness to contain the pandemic.
Also, the trust deficit between the Federal and the Provisional governments in framing a common policy is another impediment in the fight against the pandemic.
The debate on a complete ‘lockdown’ is still an ongoing one in Pakistan with Prime Minister Khan insisting that a complete lockdown will be disastrous for the poor that accounts for 25% of the population. Therefore, he is trying to achieve the dual goal of keeping the economy moving as well as saving lives.
The Pakistan government has formed a COVID-19 Pandemic Relief fund and Corona Relief Tiger Force (CRTC) that it claims will help in the fight against the pandemic. Mr. Khan has urged overseas Pakistanis to donate into the relief fund. But questions are being asked about the force and the basic criteria for selecting the members of the CRTC.
Pakistan’s opposition is blaming that it is a ‘politicized force’ that will have Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) workers in large numbers and through them, the PTI would infiltrate into the politics of the provinces.
Already, Sindh has refused to use these forces for distributing rations in its region fearing political motives of the federal government.
Moreover, Sindh government’s decision for a complete lockdown despite the federal government’s request to reconsider it; has further broadened the gap between Islamabad and Karachi. The Chief Minister of Sindh, Murad Ali Shah has been portrayed as a hero by the Pakistani media since the spread of the virus because of his decision to lock down the province completely.
Since then, the tussle between the Sindh and federal governments has become almost a daily affair. Whereas, Punjab ruled by PTI has the highest number of cases so far with 4,328 and Khyber-Pakhtunhwa (KPK) that also has a PTI government, with 1,345 cases are reporting a surge in the cases compared to other non-PTI ruled provinces.
The role of religion and the army in Pakistan has once again come to light in the fight against the pandemic. Director-General, Inter Services Public Relations Major General Babar Iftikhar announced that the ‘provinces have summoned the service of the military under article 245 of the 1973 constitution in aid of civilian authorities’. This has paved the way for the army to march comfortably into the democratic space and in the long run, will help legitimize its power and control of decision making.
On the other hand, the federal government has given in to the pressure of the Ulemas and religious scholars for opening up Mosques for prayers during the holy month of Ramzan. The religious scholars have announced a 20 point Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) which will be a guideline on how to maintain distance and go about praying in the mosques.
While its approach is relaxed and casual in fighting the virus, Pakistan is proactive in vocalizing the Kashmir issue.
Imran Khan has criticised India’s new domicile law for Jammu and Kashmir and alleged that this Indian move is to “exploit the international focus on COVID-19 pandemic”.
Pakistan has also resorted to ceasefire violations across the border as well as indulged in militant attacks in Kashmir.
Over the past few weeks, the frequency of unprovoked ceasefire violations by Pakistan has been on the rise. According to reports, Jammu & Kashmir Police has said Pakistan violated the ceasefire in Uri area of Baramulla district and has fired small arms and mortar shells along the LoC in Poonch district through launch pads in PoK.
The differences between two neighbouring countries in fighting COVID-19, is stark. Pakistan runs the danger of positive cases exponentially multiplying and leading to large causalities. This could have a devastating effect on the country.
The ceasefire violations will further complicate the Kashmir issue thus pushing India-Pakistan relations further into the abyss.
Script: Dr. Zainab Akhter, Analyst on Pakistan.