Pakistan’s Covid crisis story has been one of confusion, uncertainty and a concoction of a flood of conspiracy theories. Which is why the extremely dangerous situation we are facing now is not at all unexpected. We had at least three months to prepare our people against this crisis. Right from March, 2020, when the first cases started emerging in Pakistan, alarm bells sounded with doctors and medical experts issuing warnings; the WHO recommending strict lockdown, and the media also pointing towards an impending crisis. From the government side there has been lackluster response from the beginning (with only the Sindh government having taken it seriously). The lockdown that the government now says lasted for a month and a half was in fact never really in place. Even before it was lifted formally ahead of Eidul Fitr, people remained on the streets and the quarantine we saw in other countries was never seen. For this, the government must answer. The consequences have been severe. Currently, we have over 145,000 Covid-19 cases in the country, and there have been over 2,700 deaths.
Could we have avoided this outcome? In all probability, yes. The core of the issue lies in the contradictory messages issued by the government and its ministers alike. First, there were reassurances that it is nothing but some sort of flu that is not going to affect many. Then there was reluctance in imposing a lockdown on the pretext of a failing economy, which was declining anyway much before the coronavirus hit the country. Advisers and ministers were taking it lightly, some even going so far as comparing the casualties in road accidents with corona deaths. Then there were mishandlings at entry points into the country, without proper screening, and then in trying to trace those who had already infected others and disappeared. All this shows a lack of coordination between the various ministries and even the NDMA seemed to lack the required wherewithal to tackle the crisis.
With 4,000 to 6,000 new cases now being reported daily, we see a new round of action from the Punjab government, which follows the ‘smart’ lockdowns already announced by Imran Khan. Last week, some areas of Islamabad were completely locked down after being identified as coronavirus hotspots. The National Command and Control Centre has identified hotspots in 20 cities. We still await a final decision and more clarity on how things will move forward from now. Slow decision-making and trepidation in making decisions has been our key downfall. This time around, we can only hope the lockdowns will be effectively imposed and that they will be followed up by widespread testing to identify Covid-19 victims, offer them treatment and isolate those they have been in contact with. As people continue to die each day in hospitals, and those who live face constant fear, we hope the government will stick to its renewed realization that Covid-19 is indeed a serious problem and that is why it has been treated as an emergency across the 202 countries which have been affected. The policy of ‘let’s-blame-the-people’ cannot work and is a tone-deaf approach to this crisis.
In yet another much-delayed agreement the Afghan government and the Taliban group have agreed that Doha, in Qatar, will be the venue for the first meeting in their peace talks. This will not only be the first intra-Afghan dialogue but will also be the first high-level meeting between the two sides that have been fighting for decades now, without much progress apart from killing each other’s thousands of fighters and soldiers. Though the date for the talks is yet to be finalized, it is anticipated that the first condition of releasing 5, 000 Taliban prisoners by the Afghan government needs to be fulfilled before the talks actually take place. The two sides have now to settle their differences on the promised release which may take place in a week or two. The Taliban are still insisting that the prisoner release must be completed before any formal peace talks can begin between the two sides. Though the Kabul government was not part of the deal that the Taliban and the US signed in February this year, the government has already released 3, 000 Taliban prisoners.
Now there is new hope to end the war that has raged for nearly two decades, not counting the last 20 years of the previous century that were also consumed by intermittent civil war. Since the Taliban have been keeping a political office in Doha since 2013, the peace talks are likely to go smoothly there. Afghanistan’s warring sides need to take these long-awaited peace talks seriously as a sustainable ceasefire is hardly possible unless a political settlement is reached to end years of conflict in Afghanistan. Both sides need a breakthrough development this time around otherwise the decades long stalemate will continue endlessly. If the two adversaries keep considering each other enemies, peace negotiations are not likely to move ahead. It is sad that the Taliban have been refusing to end hostilities before the talks could begin, and that is one reason the Kabul government was reluctant to release the Taliban prisoners. Under persistent attacks by the Taliban, the Kabul government relented and started releasing prisoners.
In return, the Taliban were also supposed to release one thousand Afghan security personnel being held by the Taliban, of which 600 detainees have been released so far. Unfortunately, in the last one week alone, over 400 government security forces across the country have been killed or injured. One can only hope that the talks are held early and result in the peaceful and practical withdrawal of all American troops, its allies, and coalition partners. All non-diplomatic civilian personnel and private security contractors are also supposed to withdraw from Afghanistan within 14 months. If that happens, we may then see the Afghan stakeholders try and come to some sort of peace understanding in the country.
Published in The News, June 16, 2020.