More testing needed
Reports that new coronavirus cases are decreasing across the country are indeed welcome, but this latest trend must be analysed to get a clear picture of the threat from the infection. According to the National Command and Control Centre chair Asad Umar, the four parameters through which the spread of the virus can be gauged — that is, the number of daily positive cases, number of admitted patients, number of patients on ventilators and number of deaths — have all shown a decrease. While the news of fewer patients being critically ill is undoubtedly positive, the figures for ‘lower daily positive cases’ must be examined further. Anecdotal or circumstantial evidence which suggests that fewer people are approaching hospitals and testing labs should not be the benchmark for assessing the situation.
While there could be multiple explanations behind the low demand for Covid-19 tests, the government’s approach to testing and getting an accurate picture of the spread of Covid-19 in communities should not be linked to the demand for tests. Instead, the health authorities must conduct Covid-19 tests at random in communities across the country and see what the data reveals. In New Zealand, a country with a population about 50 times smaller than that of Pakistan, the average daily testing in the month of April was about 3,500 — a test per person ratio which, if applied here, would amount to about 175,000 daily tests. In a more densely populated country such as Vietnam, the testing ratio of 791 tests for every confirmed case, too, is in sharp contrast to Pakistan’s numbers which show six tests for every confirmed case. While these countries may differ in size, what Vietnam and New Zealand have in common are the fact that both have kept Covid-19 infections low.
New Zealand, which had recently celebrated no new cases, is still aggressively testing and contact tracing travellers entering the country. This information shows that, regardless of the extent of demand for Covid-19 tests, Pakistan’s testing capacity must increase. That authorities were unable to cross the figure of 31,000 tests in a single day is disappointing, and an area where more work needs to be done urgently. The goal for 100,000 tests by July is far from being met, with the recent week recording between just 20,000 to 25,000 tests. According to WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, “Although many countries have made some progress, globally the pandemic is actually speeding up.” Without a cure and with no accurate analysis about the reportedly low figures in Pakistan, precautionary measures and testing for Covid-19 cannot be eased. As the virus spreads in other countries, Pakistan must be vigilant and aggressive in its approach to curb its spread. Complacency in testing and premature celebrations which are not backed by data and science will send the wrong message, and give the public a false sense of security.
Petrol blame game
FEARS that the petrol crisis could trigger a damaging blame game within the government are now coming true. The government has tried to first blame the whole fiasco on the oil marketing companies, then blamed its predecessors for having bequeathed a ‘mafia’ to the country, and is now casting blame on the regulator for not having done enough through the crisis. The central fact at play is that the crisis has grown out of its inability to manage the supply chain at a time of great volatility in international oil prices. Fixing the mess will take more than one price revision. It will take sustained interface with industry, consumer groups, and those with expertise in global oil markets to reform the pricing mechanism to bring about two specific improvements. First is greater transparency, and the second is tighter integration between domestic and international prices. This is what is required to limit the space for manipulative behaviour. Instead, the energy and petroleum ministry seems to be casting about to find a villain in the whole affair.
The oil and gas regulator seems to be the latest in the line of fire coming from the ministry. All through the crisis, Ogra continuously pointed out the mismanagement that was taking place, and warned that an oil supply crisis could result from these decisions if course correction were not undertaken rapidly. Recently, the regulator detailed all its actions as well as the mismanagement of the ministry in a report submitted to the cabinet, which triggered an indignant response from the ministry. In its report, Ogra pointed specifically to the actions of the director general oil in the Petroleum Division, who took it upon himself to alter decisions that had already been made. It also drew attention to the ministry’s lumbering attempt to try and operate the oil supply chain via command, first by ordering oil marketing companies “to cancel their planned imports” on March 25, a ban that remained in place till April 26, and then by ordering two refineries to resume production to ensure diesel stocks for the harvest season. The ministry also tried to blame Ogra for not doing enough to ensure industry players maintain their required mandatory 20 days’ stock, but the regulator had a clear reply that this was the ministry’s own job. This latest round in the blame game will get us nowhere. The emphasis must be on reform, not blame.
Palestine land grab
IF all goes according to plan, Israel will initiate the latest phase of its colonial land grab of Palestinian territory today by annexing West Bank settlements and the Jordan Valley. While international opinion has roundly condemned this blatant illegality, the Israelis have little to fear as they have American support to back them up in this crime. In fact, were it not for Donald Trump’s widely panned ‘deal of the century’ — a euphemism for complete Palestinian surrender and an Israeli declaration of victory that spells the end of the two-state solution — those ruling Tel Aviv may not have attempted such a bold affront to international law. UN human rights chief Michelle Bachelet did not mince her words when she said that “annexation is illegal. Period,” while adding that the move would be “disastrous for the Palestinians”.
Ever since the Nakba — the great Palestinian catastrophe, dislocation and mass exodus that accompanied the founding of the state of Israel in 1948 — Zionists have been gnawing away at Arab land. This expropriation gained considerable speed after the humiliating 1967 Arab-Israeli War, and today, if Israel and its powerful patrons go ahead with their grim plan, any hopes of a viable Palestinian state will be buried forever. What Mr Trump’s plan envisages is a bantustan, little more than a glorified concentration camp where the Arabs can be locked up, out of sight and out of mind, while Israel is free to devour choice Palestinian land and plant its flag on it. Both major Palestinian factions — Hamas and Fatah — have denounced Tel Aviv’s plan, with Hamas warning that annexation would be a “declaration of war”. The fact is that the Palestinians have no choice but to resist; accepting the imposition of an apartheid state on their land will spell the end of the Palestinian dream of a workable state with Al Quds as its capital. The international community must not remain silent in the face of Israeli impunity and speak up for the dispossessed Palestinians.
Published in the DAWN, July 1, 2020