Baluchistan: The Coronavirus Chaos

By Malik Siraj Akbar

It would be wonderful if Coronavirus knew about Baluchistan’s vulnerabilities and internal rifts before hitting the province. When an epidemic hits an area, it is natural and somewhat customary for the people to say, “we are one, and we will fight this together.” That, too, was the initial impression in Baluchistan. Now that we are officially in the middle of the crisis with ten confirmed cases, the task of handling this monumental public health crisis has further encountered a setback not only because of the epidemic but also due to an outbreak of differences between the government and the opposition and different local stakeholders on how to handle this crisis. 

Balochistan’s fight against Coronavirus is going to be different from the rest of the country because of the borders it shares with Iran and Afghanistan.

On the one hand, the dramatic outbreak of Coronavirus in Iran was unfortunate, and the loss of hundreds of lives there was regrettable, the threat doubled because thousands of Pakistanis, mainly members of the Shia sect, were already in Iran for pilgrimage when the crisis worsened there. That meant Pakistanis from different parts of the country would eventually return home via Baluchistan.

While entering Pakistan in Taftan, the return of thousands of Pakistanis from Iran would add an extraordinary burden on Baluchistan’s resources and stretch its ability to test thousands of returning pilgrims. Pakistan has also decided to completely seal its borders with the two neighboring countries. Residents in the border areas heavily depend on informal trade with the two countries for edible items. While the decision to close the borders has been made to keep the public safe and reduce further interactions, it is gradually going to create severe economic hardships for the local communities. The government does not seem to have made any alternative arrangements to convince these populations that if they do not get daily supplies from Iran and Afghanistan, they would still receive edible items from within Pakistan. A limited amount of goods is destined to trigger a price hike. 

Chief Minister Jam Kamal seems to have overpromised when he initially said Baluchistan would take care of this challenge. The government, especially the provincial Disaster Management Authority did a fantastic job by setting up various facilities in Taftan to provide immediate medical assistance to those who return to Pakistan. According to one estimate, 6000 pilgrims have amassed in Taftan while 2000 have left after completing a mandatory two-week quarantine.

In Baluchistan, not many people are happy with the provincial government’s decision to set up facilities to keep the pilgrims in the province weeks after their return. The apparent reason is the fear that they might spread the virus among the local population. There is also this fear that they would add another layer of burden on the province’s resources to deal with this extraordinary crisis. 

Political parties and the civil society staged protests in Quetta, urging the government to immediately make sure that the returning pilgrims are shifted to their native provinces. It is widely and correctly believed in Baluchistan that Pakistan’s other regions, including Islamabad, have more sophisticated and resourceful medical facilities to handle a crisis of this magnitude. Keeping the pilgrims in Baluchistan risks the lack of coverage in the national media and also provides the federal government an opportunity to escape its responsibilities.

On March 11, members of the civil society, labor unions, and lawyers’ associations staged a protest outside the Quetta Press Club, warning the provincial government “not to play games with the lives of the people of Baluchistan.” 

“We do not wish to give a message of hatred toward anyone,” said one of the protesters, “we have assembled here to communicate our concerns to the provincial government about the implications its imprudent policies would have on the people of Baluchistan.”

The protesters emphasized two things: One, Baluchistan does not have the medical facilities and resources to treat thousands of pilgrims returning from Iran. Two, the provincial government must withdraw its decision to shift the pilgrims closer to the civilian population in the Hazar Ganji area.

“While quarantine centers are being established away from civilian populations in places like China, what’s the rationale behind the Baluchistan government bringing people suspected of carrying the virus closer to the civilian population? Is this not a conspiracy to intentionally transfer the virus to Baluchistan?” asked another protester. 

It is a fair question when people in Baluchistan ask why their land is used only for negative purposes: conducting nuclear tests in 1998; building a ballistic missile and nuclear warhead storage in Khuzdar, allowing the Taliban’s infamous Quetta Shura to operate from Quetta, hosting millions of Afghan refugees and now bringing thousands of pilgrims suspected of carrying the Coronavirus with them from Iran.

The provincial government’s decision to convert Sheikh Khalifah Bin Zayyad Hospital in Quetta into an isolation ward is receiving tremendous criticism from various political parties and the local media. 

Tariq Baluch, a senior columnist for Daily Azadi, a leading Urdu language newspaper, questioned the rationale behind this decision in a front-page “special report.” He argued that if the government has set up a quarantine center in Taftan on the Pakistan-Iran border, it is meaningless to bring them back to Quetta.

“The government should instead make arrangements to fly them back to their respective provinces instead of bringing them to Quetta, which increases the risks of spreading the virus in the city,” he wrote.

According to a report, at least 30 patients, who were taken to the Sheikh Khalifah Bin Zayyad Hospital isolation ward, have tested positive with Coronavirus. Most of them are the pilgrims who recently traveled to Iran. They belong to various provinces of Pakistan. There are reports of personnel of the Frontier Corps (FC), also having tested positive. Another report quoted doctors and nurses stationed at this facility complain about the inadequate training and facilities they have received. They do not feel confident and prepared to deal with the situation.

Mr. Baloch of Daily Azadi, said the Sheikh Zayyad Hospital staff had reportedly received only one-hour training on Coronavirus. This indicates the provincial health department’s lack of preparedness to deal with such a severe issue.

Senior editor Anwar Sajidi also questioned the government’s logic behind bringing in the pilgrims to Baluchistan. “How is a province, where a common disease cannot easily be cured, going to handle a major outbreak of Coronavirus precipitated by the pilgrims from other provinces coming to Quetta?” he asked in a recent column in Daily Intekhab.

Meanwhile, five political parties, the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (JUI-Fazal), the National Party, the Pakhtunkhwa Milli Awami Party, the Quomi Watan Party and the Ale Hadit Wal Jumat have decided to suspend their political activities for the next three weeks in the wake of this emergency. They collectively made this decision as an endorsement of the National Security Committee’s advice. 

However, they, too, are monitoring the provincial government’s response very carefully. At a press conference at the Quetta office of the Jamiat-Ulema-e-Islam, representatives of these five parties, headed by Maulana Abdul Wasey of the JUI-F, said under no circumstance would they allow the provincial government to shift the pilgrims from Iran to Quetta, nor will they allow the use of the national highways passing from Baluchistan to transport the pilgrims to their respective provinces. 

“Pilgrims from other provinces should be transported via air from Taftan. If the government does not ensuring doing that, the opposition parties possess the right to protest,” they warned at the press conference.

The joint opposition also advised the provincial government to suspend all the developmental projects and divert them to fighting the Coronavirus menace. 

Meanwhile, Sardar Yar Mohammad Rind, Provincial Minister for Secondary Education, announced at a press conference that all public and private schools would remain closed across the province until March 31. This was decided in consultation with the provincial health department. 

“The decision whether or not the schools would be open after this period would be determined on March 27,” he said, adding that he was also negotiating with authorities responsible for running religious schools across the province.

There are hundreds of religious schools throughout Baluchistan. Most of them are residential schools, which will make it more difficult for the students to decide where, when, and how to return home. Most students study in these schools for months. The only time they ever leave for home is the Eid or an extraordinary situation. Hence, closing down the religious schools would be more challenging than the public and private schools due to logistical challenges. 

On his part, Chief Minister Kamal issued a video message, addressing all of these concerns raised by the opposition and the local media. He said: 

“Several people are taking the issue of settling the pilgrims to Quetta in a strange way, saying that we should not keep them here. We must be more realistic. We are all the citizens of this country, province, and city. Not all pilgrims have Coronavirus, nor should we be afraid of them. The pilgrims, in the first phase, are being kept in isolation, and they are assigned to a more advanced level of scrutiny and care once they show any symptoms of the virus. We’d like to assure the public that our government has already taken all those necessary precautionary measures that other provinces have just started to take. We won’t lose much if we keep our political difference aside just for a month to focus on this crisis. This nation has faced hardships before but I am optimistic that we will prevail this time again.”

Kamal reportedly held a meeting with members of the opposition to discuss the rapidly evolving situation but a blunder by a spokesperson caused tremendous embarrassment to the government when he reportedly posted a photoshopped image of the meeting, that showed the chief minister look much bigger than the rest of the attendees in the meeting.

There was clearly no need for this drama at this time. The government did not need to show more efficiency than what it can do at this time, considering the enormity of the challenge. The photoshopped image did more damage to the government than the great work it has done so far. While making headlines on the BBC, the embarrassing picture showed how much the provincial government is obsessed with its image on social media instead of focusing on the actual work that needs to be done on the ground.

CM Kamal went on to tweet the actual image from the meeting, assuring the public that the meeting actually took place. While the public must forgive the provincial government for this blunder, it is important for Jam Kamal and the team to realize that this situation is not all about them, nor is it a moment of personal publicity. It is a dire situation. They must keep themselves and their photos behind and let their actions speak for them. This is no time to strive for “likes” and “retweets” on social media. Baluchistan, just like the rest of the world, is in the midst of one of the worst humanitarian crises of our lifetime.

Finally, the federal government must commit substantial resources to help Balochistan deal with this crisis. Mere praise for or promises to the provincial government will not help Quetta handle this situation. Prime Minister Imran Khan must not waste more time in announcing an assistance package for the province to deal with various aspects of this crisis. Balochistan must not be left alone to grapple with this epidemic.

Malik Siraj Akbar is the editor-in-chief of the Baluch Hal
Email: malik@thebaluchhal.com

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