How To Promote Social Distancing in Baluchistan?

By Malik Siraj Akbar

It has been only two weeks since the Baluchistan government launched its efforts to combat the elusive coronavirus. The Chief Minister, Jam Kamal, is already feeling the burnout. He seems jaded, agitated, and somewhat upset because he feels under-appreciated and unsupported. In a video call with Prime Minister Imran Khan’s National Security Committee on Monday, Kamal bursted out against the federal government and other provinces for not fully acknowledging and commending what Baluchistan has already done despite its limited resources and being confronted with an unanticipated situation that involved dealing with thousands of pilgrims from Iran, a nation already devastated by the lethal virus.

“There is a severe shortage of coronavirus testing kits and ventilators in Baluchistan,” Kamal informed the meeting, which was chaired by the Prime Minister. He regretted that Baluchistan was being singled out for the inadequate arrangements for the pilgrims in Taftan. The next day, Kamal went on to post photos, and even drone footage of the mini tent city the provincial government has established in Taftan to convince everyone how much his government has done during this crisis.

Balochistan Chief Minister Jam Kamal participates in the Prime Minister’s video conference call on the Coronavirus on March 16, 2020

Apparently, Khan does not seem impressed with Kamal because of the sloppy handling of the situation in Baluchistan that has tremendously irked the Sindh government which now blames Baluchistan for not observing due diligence in dealing with the whole situation. With 172 positive coronavirus cases, Sindh accounts for 72% of Pakistan’s total cases. Sindh, a robust contributor to Pakistan’s economy and a dense urban population, is reasonably concerned about the fallout of this epidemic on its economy.

While the Baluchistan government repeatedly ignored the public and the local opposition parties when they called out inefficiencies and shortcomings in managing the returning pilgrims, Syed Murad Ali Shah, the Sindh Chief Minister, has lashed out on the Baluchistan government for its negligence. Shah, who has earned public praise for his proactive response to the rapidly emerging tough situation, feels helpless given what he views as Baluchistan’s improper handling of the entire situation. He has criticized Quetta for the “blunder” at the Taftan quarantine facility that has allegedly “exposed more people to the virus instead of saving them.” Shah pointed out that his government had to test all the pilgrims again when they returned to Sindh because authorities in Baluchistan did not follow the standard practice. “Instead of keeping one person in each quarantine camp, they were sitting next to each other at the Taftan border,” he reportedly complained. 

Shah is terrified because his challenges are going to multiply from today when another more than six hundred pilgrims leave Taftan to return home in Sindh.

He has every reason to be apprehensive.

A March 16 Al-Jazeera article highlighted the deplorable conditions at the Taftan facility. The report quoted a woman named Fatima Bibi as saying that the conditions at the facility were so abysmal that even a healthy person would fall sick and catch the coronavirus after spending some time there. She desperately implored the government to “please take us away from this place as quickly as possible.” She added that the toilets there were so poorly kept that the bad smell would make a person feel like vomiting.

Likewise, a March 17 Reuters dispatch quotes Murtaza Wahab, a spokesman for the Sindh provincial government, venting frustration over the Baluchistan government’s response.

“It was not a quarantine; it was a joke; its trickle-down effect is coming down on the entire country. People were not kept there [in Taftan] in the right manner.” The article also quoted Saeed Ghani, Sindh’s Education, stating that some people may not like hearing this, “but the fact is arrangements made at Taftan, perhaps instead of betterment caused a large number of patients and infections.”

The Baluchistan government is not repentant over its poor handling of the whole situation. CM Kamal dealt it like an election campaign. Given his lack of experience as the chief executive of a province hit by a major epidemic, he naively hoped that posting assuring messages and photos on WhatsApp and Twitter would earn him the public’s trust and plaudits for the many tents his government has established in Taftan. Kamal and his administration should have listened to public health experts and followed how the rest of the country is handling the unfolding situation through promoting social distancing. In Baluchistan, the Chief Minister and several politicians were instead busy visiting hospitals and meeting with people who were suspected of having coronavirus. Such carelessness defeated the whole purpose of closing public offices and shutting down schools. 

Seeing how the coronavirus has played havoc with the world’s most developed economies and scientifically advanced nations, there is every reason to be deeply concerned about the price the people of Baluchistan will eventually have to pay for the government’s failure to promote healthy practices. Reports coming from the quarantine centers and isolation wards are scary. One report indicates that hundreds of pilgrims have simply escaped from Taftan. Nobody knows where they have gone. Even a security guard at the Sheikh Khalifah Bin Zayyad Hospital escaped from his job because he reportedly refused to perform duty there. His argument was simple: it makes no sense why people suspected of having the coronavirus should be roaming so openly in the hospital premises. When the government fails to promote or enforce essential healthy practices, then the security guards or the staff cannot be blamed if they refuse to perform their duty in the absence of the right protocols.

Kamal seems unapologetic. He has started a series of tweets arguing that the virus came from Iran instead of Taftan. That’s primarily not the issue here. The question is, what has his government done to prevent the virus from entering Baluchistan and spreading from there to the rest of the province? A blame game does not help anyone when confronted with such a dire public health crisis. It is easy to shun one’s responsibilities by arguing that if the United States and Italy cannot efficiently deal with the crisis, why the Baluchistan government should be expected to solely deal with this episode.

In fact, nobody expects the Baluchistan government to solely fight and defeat the coronavirus. What the public should get an answer for is this: is the Baluchistan government doing whatever it can and should to minimize the spread of the virus? Is the provincial government able to do what many western governments have successfully done? Can it shut down markets, ban large political and religious gatherings? Can the Chief Minister and his team stop going to hospitals and places where doctors and nurses, not politicians, are needed to do their job? Since this is an extraordinary situation, it requires an exceptional response. The usual political gestures that one often sees from politicians in Baluchistan, for example, rushing to a hospital after a bomb blast, seem awesome but they do not apply to this unfortunate situation that requires social distancing instead of hanging out with the public.

Among all the practices the developed countries of the world are applying to deal with this crisis, experts are putting the greatest emphasis on social distancing. It is important for the provincial government to reach out to various local stakeholders and community influencers to urge the public to stay away from crowds and stay indoors. People who insist on going outside their homes are not only risking their lives but also that of their elderly parents and other family members. This is a grave issue that needs immediate cooperation from every member of society. The government cannot win this war alone if there is no buy-in and cooperation from the public.

It is heartening that at least five political parties in Baluchistan have jointly decided to suspend their political activities for the next three weeks in support of guidelines provided by the National Security Committee. 

Unfortunately, there is still a widespread lack of seriousness among the public with respect to fighting this virus. The virus has become a social media joke . Even one Baluchi singer, Ismail Mohtaj, went on recording a full song, telling his beloved to take care of herself because a virus from China has spread. 

کرونا وائرسءِ کپتگ ما چینءَ

وتا سمبال منی شوکیں حسینا

This must not be deemed as Jam Kamal’s fight alone. It’s everyone’s fight and everyone has a role in it. While the Baluchistan government has certainly made mistakes on the way, it is essential to build and enhance the government’s capacity to tackle this epidemic. Given the devastating impact the virus has had on communities across the globe, it is hard to believe that the government in Quetta is being fully truthful about the actual number of positive cases and deaths caused by the virus. In recent years, Pakistan has richly borrowed lousy behavior from the Chinese lexicon. One of the reasons the Chinese ended up losing so many precious lives is because they were not honest and open to the rest of the world about the virus. Instead of fixing the actual threat, the Chinese suppressed the news about the virus when it newly originated. They punished Li Wenliang, the doctor who initially warned his fellow countrymen about the virus. Li subsequently died. The Chinese continue to force western journalists to leave the country because their reporting puts the government in Beijing in an embarrassing situation.

To address the coronavirus pragmatically and create public awareness, it is important to sift between myth and dogma on the one hand and facts on the other hand. As long as religious scholars manipulate public sentiments and tell the public that the coronavirus has hit because of their sins, they undermine the government’s efforts to fight the epidemic. It is important to rule out the medieval thinking that God is upset with the community because of people’s sins which is why they are suffering, and this virus is God’s punishment for our people. If this argument is to be believed, then there is simply no reason to fight back against “God’s punishment”. In that case, the policymakers should sit aside and let God decide how much He wants to punish the public.

It is this reason that we need more STEM [Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math] education so that the population, especially our youth, follow logic over superstitions and dogma. One lesson we must learn from this crisis is that we must invest more in science education. The more people learn about basic science, the more they know about their civic responsibilities. They would know basic but very vital things, such as why we should wash our hands or what we should do in the wake of an epidemic.

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

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