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South Asia

Controversy of lockdown and social-distancing in Pakistan

Dost Muhammad Barrech

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Covid-19 a highly contagious virus has tightened its grip on the entire world. The world first time witnesses unprecedented blockages of economic, religious, social and cultural activities. Developing countries, owing to their feeble economies and bad governance are under tremendous pressure to tackle Covid-19. Pakistan, in this regard, is hanging in the balance, confronting with innumerable economic, religious and cultural challenges, pondering over whether to maintain lockdown or to lift it.

Every state across the world espouses precautionary measures to de-escalate the spread of virus. Implementation of such measures in Pakistan, due to multifaceted factors, so far remains unsuccessful. A query to be answered: Why are lockdown and social-distancing in Pakistan remain so controversial? The answer lies in comprehension of economic, religious, social and cultural factors of the country. The gap between the rulers and ruled in Pakistan in last 72 years has continued to widen. Human security remained unprioritized, resulted in losing the confidence of masses over the rulers. Marginalized masses are left at the mercy of poverty, hunger, illiteracy, unemployment and prevailing lethal diseases. They have no confidence over the rulers, thus, are loath to follow government’s instructions.

Human Development Index 2019 sheds lights on perpetuating inequality in Pakistan saying that the country has a higher percentage of inequality in education and health sector compared to other South Asian states. Dr. Sabina Alkire from the Oxford University articulates that in South Asia there are nearly 541 million poor people. Intriguingly, in 541 million poor people, out of which 75 million are Pakistanis. Poverty is just the tip of the iceberg, growing inequality in the country makes leaders untrustworthy and unreliable.

Meanwhile, Ramadan the holy month of Muslims has already started, the month is celebrated with a great fervor in Muslim states. However, celebration of Ramzan during pandemic disease in Pakistan would somewhat be different from other Muslim states. It has been observed, in other Muslim states whereimams follow governments’ instructions urging people to pray congregational prayers and taraweeh at homes. To the contrary, religious clerics in Pakistan have rallied their devotees to overlook the anti-pandemic measures, keeping the lives of many in jeopardy.

Empowerment of imams by dictator Zia-ul-Haq with the support of the US in 1980s to defeat Soviet Union now instead of an asset is turning out to be a liability for the state in spread of virus. A renowned professor of International Islamic University Islamabad, Husnul Amin rightly says “the state has become totally subservient to the clerics”. Arguably,state should not appease the religious clerics; appeasement makes an aggressor more aggressive. Unnecessary embodiment of imams will not serve Pakistan’s interest in 21st century. It is fait accompli, 21st century is the century of rationality, knowledge economy and research &development. Admittedly, imams, are also obsessed with keeping their economic interest to be remained intact in Ramzan. They are paid meager salaries; the month of Ramadan is blessing for them economically in obtainment of almas and charity.

Cultural factor in Pakistan too is the biggest obstacle in maintaining of social- distancing. Shaking hands and hugging are deeply entrenched in Pakistani culture. To meet someone without shaking hands and hugging are conceived as a threat to the culture. Pakistan, on the other hand, has the lowest literacy rate in the region resulting in obliviousness to the critical national and international issues. Illiterate people who blindly follow religion are believing the Covid-19 as a conspiracy being made by infidels against the Muslims. In such fragile circumstances, expecting them to follow lockdown and social-distance becoming an uphill task for government.

The federal and provincial governments lack of coordination during lockdown is another excruciating story. The tug of war between federal and Sindh government over lockdown is detrimental to the country. Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, Pakistan Peoples Party chief says “economy can be revived but not the lives of the people, so the biggest challenge at the moment is to save lives”. While, prime minister of Pakistan Imran Khan in his tweet says “we are faced with the stark choice of having to balance between a lockdown necessary to slow down and prevent the spread of Covid-19 and ensuring people don’t die of hunger and our economy doesn’t collapse ”Lack of coordination between federal and provincial governments in  testing times questions leaders sincerity in combating of Covid-19,giving a negative image to the lay man that policy makers  are ambiguous and unclear in their goals. Clarity provides confidence, the dearth of clarity in tough time in statesmanship would more the country towards quagmire and devastation.History teaches us, tough time unites and also splits the nation. Let’s hope for unity “United we stand, divided we fall”.

The writer works at the Institute of Strategic Studies Islamabad ISSI a think-tank based in Islamabad. He is also pursuing PhD degree in International Relations IR from International Islamic University Islamabad IIUI.

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South Asia

The Need for Pakistan’s Digitalisation Policy

Syeda Dhanak Hashmi

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Change is the only constant and one has to keep evolving through new trends in order to compete with the changing dynamics of the world. There is no denying the fact that any country’s economic growth is now directly linked to one factor i.e., adoption of information and communications technology. The adoption of digitalisation is the new reality where majority of population has access to mobile phones and internet than to basic necessities of life. Digitalisation is not a choice, it is the need of the hour, therefore, the governments are now determining their policies and strategies for digitalising every sector, to promote and strengthen their socio-economic fabric.

Keeping in view the current scenario, the COVID-19 has had a major impact on almost all socio-economic sectors, the digital world has never been more important than it is today, Digitalisation is the new normal where consumers are buying everything online whether it is to buy groceries and essentials or to socialise and virtually reach with friends and family. During this critical time, many of these adoptions will persist long even after the situation has stabilised.

Globally countries are adopting new ways through digitalisation to ease the life of their citizens by providing them with improved and rapid amenities. The access to free internet services made it possible to pave the way for effective digitalization. An exponential increase is observed in the number of internet providers and consumers which demonstrates that the world is adapting with the concept of digitalization. It is witnessed that the developed countries has already shifted all their services from the outdated ways to online portals to facilitate the masses. In recent years, Pakistan is also evolving its IT sector promptly by introducing the latest technological mechanisms in the country.

The present government has taken up the task to digitalize the entire country and is working hard to create an e-governance system to bring down corruption, to ensure accountability process and also to augment the productivity in the country. The government has been taking great strides in the advancement of technology- from the Mohafiz app to digitizing the Postal service and the introduction of Tax Asaan mobile app which provides taxpayers with quick access of verification features like active Taxpayers list (ATL), NTN/STRN inquiry and exemption certificate etc. and many more. The PTI government has been proactive in the inclusion of technology within various segments and has also launched the online FIR system where people can submit their complaints online, and will be facilitated by government officials.

Nevertheless one might assume that digitalisation and government don’t blend,but in reality this fusion is helping the government agencies and officials to represent their agendas and administrative progress directly to the people through social media platforms (Twitter, Facebook, Instagram etc.).Perhaps the defined role of government social media accounts is to serve as a source of unrestricted updates. This includes everything from present initiatives to upcoming policy reforms and breaking news. Therefore, news should be a foundation of your content strategy as a government account. For instance, we are currently seeing social media crisis management in action for government organisations, including real-time updates in response to COVID-19. This illustrates that social media actually serves as a first hand source of information and provides people with timely updates. This is the brilliance of digitalisation and government that the voters and opposition are already there and the government has only one job that is to publish content which engages the attention from the public. This also suggests educating your followers by clarifying potential misinformation, keeping in view the fact that how quickly fabricated content can spread through social media, the government accounts serve as an important source for authentic information.

Statically, as per Pakistan’s Digital2020 Report, Feb 2020: there were 76.38 million internet users in Pakistan in January 2020 which illustrates that the number of internet users has increased by 11 million (+17%) between 2019 and 2020 and internet penetration in Pakistan stood at 35%. As far as the social media users in Pakistan are concerned, the number has increased by 2.4 million (+7.0%) between April 2019 and January 2020 which shows that there were 37.00 million social media users in Pakistan in January 2020 and the penetration rate stood at 17%.The source of this penetration depends widely on mobile connections in Pakistan. Reportedly, there were 164.9 million mobile connections in Pakistan in January 2020. The number of mobile connections increased by 9.6 million (+6.2%) between January 2019 and January 2020. Surprisingly, the number of mobile connections in Pakistan was equivalent to 75% of the total population in January, 2020.

With these growth trends projected to persist in the future, Pakistan is dire need of a comprehensive ‘Digitalisation Policy’. There should be a policy that must be implemented in its true spirits, and the government should devise an efficient monitoring mechanism to evaluate the vitality of that policy.

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South Asia

South Asia: A COVID-19 Outlier?

Noor Aftab

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International observers remain baffled at the rate of spread and impact of Corona on one of the most populous regions in the world. South Asia is home to more than a 5th of the world’s population. As is the case with other trends related to Corona, it is still not clear why the virus did not see the surge in the region that was experienced in other parts of the globe.

South Asia had been deemed as the perfect hotbed for the Coronavirus. It is densely populated, has poor public health institutions, and is geographically close to China, where the virus originated. Its people are also affected by severe levels of poverty, malnutrition, and hunger. While the countries share a similar heritage, the region happens to be one of the most poorly connected in the world, owing to bad road networks and toxic bilateral relations between some of the countries.

Despite strict guidelines from respective governments, social distancing norms are incompatible with South Asian society. It is a privilege only the elite can afford, as a vast majority of the people live in close proximity with their family members. The region also comprises of fairly religious societies, and governments have faced challenges in the prevention of congregational worship. In Pakistan, Khan was severely criticized for allowing communal prayer during the month of Ramadan.

It can be argued that the relatively lower numbers can be accounted for by low testing rates but if the health care systems in these countries had been choking up, it would have been very difficult to hide.

India, the economic giant in the region, can boast of imposing the strictest lockdown in the world. While the fatality rate is increasing with every passing day, the number of deaths is nowhere near that of Europe or the US. Migrant workers paid a heavy price for the lockdown, which was announced without prior notice, leaving millions displaced. The economic cost of the lockdown has been astounding, as an estimated 122 million Indians lost their jobs in April alone. India’s unemployment rate is now at a record peak of 27.1%,

Similarly, in Bangladesh, researchers from Dhaka University predict that around 15 million people from different sectors will become unemployed in the country due to slowdown of businesses. Meanwhile, in Pakistan, the Federal Minister for Planning and Development, Asad Umar, predicted that around 18 million people might lose their jobs as a result of the lockdown.

Modi and Khan have recently eased lockdowns in India and Pakistan respectively, in spite of increasing cases, as they expressed concern for low-income groups and daily wage earners in their countries. Their concerns regarding their economies may be well-founded. According to a recent Yale study, social distancing measures may be more effective in saving lives in higher-income countries. Whereas, in lower-income countries a complete lockdown may be counterproductive, significantly increasing the economic costs. Economic benefits generated by social distancing are estimated to be 240 times larger for the United States, or 70 times larger for Germany, compared to the value created in Pakistan. The value of savings would be 59% of the GDP for the US, 85% of the GDP for Germany as opposed to 14% of Bangladesh and 19% of India’s GDP.

There are several theories about the conservative spread of the virus in South Asia. None of them have been substantiated as yet. It could be that the pandemic was taken more seriously in these developing economies because there was an acceptance of the fact that they weren’t well equipped to deal with the crisis in case it hit them with full force. Some experts credit the warmer and humid climate of the region to have kept the spread of the disease in check. Others are talking about the protection offered to South Asians by the vaccine for Tuberculosis, BCG and possibly a weaker strain of the virus in this region.

One of the more plausible explanations for this trend seems to be the extremely young population of the region. The average age of an Indian is 26.8 years. The number is less than 25 years in Bangladesh, Nepal and Pakistan. In contrast, the average age of a citizen is 45 in Italy and above 40 in Germany, France and the UK. According to the Yale study, Populations in rich countries tend to skew older, and so the mortality rate is expected to be higher in those countries, in spite of the disparity in healthcare capacity.

According to Jacob John, a virologist from India, it is not sensible to compare the situation in South Asia with Europe yet, as the region is over a month behind in terms of timeline. Therefore, the April of Europe should be compared to June in India. The epidemic is developing in different countries at different rates and it has not yet reached its full maturity in the region.

There is little doubt about the fact that Covid-19 represents one of the greatest challenges for global leaders of our times. Policy has to evolve constantly according to the trajectory of the virus in the concerned country. The choice between lives and livelihoods can never be an easy one to make.

While it’s too soon to declare any country’s approach a success, it can be acknowledged that South Asian countries enforced stringent lockdowns at a relatively early stage compared to many in the West. However, locking down for over a month hasn’t necessarily slowed down the spread of the disease and the reversal of restrictions could lead to spikes in rates of infections. This in tandem with increasing economic constraints makes it a complex dilemma for policymakers. As the virus is yet to peak in the region in the coming months, the real challenge for the leadership lies in expanding their capacity to deal with the worsening situation.

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South Asia

The new political game in Afghanistan

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Afghanistan remains the conflict zone for the last 4 decades. Political dimensions changes not only effect inside Afghanistan but it really impacts on global politics. The fundamentalist moments are present inside Afghanistan and the Kabul government is suffering from the administration issues in different provinces. In the start of New Year, the hopes for the peace in Afghanistan were in peak. The 19 years of war, which was one of the longest conflicts in the history of Afghans, as well as the USA, look likely to be end soon. The deal called US-Taliban peace deal brings a new shining moon for the people of Afghanistan that they can see peace and prosperity.

During the 2019 elections, Ashraf Ghani started its second presidential tenure by winning the election but his rival Dr Abdullah Abdullah didn’t accept Ghani success. Due to this political instability, it directly sabotages the peace process. The USA also tries to play the role of a mediator but was initially fail due to the non-serious attitude of the Afghan politicians. In response, the USA announced to reduce their aid for Afghanistan. Afghan government several times also raises their concern regarding the peace deal. Prisoner exchange is one such example.

In a recent development, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and Dr Abdullah signed a power-sharing deal to end a months-long political stalemate. Reports stated that Abdullah would lead the council for peace talks and his team members would be included in the cabinet. Abdullah Abdullah, as the President of the High Council for Peace and National Reconciliation has now the responsibility to bring the Taliban to the talk’s table and achieve peace for Afghanistan. Furthermore, the report added that 50 per cent of the cabinet appointments will be made by Abdullah, and Gen Dostum will be honoured with the highest military rank of marshal and any dismissal or installation of seats will come into effect on reasonable grounds and with the consent of both parties. As this politician instability seems to be end soon. On the other hand, the Taliban response regarding this new development was that Afghans sides should focus on the real and sincere solution of the issue. The solution of the Afghan issue lies in the implementation of the Doha Accord, with avoidance from creating further hurdles. As the Taliban already believes that the Afghan government is the puppet regime of the USA so for any political development will not really impact on their movement.

However President Ghani is looking more towards the offensive used of the military. The recent attacks on 12 may which was carried out on a hospital’s in Kabul and on a funeral in Nangarhar Province resulting in the deaths of 56 people including newborn babies. No group has taken the responsibility but the Afghan government put the responsibility on the Taliban affiliated group Haqqani network. Meanwhile, President Ashraf Ghani also announced for the offensives military operation against insurgent groups including the Taliban. On the other side, the Taliban called for a transparent investigation on this attack. The Taliban Spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid said that we firmly call for the transparent and impartial investigation of these attacks in order to expose the dark faces of the perpetrators of these heinous crimes and bring them to justice. Furthermore, he added that Attacks on clinics, funerals and public infrastructure have no place in our policy. In addition to, the US Representative Zalmay Khalilzad also said that the United States’ assessment, the ISIS-Khurasan conducted the attacks on a hospital in Kabul and a funeral in Nangarhar.

Furthermore, the Taliban also appointed Mullah Mohammad Yaqoob, the son of Mullah Mohammad Omar, the founder of the Taliban group, as the new military chief of the group following recent upheavals, involving a spike in attacks against Afghan forces.

One of the biggest problems of Afghanistan is the division on the basis of ethnicity. Majority of the Afghans are Pashtuns and then come minorities which includes Uzbek, Tajik, Hazara community etc. This ethnic division really impacts on social issues as well as the national cause.

Here the concern is that the Taliban will not remain and wait for the negotiation with the Afghan Government. After this, their attitude will also change towards offensive and movement, the activity will take some speed. Now it’s time for the Afghan politicians to have a serious attitude for bringing the peace possible.

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