Authors: Shanjida Shahab Uddin and Fahd Mannan*
Before Covid-19, the Spanish flu was the deadliest pandemic that hit the world, including the South Asian countries. It was estimated that around 18 million people died in this region due to that pandemic in 1920. A century later, the world is again hit by a deadly virus,Covid-19. The South Asian region detected its first conformed Covid-19 case in Nepal on January 24. Till date, this virus has spread in all of the South Asian countries infecting and causing the death of hundreds of thousands of people. Several challenges have already emerged during efforts to curb the spread of Covid-19 in almost all South Asian countries, which were already mired in age-old challenges, including disunity and procrastination in the adoption of political decisions, poor healthcare systems, high population density, poor infrastructure and poverty. Although all these challenges are common in almost all eight South Asian countries, country like Bhutan exemplified how to overcome these challenges and outshine in curbing the transmission of Covid-19. Other countries such as India, Pakistan and Bangladesh are still struggling hard to curb the transmission of this deadly virus.
Lack of Unity in Regional Politics
Political disunity in South Asian countries once again appeared as a major obstacle in fighting Covid-19. However, positive moves had been witnessed immediately after all South Asian countries were found to have been affected by this virus. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi called a video conference under the platform of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC)which was joined by all the South Asian leaders, except Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan, to share their views regarding curbing this virus. On behalf of Imran Khan, his Special Assistant on Health Affairs, Zafar Mirza, participated in that video conference. A Covid-19 Emergency Fund was also created in the hope of collectively fighting against this pandemic. Although it is an encouraging and constructive move, Pakistan did not agree to contribute to this emergency fund based on the argument that this fund should be managed by the SAARC Secretariat General in Nepal, not India. Despite Pakistan’s absence in the initiative, all other South Asian countries have immediately contributed to this fund. Pakistan’s abstention from this recent move under the platform of SAARC proves that Pakistan will not support or facilitate any kind of initiative under the leadership of India. This kind of act proves that the political disunity still prevails between the major countries – India and Pakistan — and it strongly persists even amidst a common dire need in a time of crisis.
Poor Healthcare, Low Testing
Once known as the “sub-continent” of South Asia, India, Pakistan and Bangladesh were already dealing with a fragile healthcare system before Covid-19 hit. The healthcare system for billions of people in these three countries can best be summed up as inefficient while that for women and children is close to nil. Together with high population densities, low literacy rate and lack of awareness about basic hygiene made the overall healthcare system insubstantial against the deadly Covid-19. An insufficient number of hospitals, lack of doctors, scarcity of healthcare equipment and paucity of funds made dealing with Covid-19 a challenging task. And due to fast transmission of this virus, hospitals are being flooded with a surge in patients. This situation is making the already distressed healthcare system more convoluted and resulting in a shortage of ventilators, medicine and doctors, and most importantly masks, gloves and personal protection equipment (PPE). And the low testing rate of this virus in South Asian countries worsens the situation. For example, Bangladesh is the third country to be the most affected in South Asia after India and Pakistan with a total of 202,066 confirmed cases as of 18 July 2020. With a population of 165 million people, the country conducted 1,020,674 tests so far since 8 March and currently testing 6,195 of every million people as of 18 July 2020. In contrast, the Maldives, Bhutan and Nepal outshined in terms of the number of people tested per million (the Maldives 43,758 as of 22 May, Bhutan 25,375 as of 5 June and Nepal 21, 419 as of 14 July). Being large countries, India and Pakistan are also struggling with poor testing rates. For instance, India is currently testing only 9,736 people from every million as of 18 July. Bangladesh has an even more shocking obstacle: getting tested costs a minimum of $2.36 to a maximum of $5.86. No South Asian country is placing any charge on Covid-19 tests, something Bangladesh imposed recently. This will largely limit poor people’s access to getting tested.
Covid-19 swept the globe with periodic lockdowns, a state of quarantine and the idea of social distancing. The South Asian countries will also have to follow these stringent measures to curb the fast transmission rate of this virus. However, such stern steps to contain this pandemic largely disrupted market supply chains and caused sudden drops in demand. Due to the need to maintain lockdowns and social distancing, most of the countries in South Asia, which are densely populated, decided for continuing the state of emergency. Under this situation, educational institutions, offices, restaurants, shopping malls and other public places went under complete or limited lockdowns. If we see the case of Bangladesh, the country imposed temporary bans on commercial goods import and international passenger flights for almost two months. Following the sweeping measures to curb this virus, the country also went for a nationwide full lockdown, imposed travel restrictions in and out of the country and sealed borders with immediate neighbours. These had a large impact on the country’s economy. Experts are assuming that the country might be in for both external trade shocks and internal demand shocks. The impact on the inflow of remittances in the country might also be largely affected since the major remittance generating countries are still following complete to limited lockdowns shutting most of their businesses. These have already left thousands of migrant workers without a job. Apart from remittance, the country’s garments industry is the biggest contributor to the economy. However, this industry is also facing debacles since major clients in the US, UK, Germany, France and Italy shut their stores and modified their orders in tune with people limiting their spending. Almost all other countries are also facing more or less the same economic losses due to the restrictions coming with Covid-19. Therefore, it is predicted that the South Asian region may experience its worst economic fallout in 40 years followed by spiralling recessions.
Amidst all the grim scenarios in every aspect of these major nations, small countries like Bhutan have excelled in managing this pandemic. Of the eight countries of South Asia, Bhutan has still managed to maintain a zero death rate during this passing of this deadly virus. Bhutan has also managed to keep the number of confirmed cases low compared to other South Asian countries. Bhutan started its fight against this virus with a minimal amount of testing kits provided by World Health Organization (WHO) and a shortage of healthcare workers and essentials. The country took this situation very seriously and once it confirmed its first two cases, it immediately started tracing and testing people who had symptoms or came into contact with confirmed cases. Through the dedication of both the government and the masses, Bhutan successfully implemented its national preparedness and response plan with a commitment to regularly carry out testing. Therefore, there are lessons to learn from small countries like Bhutan to overcome the grim resilience situation prevailing in other South Asian countries. And major countries need to take collective short and long term steps by putting their disunities aside to gear up the region’s resilience against this pandemic.
*Fahd Mannan is Sub-Editor at The Daily Star, Bangladesh. He can be reached at zoahebman[at]gmail.com.
Is an Anti-Government Narrative Safe in Pakistan?
Pakistan as a state has rarely projected a revered image to the world when it comes to a lasting democracy. The governments have been a bait for the respective leaders and the military counterparts to juice the nation even further; passing the baton from one term to another in a power game between civilian and totalitarian regimes. Not even a decade has gone by to look back at the spiral of power that once vacillated between Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz (PML-N). The rise to power of Imran Khan, however, was unprecedented and was duly celebrated as a speck of a possible change in the already wrecked political arena of the county; a narrative that was convincingly chanted in the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) slogans “Tabdeeli Aagai Hai”. Yet, with over thirty-months under the premiership of Imran Khan, the only observable change is the acceleration in the destruction of the country, inside out.
There was no doubt throughout the tenacious campaign of Imran Khan that he has the most decadent character amongst his political rivals. Be it his triumphant feat captaining the World-Cup winning national cricket team in 1992 or his relentless efforts to build Shaukat Khanam, the first cancer hospital of Pakistan, from ground up. Even his valour and determination culminating into a 22-year struggle to wade through the reeking political scenario of the 90’s and early 2000’s to eventually accede to power in 2018 is a commemoration in itself. However, half way through his tenure, no concrete results have showcased since the elections declared him as the 22nd Prime Minister of Pakistan.
While many of his apparent failures are subject to his over-the-top promises to his supporters; promises he failed to even materialise on paper, his brash allegations over his political rivals and guising his pitfalls as a carry-forward of their incompetency shows how his government has let down even in performing the rudimentary tenets required to lead a country. As the inflation runs rampant; crossing over to projected double figures in the following quarters of the fiscal year, and as the GDP growth plummets into the negative territory, the ruling PTI lacks the basic decency of accepting their failures head-on but on the contrary, never miss to initiate the blame game over petty issues whilst the country verges economic crisis amidst the pandemic. Ironically, however, Imran Khan continues to direct Pakistan on the very routes he once criticised the preceding leaderships over for adopting. An apt example presents in the decision of negotiating with the IMF for economic relief or receiving a $6 Billion loan from UAE and Saudi Arabia respectively, the notions once denounced by PTI as acts of selling the country or rendering the country servile to western powers.
Even the totalitarian position is not spared subtly as the Khan-led regime continues to harness any and all individuals who dare to criticise the policies of the great Imran Khan; a sardonic reality that is continually shifting towards a serious note. The recent comment of Asia Director at Human Rights Watch, Brad Adams, sheds some light on the vengeful exercise of political writ: “Pakistan’s continuing assault on political opponents and free expression puts the country on an increasingly dangerous course”.
The government operates on an apparent strategy to incorporate the National Accountability Bureau (NAB), country’s anti-corruption watchdog, under the pretence of its autonomous nature under the constitution, to prosecute and harass any and all holding an anti-government narrative. At first the rumours were wafted off as allegations over the austerity of the venerated PTI government. However, pilling reports of harassment of many famous journalists and human rights activists have surfaced, on the account of warrants of inquiry over inane matters; being held under interrogation for hours and even being threatened to tone down the criticism of state issued policies.
However, barring the criticism doesn’t hide the fact that whilst the country continues to deal with economic turmoil, unhinged violence continues to prevail against the minorities. The Ahmadi community being on the target of the extremists for decades, the even sturdy Imran Khan bowed down to the radical demands of the extremists to relinquish Mr. Atif Mian, a globally renowned economist, from his advisory position by accepting his resignation without a hint of apology or regret. The laws of Blasphemy continue to pillage multiple lives each year yet the government, hailed into power on the account of ‘change’, worsened the conditions further. Not only has the government failed to repeal or even amend the preposterous law provisions, it has failed to even proceed with just trials of the accused whilst the assailants wander freely without conviction. The Khan-led government tends to take the narrative of being the self-proclaimed defenders of the human rights in IIOJK yet fails to protect the Hazara community at the helm of genocide for decades. Even when victims like Tahir Naseem are shot dead during a trial of a supposed blasphemy case and a cold-blooded gang raped is officially insinuated as the victim’s fault for travelling late at night, it’s astounding how the state even claims to be under the arching definition of a ‘Islamic State’ and even more insulting when it is compared to “Medina Ki Riasat”.
The list goes endless but the festering reality of the country is as clear as it could be to a sane mind. Pakistan has made no progress on the economic front but has further deteriorated. Aspects of law and litigation are a rarity nowadays and free speech is a myth that once laced the breeze of an independent country. As to the ruling figure in Pakistan, the political image hinged on the “Famous cricketer and self-less philanthropist” has lasted long enough and the signs of weakness and decimation are showing. For the continually deteriorating nature of living of the country, it was well concluded in the 2021 Human Rights Watch Review, analysing Pakistan: “Threatening opposition leaders, activists and Journalists while trampling on the rights of the citizenry is a hallmark of an authoritarian rule, not a democracy”.
Pakistan Needs to Learn from the Balochistan Havoc
The brutal killing of ten coal miners in Mach (a town near to Quetta, Balochistan) has so much to offer to the elite class, policy makers and even their fellow citizens of Pakistan. The deceased were poor and hardworking labourers having no direct concern with the state and the terrorists still became prey of the menace of terrorism. They were sleeping peacefully after a tiring day of one of the most demanding, dangerous and underpaid job in a coal mine in Mach. They were not promoter of any specific ideology but working hard for the bread and butter of their families. They were not linked to any religious or political organization in and outside of the country. The only thing which can be related to them is that they were weak and belonged to Shiite Hazara community, a vulnerable minority in Pakistan.
Another point of notice is that the involved external hands changed their modus operandi this time. Instead of funding and fueling the separatist movements in Balcohistan to carry out such attacks, they have opted a completely different proscribed terrorist organization. Right now, Baloch separatists are unable to actively operate in the province as they are in tightened grip of Law Enforcement Agencies (LEAs) of Pakistan and are involved in terrorist activities in other provinces to maintain their presence in mainstream media locally and internationally. This scenario has compelled the external involvement in the province to adopt an alternative way. Islamic State, an extremist Sunni terrorist organization, is selected this time to carry out a terrorist attack in the largest but poorest province of Pakistan. External powers have the heinous ambitions to destabilize Pakistan internally through sectarian crisis since long and they are not successful up till now due to institutional stronghold by different stakeholders of LEAs and improved inter-departmental coordination. Pakistan has not only targeted the terrorist elements in the country but their root causes are also focused like extremism, sectarianism and separatism. After all the above, the state has to include vulnerable minorities into consideration as they become an easy target of non-state actors. As minorities attract huge media attention, locally and internationally, they help pursuing terrorists’ agendas more effectively. This is also a concern related to human rights in any country.
The act of terrorism will benefit the masterminds behind the attack in two ways. First, it will help culminating Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) in the province by terrorizing local and foreign investors and by portraying negative image of the country on international fora. Development under the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) project is not a comfy sign for the opponents of China and Pakistan. It will be imaging Pakistan a dangerous country and Balochistan an unsafe place for business and investment. Second, once again creating sectarian crisis in the province where Shiite Hazara community has always remained a prime target of proscribed sectarian/ terrorist organizations. The terrorists hit the most vulnerable part where the wounds are already deep. Hazara community is being attacked continuously by the Sunni extremists who are playing in the hands of external powers.
Pakistani state is doing everything possible to protect the Hazara community living mostly in Quetta and making around half of the population of Balochistan’s largest and capital city. Mining in Pakistan remains sub-standard but such incidents are rare in the country. This makes us sure that the incident is not a simple terrorist activity but a sectarian motion where people belonging to a minority are targeted. What could have been done was to resolve the mourners’ grievances within time. The mourners spent a whole week on the road protesting the brutal killing of their loved ones amid the most chilled month of the winter season. They were approached by the representatives of provincial and federal governments, but protestors wanted assurance from Prime Minister of Pakistan before burial of the dead bodies. The negotiating delegations accepted all their demands except the resignation of the provincial government where PM’s political party is also in alliance. Later, on 6th January 2021, PM Imran Khan reassured the protestors via Twitter that culprits must be held accountable and requested them to bury the bodies. His assurance satisfied the grievers and they set off the protest.
There is a need of permanent and in place policy for the protection of the community. Pakistani state needs to work on creating inter-faith and intra-faith harmony in the country. The government must admit that confining an ethnicity within a barred city is not the solution of the issue. There is a need to take some concrete steps for a permanent resolution as Hazard community has the distinguished features which make them easily identifiable. They cannot limit themselves to a walled city. Furthermore, Hazara community of Afghanistan also comes across the border in search of livelihood which causes a threat to the national image.
Moreover, public needs to stand with the people of Hazara community in the time of havoc. During the present time, where social media plays a vital role, it is easy to support such cause. The government should focus on finding the permanent solution to the community’s issues. LEAs of the province should leave no stone unturned with dedication and commitment by helping the families of the victims and overall Hazara community. The society needs to learn from the incident before it is too late. It is the time to stand with the bereaved families of the community or else be ready for the creation of more extremists.
Arnab Goswami’s whatsApp leaks show power of propaganda
WhatsApp leaks concerning Arnab Goswami (Republc TV) have brought into limelight some bitter truths. One bitter truth is that the general public is a `bewildered herd’ (to quote Noam Chomsky) who could easily be made a fool of. Abraham Lincoln was wrong in saying “You can fool some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, but you cannot fool all of the people all of the time.”
History tells that the people, even the Americans, are gullible. Propaganda deeply influenced even independent-minded Americans who laid down a constitution, beginning with words `we the people’. Chomsky says even the American masses are like a “bewildered herd” who have stopped thinking (Noam Chomsky, Media Control: The Spectacular Achievements of Propaganda, p.16). He asserts that, in a “properly functioning democracy”, there are a “small percentage of the people”, a “specialised class of citizens” who … analyse, execute, make decisions and run things in the political, economic, and ideological systems”. Chomsky reminds, ‘Woodrow Wilson was elected President in 1916 on the platform “Peace without Victory”, right in the middle of the World War I. The American population was extremely pacifistic and saw no reason to become involved in a European War. The Wilson administration established a government propaganda commission, called the Creel Committee, which succeeded, within six months, in Chomsky reminds, ‘Woodrow Wilson was elected President in 1916 on the platform “Peace without Victory”, right in the middle of the World War I. The American population was extremely pacifistic and saw no reason to become involved in a European War. The Wilson administration established government propaganda committee, called the Creel committee, which [through fake news, films, etc.] succeeded, within six months, in turning a pacifist population into a hysterical, war mongering population which wanted to destroy everything German, tear the Germans limb from limb, go to war and save the world…. After the war the same techniques were used to whip up a hysterical Red Square…’ (op.cit.page 12).
Arnab Goswami’s Leaks
The leaked WhatsApp chats revealed that Abbottabad `surgical strikes’ were conducted to shore up Narendra Modi’s image as a `strong man’, a Brobdignagian among the Lilliputian self-centred Indian politicians. The `strike’ helped Modi win elections with a thumping majority.
Though Modi is educated only up to high school he understands the power of propaganda. He has done a three-month course in the USA on Image Management and Public Relations. His campaign blitz cost about US $ 700 million. Modi is considered the most techno-savvy leader of India as he is very active on various social media platforms including Twiter, Facebook, Instagram, etc (Wikipedia).
Shocking information in Leaks
WhatsApp chats between Republic TV Editor-in-Chief Arnab Goswami and former Broadcast Audience Research Council (BARC) CEO Partho Dasgupta that run into 500 long pages. They revealed nexus between media and politicians to hoodwink the masses. Several Congress leaders, including former Finance Minister P Chidambaram and former Chief Minister of Maharashtra Prithviraj Chavan have raised alarming questions.
Chidambaram has questioned how the journalist and his friend knew about the Balakot strikes three days before it took place.
Meanwhile, senior journalist Madhavan Narayanan, in his piece, raised pertinent questions about the clearly transparent violations of media ethics, professionalism and business malpractices, as are evident from the purported chats between the Republic TV CEO and former BARC head. In the transcripts, Arnab purportedly referred to the Pulwama attack on February 14, 2019. Three days before the Balakot air strike on February 26, 2019, Goswami purportedly wrote India’s response would be: “Bigger than a normal air strike. And on the same time something major on Kashmir (abrogation of Special Status).
Dasgupta was arrested in the fake Television Rating Point (TRP) case. The Mumbai police had earlier told the court that Goswami had allegedly bribed Dasgupta with lakhs of rupees to ramp up Republic TV’s viewership.
Like the Indian air force, Indian army also knows the value of propaganda. It occasionally staes fake encounters in which innocent Kashmiris are kidnapped and killed in `encounters’. Afzal guru was hanged but subsequent revelations by police officer Davinder Sing revealed that he was in fact innocent.
Impact of Modi magic
In elections, Congress lost even in Karnataka, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh, where it ruled. Even Rahul Gandhi lost its citadel, Amethi. In the gory West-Bengal contest, the formidable Mamta Bannerjee lost many seats to BJP. Modi’s self-image brand prevailed. The RSS held many conclaves to reach out to intellectuals. Muslim munch, distributed RSS leaflets. Even after winning the elections, BJP stalwarts visited Madrassa Deoband. He captivated popular imagination as a strong leader _ Modi hai to mumkin hai (If Modi is there, then it’s possible). Through power of propaganda, Modi brazenly bagged credit for all achievements of previous Congress governments. It was Jawaharlal Nehru who abolished the zamindari system. It is Nehru, not Modi, who set up space centre that catapulted India’s ASAT Shakti.
Modi 1.0’s economic- progress figures were plain cookery.
Goswami Leaks further debilitates India’s accusation that Pulwama attack was masterminded by Pakistan. Several questions, given heretofore come to mind about India’s `charge sheet’ on Pakistan: (a) Why did India bank on the FBI when it already possessed all communications from Pakistan? For instance, it intercepted the whole talk between military dictator Yahya Khan and his coterie during the East Pakistan/Bangladesh crisis. It intercepted Musharraf’s conversation with his generals while he was flying back from China to Pakistan. India blamed. Isn’t there collusion between the FBI and India? (b) Why did India blame Pakistan even before forensic-lab and National Investigation Agency investigation report? (c) Why are there differing reports about weight of the RDX used? The Indian Express speculated `High-grade RDX explosive, weighing about 80 kilograms, was used in the suicide attack’. The Hindu estimated 100-150 kg. (d) Why was a private vehicle allowed to approach the scene of incident in violation of the CRPF Standing Operating Procedures? The CRPF’s Standing Operating Procedure required movement of up to 100 persons in a convoy. Why has the CRPF been moving such convoys, comprising more than 2,500 personnel each, on the Srinagar-Jammu highway. In the past fortnight, two such convoys had moved from Jammu to Srinagar. The latest was on February 4, with a convoy of 91 vehicles and 2,871 personnel’. (e) Why could the convoy not spot the lonely suicide vehicle trailing behind? (f) How did the terrorists know the convoy movement was delayed by two days? (g) How did they remain undetected while loading the vehicle with explosives the whole day? (h) Not only WhatsApp but also landlines have never been accessible even in Hindu-majority Jammu (occupied Kashmir). Then how come `the FBI has told the NIA about the WhatsApp group operated by a member of the terrorist outfit Jaish-e-Mohammad who was in contact with the people who carried out the attack of Pulwama? (i) According to the FBI, a man called Mohammed Hussain was operating the WhatsApp group, from Muzaffarabad. But the number was however registered under the name of Jameela from Budgam’ (INDIA NEWS NETWORK, August 27).
Modi owes his electoral victory to the power of propaganda. He is making a fool of not only the Indian masses but also the world around.
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