Coronavirus Outbreak: Pakistan Army steps in to battle COVID-19 but imposes information blockade to hide lack of preparedness, high casualties

Just recently, a Pakistani top-level committee announced the extension of a lockdown imposed on 22 March,  for another two weeks due to rising coronavirus cases. Oddly that announcement followed hard on the heels of the address to the nation by Prime Minister Imran Khan, who railed against the need for such a measure and has been doing so for weeks.

Khan’s stature has been bleeding for months and Pakistan has actually been  ‘locked down’ months ago. In the aftermath of the pandemic, it continues to close doors, and pull the curtains on what is happening inside the country. At a time of a virus spread, that is a dangerous practice.

 Coronavirus Outbreak: Pakistan Army steps in to battle COVID-19 but imposes information blockade to hide lack of preparedness, high casualties

(File) Pakistan prime minister Imran Khan. AP

Pakistan’s reaction to the COVID-19 outbreak was strange, to say the least. In February, the health minister declared that Pakistan did not have a single case, even while the state refused to take back its citizens stranded in China.

It did not, however, baulk at a series of religious congregations that included the movement of Pakistanis to Iran, which led to the first virus case being detected on 26 February. Unprepared officials put more than 5,000 people in a quarantine in  Taftan that did not differentiate between the infected and the healthy.

Many were sent back after ‘tests’ that proved insufficient. Pakistan’s outbreak started from there,  but has since been multiplying by a series of policy twists and turns that hugely hit health conditions. As numbers climbed, Prime Minister Khan continued to oppose a complete lockdown, on the grounds that the poor would suffer.

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Analysts, however, observe that this diffidence is due to business interests that back the government, rather than anything else. As the country saw its first death the prime minister was still asking people to use ‘judgement’ and conversely, praising Chinese measures to handle the crisis.

That Beijing put Wuhan under a complete and absolute lockdown didn’t seem to register. Hard hit provinces like Sindh begged in vain for a strict lockdown. On 11 March, a congregation of more than 100,000 from the Tablighi Jamaat met at Raiwind, despite ‘suggestions’ from the authorities not to do so.

Barelvi leader Asif Ashraf Jalali vowed to hold a huge gathering on 21 March, guaranteeing the safety of the public. Meanwhile, Pakistan President Arif Alvi just returned from China, seemed to suggest that removing prayer mats during prayers would prove useful.

On 19 March Maj General Babar Iftikhar,  the head of the ISPR ( Inter-Services Public Relations) went public on to announce that the Armed Forces had begun assisting civil authorities with hospital beds and building quarantine facilities. The announcement was hailed with relief by a disbelieving public.

Three days later, the Sindh chief minister imposed an absolute lockdown on the state and formally requested army assistance to impose it. By 23 March, the army was deployed into all provinces. Thereafter, matters moved swiftly.

Punjab declared a ‘partial lockdown’ the same day. A National Coordination Committee became the apex body, with the Minister for Planning and Development Asad Umar at the helm. The ministry is also the primary channel for all interaction with China on CPEC. The implementation arm is the National Command and Operations Centre, to be headed by the head of the Army Air Defence Command.

On 27 March, the border with China was reopened to allow assistance to flow into the tune of a reported $3 billion. As for the prime minister, even as he declared that there was no escalation in cases, his special public adviser on health announced at the NCA meeting that “the total number of suspected cases are 17,331 out of which an increase of 1,436 was recorded in the past 24 hours. The surge is high; the average increase per day is 12 percent….with an increase of 178 in the past 24 hours”.

There’s no doubt at all who is in charge, and most Pakistanis would heave a sigh of relief, barring those at the receiving edge of a cane. Troops are using heavy force to implement the lockdown, but that is no longer likely to be reported. Pakistan media has been virtually shut down.

In mid-February, Pakistan instituted a clampdown on social media that shut was condemned by the US State Department as a ‘set back’.

On 12 March, it detained the head the Jang Group Mir Shakil-ur Rehman, which also owns Geo News. Another journalist Sajid Hussain who fled Pakistan recently has gone missing in Sweden. Earlier, the government had made its intentions clear enough by blacking out Geo TV and lifting liberal academics in a development that is new even for Pakistan.

It had even blacked out its own retired officers including Lt Gen (retd) Asad Durrani and a retired DG ISPR. The reputed Dawn faced down attacks on its office, while its editor received death threats. More dangerously, information on the pandemic is being suppressed, with government officials told to keep information on deaths from the media.

While Pakistan claims 1,650 cases nationwide, the highly regarded Edhi Foundation estimates it at 14,000 with some six to seven deaths in Punjab alone in a single day. That news is only being published outside the country.

Worse, information on the spread is simply unavailable in the erstwhile FATA ( Federally Administered Tribal Areas) which is under a complete internet shut down. Information as a whole is restricted, for instance, with quarantine centres being set up in PoK (Pakistan Occupied Kashmir) but under a heavy veil of secrecy.

Meanwhile, all government web sites dealing with the health emergency seem to be off the air. A possible India/region only shut down seems to be apparent in terms of the foreign ministry, the defence ministry among others, but even the health ministry is no longer available.

Such complete lack of data is hardly conducive to the envisaged SAARC level cooperation. Even as government data is shut down, reputed studies indicate that the bureaucracy is paralysed. In short, the Pakistan Army decides on what information to share, with the media, international bodies or the government itself.

It might also be receiving some help from a not unexpected quarter.  The World Health Organisation declared on 1 March that it was impressed at the ‘swift and diligent’ government response. Pakistanis battling the pandemic would disagree.

Updated Date: Apr 03, 2020 14:07:54 IST



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