Shah leading from the front

Sindh’s chief minister has taken the coronavirus crisis head on

Since February 26, when one of Pakistan’s first two coronavirus cases emerged in Karachi, the Pakistan Peoples Party-led Sindh government has been taking the issue seriously, shutting down all educational institutions the same day, and immediately forming a task force.

Chief Minister Syed Murad Ali Shah’s work seems to stand out as far as battling the pandemic is concerned. His bold decisions, including imposing a lockdown and banning Friday congregations, well before any other province, have won him much appreciation.

Shah has been heading meetings of the task force on coronavirus, getting updates about the cases, the situation of quarantine centres, and other related issues. He regularly meets officials of Health, Police, Social Welfare and Labour Departments. He has also been active in engaging with religious scholars and the media.

Taking a leaf from the Chinese book, Sindh government officials are convinced that implementing an effective lockdown to maintain social distancing is the only solution to halt the spread of the disease. To this end, the government announced a lockdown on March 22, restricting public movement, closing malls and factories.

The public’s attitude towards lockdown forced the Sindh government to engage the military to restrict people to their homes. Following the lockdown, Shah also announced that the government will provide two million bags of ration and that employers will neither deduct wages nor lay off workers during the lockdown.

However, this did not yield results. People continued to ignore social distancing guidelines with the result that the number of patients kept rising through community transmission. By April 1, 627 cases had been reported in Sindh, according to statistics released by the CM’s House. Of them, 272 or 43 percent were pilgrims who returned from Iran, 62 or 10 percent had a travel history and 293 or 47 percent were cases of local transmission. Eight documented coronavirus patients in Sindh have died so far while 51 patients have recovered.

Experts believe that social distancing has a class bias. In Karachi’s affluent areas where many people live in 500-yard houses, there is already adequate social distance. “They don’t even know who lives next door,” says Zahid Farooq, an official of Urban Resource Centre. But in the city’s informal settlements, where the poor live in cramped spaces, social distancing is hard to enforce. “In poor localities, around 200 people live within 500 yards. How can they observe social distancing?”

Most worrying is the fact that health facilities across the province are not adequate to deal with the pandemic. State-run hospitals neither have enough testing arrangements nor do they have a sufficient number of trained doctors and paramedics or beds and ventilators. After several healthcare workers, including doctors, tested positive for coronavirus in Karachi, frontline healthcare professionals are extremely worried. A majority of them are being compelled to work without personal protective equipment.

The Sindh government has been taking flak for the past few years for its performance in the health sector.

Riaz Sohail, a journalist, says that deaths of infants in Tharparkar, spread of HIV cases in Larkana, deaths during heat wave in Karachi, a lack of anti-rabies vaccines in state-run hospitals, and non-availability of doctors for victims of terrorist attacks in Shikarpur, Jacobabad and Sehwan were some of the issues that caused embarrassment to the PPP. “It is for this reason that the PPP leadership, particularly CM Shah, have been dealing with this issue very seriously and proactively.”

Shah has yet to build a working relationship with opposition parties, particularly the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf that has emerged as the largest political party from Karachi, and the Muttahida Qaumi Movement-Pakistan that is heading the city’s municipality and most of its district boroughs. Opposition parties say the Sindh government has invited them to only two of the 20 notified meetings on the current crisis.

Firdous Shamim Naqvi, the opposition leader in Sindh Assembly, says that while they support the Sindh government‘s efforts, the situation on ground is worrying. “People want to know when the lockdown will end and who will deliver rations at their houses. Ten days into the lockdown, the Sindh government still has no answer to these questions.”

Saeed Ghani, Sindh’s education minister, admitted in a tweet on April 1 that the Sindh government had not started distribution of free ration. Party sources said while CM Shah was against distribution of rations through party workers, the party leadership was insistent. After facing severe criticism, the deputy commissioners included PPP workers in ration distributing relief committees. The Sindh government was then forced to change its strategy. The government has now decided to register people online and provide funds through mobile cash transfer mainly to avoid crowding. Till the filing of this report on April 1, the strategy had not materialised.

Daily-wage workers and the poor, who have been affected the most from the lockdown, are losing hope. “I neither have an expensive [smart] phone nor do I know how to register [online] myself,” said Sharafat Ali, a mason. “We might be protected from a coronavirus infection only to be killed by starvation.”

The writer is a journalist based in Karachi. He tweets at @zalmayza

Sindh’s chief minister has taken coronavirus crisis head on