State’s writ, people’s rights

State surveillance during Covid-19 is a global concern but does it further legitimise state control in Pakistan?


he coronavirus pandemic has taught us many lessons but perhaps the most glaring is that the world is fragile, inter-dependent and urgently needs to reprioritise. The hardest-hit countries, the United States and the United Kingdom, are also the most economically and politically powerful and those where men have come into power on populist right-wing agendas of building walls, resisting immigration and increasing isolation. What bowled them out was the pandemic. As with life, at some point a reckoning has to be done. For Pakistan, sadly the reckoning comes more often with frequent bouts of dictatorship, emergencies and natural disasters not to forget that a large percentage of our population lives in abject poverty. The pandemic is one more, but one that has exposed the weakness of the state, the unequal status of citizens and the roll back of fundamental rights.

The right to life is inviolable and universal. While there is a legitimate debate between balancing the right to life with avoiding severe economic recession, the right to life trumps all other rights and places a positive duty on the state to act. Sadly, Pakistan has had its fair share of dealing with both natural and man-made disasters such as war and terrorism.

It is no secret that Pakistan is a national security state. People’s fundamental rights such as the rights to life, healthcare, education and other welfare concerns come at the bottom of budget priorities. Autonomy of legislatures is the life-blood of fundamental rights – they should have the power to set priorities, allocate budgets and nurture an effective apparatus that is not reliant upon parallel and competing centres of power. Since the pandemic many have felt that the federal government failed to act in a timely and positive way to protect the lives of its citizens. Indeed our parliament has not even had a single session to discuss policy to combat the pandemic. Instead, ordinances encroaching upon people’s fundamental rights are being churned out without any debate.

There is worldwide concern that emergency measures because of the pandemic may become a new normal as states infringe upon the rights to privacy, information, data protection and freedom of association and assembly.

The ISI is now in charge of tracing and tracking people who may have been in contact with those who test positive for the virus. In a telethon our PM stated, "The ISI has given us a great system for track and trace. It was originally used against terrorism, but now it is has come useful against coronavirus." Increasing state surveillance is a worldwide concern in the aftermath of the pandemic, and in Pakistan, there is a real concern that it will further legitimise and extend the long arm of the state.

History is replete with examples where the Pakistani state has failed to accord equal treatment to its citizens as guaranteed by the constitution. While a complete lockdown has been imposed, congregations in mosques are allowed even though the medical community has been vociferous and united in its plea to ban these. So far their plea has fallen on deaf ears even though the initial spike in infections was largely because of religious congregations. In his defence our PM stated that a consultation was held with leaders of the clergy who agreed to follow certain procedures in mosques to stop the spread of infection. None of those have any scientific backing and some are reportedly not being followed. Also, if the loss of livelihoods had so heavily preyed upon the mind of our leadership when considering a lockdown, why was no such consultation held with labour unions or medical professionals? At a time when most Muslim countries, including Saudi Arabia, have banned religious congregations, the appeasement of the mullah at the expense of people’s right to life clearly shows the influence of one class of citizens at the expense of others.

Within this pecking order, a bleaker picture emerges for the “bottom categories” – ethnic and religious minorities, women, and the transgender people to name a few. Doctors in Quetta were thrashed when they demanded personal protective equipment, and Maulana Tariq Jamil blamed the pandemic on women who wear “short” clothes. The former tribal areas do not have 3G/4G internet services and according to a report from, a petition was recently filed by a student on the grounds that his right to education has been impacted as he cannot attend online classes.

There have been some successes. The Sindh government has been largely praised for its handling of the crisis to protect lives. One may argue that healthcare is a provincial subject and it is for the provinces to protect these fundamental rights. However, it is not possible or practical for any province to act in isolation. First, while health is a provincial subject, the exit and entry of people, control of drugs, disaster management, aviation and port quarantining are federal subjects – clearly both are inter-dependent in a pandemic. Second, courts have made large dents in the 18th Amendment including for example, through the ruling that the federal government can take over certain hospitals in Sindh. Third, it is not possible for one province to lockdown industry and commerce while other provinces continue to function. A coherent national policy is needed.

There is worldwide concern that emergency measures because of the pandemic may become a new normal as states infringe upon the rights to privacy, information, data protection and freedom of association and assembly. It also provides the opportunity to unleash populist xenophobia as one can see in India against Muslims and to clamp down on freedom of expression. Certainly Pakistan is also not the only country that is facing these challenges and must re-evaluate priorities in a post-pandemic world. The Covid-19 outbreak does not recognise nuclear arsenals, state borders and Corona Tigers as guarantors of national security. It demands a real reckoning – of how much our state cares about the rights of all to the exclusion of none.

The writer is an advocate of the high courts in Pakistan and a solicitor of the senior courts in England and Wales. She tweets @sj244

Is surveillance during COVID-19 subtly legitimising the state's control in Pakistan?