‘In the name of contact tracing, authoritative states worldwide are expanding the scope of their surveillance’

The News on Sunday interviews Harris Khalique, secretary-general of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan

Harris Khalique talks about the rights and privacy situation in the country during the ongoing pandemic, his concerns regarding state-sponsored surveillance and the many ways in which the government could have better handled the situation.

The News on Sunday (TNS): The pandemic has posed serious public health safety threats, especially in the wake of the recent surge across the country. While there has been an argument to ensure better contact tracing to contain the spread, there have also been concerns regarding state-sponsored surveillance. How do you see this situation?

Harris Khalique (HK): In the name of contact tracing, authoritative states and populist regimes worldwide are expanding the scope of their surveillance – technically and otherwise – to track individual citizens. It is likely that they will continue to use the incidence of epidemics and similar health emergencies as a pretext to increase their intrusion into private lives. It will expand their capacity to curb any critical opinion and independent voices whenever they wish to. More so, big business and corporate marketing, which are hand in glove with right-wing populist regimes, will access private information and use it for personalised aggressive marketing. Ironically, the Pakistani state is willing to invest in contact tracing through intelligence gathering while claiming to be unable to finance and execute proper testing to determine the prevalence of Covid-19.

TNS: What are your major concerns regarding the rights situation in the country during the ongoing pandemic? Which communities do you find particularly vulnerable?

HK: The economic and social rights of citizens are ruthlessly trampled by the state. Labour as a whole is the most vulnerable section of society. Even before the pandemic arrived, Pakistan’s economy had hit rock bottom with the maximum fallout for the working class and low-income groups. The pandemic has brought out in the open what was not clearly visible to everyone: a deepening economic crisis, increasing social fragmentation, and heightened political tensions. Apart from labour, we find women, children, transgender persons, persons with disabilities, and religious minorities at the receiving end. There is a significant increase in cases of domestic violence. Medical professionals are also highly vulnerable due to a lack of protective gear.

TNS: How transparent do you feel the government has been in its containment strategies and data sharing?

HK: Before we speak of transparency, the most glaring issue is the utter confusion from the beginning at the level of the prime minister and his associates that prevails to this day. As a consequence, we see a reactive approach to dealing with the crisis rather than a cogent, coherent containment plan that takes a long-term view coupled with a scientific assessment of available resources to deal with the emergency.

‘The Pakistani state is willing to invest in contact tracing through intelligence gathering while claiming to be unable to finance and execute proper testing of Covid-19.’

The data was shared more transparently during the first few weeks of the Covid-19 pandemic. For instance, the National Institute of Health (NIH) and Pakistan Institute of Development Economics (PIDE) produced sit-reps and projections besides the possible economic fallout. The National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) was also forthcoming. However, after the establishment of the National Command and Operations Centre (NCOC) and various task teams looking after the government’s response, only information approved for dissemination is being given out. Likewise, sufficient testing is not taking place to establish the prevalence of the disease. It is assumed by most people that the incidence is much higher than the official numbers. A recent report from Karachi’s municipal body that looks after graveyards confirms that the number of burials in the city in the month of May this year is twice the number of burials in May 2019.

TNS: How inclusive do you think has the government been in consulting the political opposition and the relevant experts?

HK: This government seems to be a mutated successor of the Musharraf regime: unelected technocrats and apolitical administrators serving under a quasi-democratic, hybrid civil-military dispensation. The parliamentary functions are disrespected and the parliamentary roles of legislation and oversight are undermined. Therefore, little importance is attached to any dialogue with the opposition. In fact, we witnessed a disturbing tension between the federal and the Sindh governments in managing this crisis. As far as engaging experts to formulate strategies is concerned, instead of consulting organisations like the Pakistan Medical Association (PMA), the government regularly consults business associations.

The opening of businesses in the middle of the crisis happened primarily to favour big business while the workers are being retrenched and kept unemployed. The BISP/Ehsaas programme reaching out to poor households in the country does not offer even a medium-term solution. What the poor have really survived on is the tradition of individual charity in Pakistan. But that capacity is reaching its limits because the failing economy will eventually hurt the middle class as well. The state has to create conditions for decent work for all. Else, we will see an implosion in Pakistan’s society, economy and polity.

TNS: How do you see the overall government performance with regard to its Covid-19 response? Do you think the situation could’ve been handled better? If yes, how?

HK: We needed to implement a strict country-wide lockdown for a month or six weeks when the cases began to emerge. Food rations or cash transfers or both could have been provided to deserving families. This would have not only flattened out the steep curve of increasing incidence of the virus but also provided us with space to prepare for the times when the lockdown is lifted. Local governments should have been restored and mobilised. Without local governments, it is impossible to efficiently execute any plans at the grassroots. The government should have carefully listened to medical professionals and relevant international institutions. A clear message should have come out from all tiers and representatives of federal and provincial governments.

The interviewer is a member of staff. She can be reached at wajiha.hyder9@gmail.com and on Twitter at @wajihahyder

‘In the name of contact tracing, authoritative states worldwide are expanding the scope of their surveillance’