Acting callously

As virus cases rise, the government machinery remains lax about the enforcement of SOPs

While the number of daily new coronavirus cases is rising in Sindh, a major shopping mall in Gulistan-i-Jauhar area in Karachi has stopped checking body temperatures of its customers using digital equipment installed at its main entrance. The walk-through gate is still there but no longer functional; and the disinfectant spray is a thing of the past. The arrangement for offering hand sanitiser to the visitors has also been discontinued. The guards have stopped checking whether the visitors are wearing face masks or not although stickers announcing the face mask requirement are still on display at the entrance.

Only a few months ago there were Covid-19 lockdowns in place over much of the city and all these facilities were in proper order and functioning efficiently. The super store had queuing guides marked on the floor in front of the entrance and the guards were nudging customers to follow social distancing rules. Only a certain number of customers were allowed inside at a time and there were long queues outside of the shoppers waiting for their turn. Announcements were made using the public address system requesting the customers to hasten their shopping as a large number of people were waiting outside for them to leave and make room for them.

All that has changed apparently irreversibly despite clear signs of a second wave of Covid-19.

In March, when a complete lockdown was imposed all over Pakistan, including Karachi, all businesses and industrial activities had come to a standstill and a curfew-like situation had prevailed. The air quality had improved noticeably as only a negligible number of vehicles plied on the roads. Only grocery shops, general stores, medical stores, bakeries and milk shops were allowed to open – even those with certain conditions. The standard operating procedures (SOPs) notified by the government were strictly adhered to. Mosques were closed down for a brief period and skirmishes between police and the prayer goers were reported in the media in the initial weeks of lockdown as the police restricted Friday congregations in certain localities in Karachi.

The restrictions were relaxed gradually and more and more businesses started opening and industries opened their gates promising strict implementation of the official SOPs. All markets were allowed to operate after August 10 when the federal government lifted the lockdown following a sharp decline in the number of new cases and deaths from Covid-19 across the country.

Although the SOPs for each business sector and industry remained in place officially despite easing out of the lockdown, the government and non-governmental organisations have been issuing warnings about the spread of the virus. Those warnings have been mostly ignored by a majority of the general public. Even factories, where a large number of workers go daily, have stopped following the mandatory SOPs regarding maintenance of distance in seating of workers to save their lives.

Markets and public transport vehicles are known to have great potential for spreading the virus. Many public gatherings and rallies by both government and opposition parties and religious congregations have gone ahead nonetheless.

Wedding halls and restaurants are another problem area. Perhaps that is why the government has announced closing down of the halls from November 20 till January 31. However, weddings have been allowed at open spaces with restrictions on number of guests. The marriage halls owners have announced plans to protest against the new restrictions. They say they have yet to recover from the losses suffered during the closure between March 13 and September 15.

The marriage halls association has said that over 13,000 wedding halls in the country and that this will directly affect 650,000 daily wage workers. About 50 percent of Karachi’s industries, the association says, are directly to the wedding businesses.

Unfortunately, the government machinery has also been lax about the enforcement of the SOPs after the lifting of the lockdown. This has encouraged violations, even open defiance, of the SOPs at public places. A significant part of the population does not even appear to believe the existence of a virus. These people have never worn a face mask. Even after the government imposed a fine of Rs 100 for not wearing the mask in public places, a majority of people are seen roaming around without masks.

Schools and colleges were allowed to open from October with certain restrictions on the number of students attending at a time and subject to wearing of masks by both teachers and students. This has remained a cause of concern for the parents as children are prone to infections. Many schools have allowed their students to choose between physically coming to classes or take online classes. But most of the schools, especially those in the government sector do not have the facilities needed for online classes. Following a meeting of provincial education ministers on Monday a decision on closing the schools has been deferred till next week. The Sindh education minister has even said there should be no winter vacations this year. The Balochistan government has, however, closed down the schools.

No SOPs are being followed in the public transport buses and railways and most passengers commute without a mask. Karachi has the worst public transport system as three decade old buses and mini-buses ply on main routes in absence of any mass transit system. As a result of the public attitude the number of new cases and deaths due to Covid-19 has again started increasing. On November 18 the number of new cases in Sindh exceeded 1,000. The government has re-imposed certain restrictions on movement in some areas and asked most offices to encourage work from home and discourage older employees from coming to offices.

A section of the population is still in a denial mode. Many don’t believe that there was ever a deadly virus and a pandemic. While all shop-keepers and front desk sales people are required to wear face masks during the business hours, it is a common observation that they seldom do so. Handshakes and violations of social distancing are common.

“We live in the constant fear of infection as most people in rural areas continue to insist on handshakes even hugging one another,” said Khadim Hussain Mirani, a social activist.

Mirani says it is unfortunate that most people don’t recognise that they may be spreading the virus even if they do not have any symptoms of the disease.

The author is a senior journalist, currently working as development communication professional in Karachi.

Coronavirus: Acting callously