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Humanitarian crisis

Pakistan’s government response towards the stranded Pakistani students in Wuhan, the epicentre of deadly Coronavirus, known as Covid-19, has been pathetic and demoralising.

When the rest of the world is evacuating and air lifting their nationals from the disease-infested area in an emergency like situation, we preferred to help our stranded citizens by extending them loads of sympathy, profound consolation and best wishes for their safety. Little do we realise that our sincere wishes will not help these people in distress when practical action is the need of the hour.

It is deeply saddening to see the inaction of the government towards Pakistani citizens despite their acute agony, utter bewilderment and sheer helplessness. Responding to their desperate emails, the Islamabad High Court sprang in action and recently directed the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to appoint a focal person for Pakistani students stranded in Wuhan and evolve a mechanism of interaction of parents with their children.

Consequently, a two-member special task force from the Pakistan embassy in Beijing has reached Wuhan city to implement the court directions. But the question remains whether such an interaction or moral support devoid of rescue operations would be of any help when other countries are actively evacuating their citizens from the calamity-hit area.

The main argument of our government’s inaction had been the weak and ill-equipped health system that may not be able to allow aggressive handling of the disease and infected patients. This argument loses weight because apparently no country, however rich, is prepared to face such a crisis like situation.

The real test lies in enabling a response and crisis management, immediately, like many of our neighbouring countries with similar poor health conditions have done. They rose to the occasion and managed the crisis promptly for which they too were not well equipped. There is certainly a lesson to learn from them.

Bangladesh evacuated 300 nationals and kept them at the Ashkona Haj camp near Shah Jalal International Airport, a place used to keep Hajj pilgrims before departure. Sri Lanka evacuated 33 Sri Lankans and quarantined them at a segregated block at a military facility of the Sri Lankan Army. Iran lifted 50 students through a chartered flight from Wuhan bringing along Iraqi, Syrian and Lebanese students on humanitarian grounds.

Crisis management in India was overwhelmingly impressive. From evacuating its 645 citizens from Wuhan to establishing dedicated quarantine centres at various cities, from conducting thermal screening at its 21 airports to universal screening for all international foreign passengers, from isolating wards at designated hospitals to designating labs for the virus tests, everything was done promptly in response to the ensuing emergency.

All evacuated passengers were quarantined at the Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP) facility at Chhawla in Delhi for 18 days before moving on. Furthermore, 11,500 people are presently under community surveillance in 34 states/ union territories and one-third in Kerala alone, where after the detection of three cases positive, almost 3252 people are under observation.

Kerala has been hailed for being in the forefront of crisis response management as it publishes daily updates about quarantine, tests and hospitalization. Patients are kept in isolation in hospitals and as results are negative and symptoms subside, they are shifted to community surveillance.

Another worth mentioning example is Australia, which evacuated its 200 plus nationals and kept them for 14 days in quarantine on the remote Christmas Island, an Australian external territory, about 2700 km from the mainland known for its immigration detention centre. Being faced with criticism for such an act, it chose to deal with an extraordinary situation with an extraordinary response.

The Pakistan government’s inaction is also on another account when they claim that the Chinese government had issued an advice that pulling out people was not safe. Almost 25 countries, rich and poor, have successfully evacuated their hundreds of nationals from Wuhan city without paying heed to such sympathetic advice. On such occasions, when safety is in peril, governments need to take decision independently as many did. People will be safe at home and not in an alien land hit by calamity itself.

Many countries including India, Bangladesh, Philippines, Sri Lanka, Malaysia, Vietnam, Singapore, US, have temporarily suspended visa facility to Chinese nationals with complete travel restrictions in wake of Covid-19 to prohibit the spread of disease. Pakistan on the other hand resumed travel operations to and from China after suspending flight operations for three days in stark contrast to the ground realties – and simultaneously raising a number of questions.

One may wonder how Pakistan is now well equipped to properly screen, test and treat the suspected cases in the wake of lifting the travel ban from China when it is poorly equipped to treat its evacuated nationals.

The situation has simmered and moved away from being a health issue. It is a humanitarian issue and the lives of hundreds of our nationals are at stake. The government must allow immediate repatriation of citizens through special chartered fights and set up the necessary quarantine protocols besides temporary suspension of flights to and from China like many countries.

China built hospitals overnight to manage the outbreak whereas other countries have virtually declared it a health emergency and enacted stupendous measures to deal with the crisis. We should not overlook the plight of our citizens and leave them at the mercy of our friendly neighbour country which is in a terrible crisis itself.

Beelam Ramzan, "Humanitarian crisis," The News. 2020-02-24.
Keywords: Health sciences , Travel operations , Community surveillance , Health emergency , Health issues , Sri Lanka , Malaysia , Vietnam , China , Pakistan , Wuhan , Australia , ITBP