by Tilak Devasher

The coronavirus pandemic has presented a challenge to the global community like none other for several generations. It will, however, ultimately wane like others before it. Two memories will nevertheless stand out among the host of memories that this disease would have left behind. One is from our northern neighbour from where the entire disruption started, and the other is from our western neighbour, where despite the crisis, it could not resist taking pot-shots at India.

On March 22, the spokesman for the Communist Party of China tweeted: “If ‘Made in China’ is contagious, then don’t use made in China face masks, don’t use made in China PPE, don’t use made in China ventilators. Only by doing so can you avoid the virus.” Such arrogance reeks of total disdain for the crisis that the world is going through as a result of China’s acts of omission and/or commission (The jury is still out on this).

It also highlights the fact that for too long has the world outsourced manufacturing to China and is now facing the consequences. Many countries, including the US, are dependent on China for basic medical equipment and drugs. Now, when the US needs these vital medicines and equipment, it finds itself at a fatal disadvantage. The New York Times quoted an article by Chinese state news agency Xinhua, saying that if China banned the export of drugs, ‘the United States would sink into the hell of a novel coronavirus epidemic’.

The lesson for the world, therefore, is to reduce the dependence on China, not only for critical drugs and equipment but also for manufacturing and supply chains. It will take time, it will be painful and expensive, but that would be far better than being held hostage to China at crunch times when lives are at stake. This should also be a wake-up call for not involving Chinese companies like Huawei for the impending 5G rollout that could impact the entire critical infrastructure of the country.

The boast of the CCP spokesman about medical equipment has been belied by media reports from Spain, Czech Republic, Ukraine, the Philippines, the Netherlands and Turkey. These reports indicate that China supplied faulty test kits that only had 30% accuracy, and at least in one case, reused masks.

Finally, China cannot escape the consequences of its disastrous action that allowed the deadly virus to spread globally. While there continues to be a debate on how the virus started in Wuhan, there is no doubt about its spread. Despite knowing about human transmission, China allowed at least 7 million people, including from Wuhan, to travel to all parts of the world. This is criminal and China will have to be held accountable. No amount of bribing the WHO and disinformation would help it escape responsibility.

Our western neighbour Pakistan is in a league by itself. Starting from the first case on February 26, the number of confirmed cases have jumped to over 2,400. At a time when the world was battling the pandemic, the Pakistan representative, during the SAARC video conference, raised the issue of communication restrictions and medical supplies in J&K. Its foreign minister and foreign office have repeated this on several occasions. Pakistan even wrote to the then Security Council president, China, requesting ‘urgent and appropriate consideration of developments in J&K that posed a threat to international peace and security’. The fact that China refused to take notice of the ‘urgent’ request was very disconcerting for Pakistan.

Pakistan needs to look at its own house instead. The cases in so-called Azad Jammu and Kashmir and Gilgit Baltistan have reached almost 200. Ominously, as per media reports, there seems to be a move by the Pakistan army to shift positively tested patients from Punjab to quarantine centres in the region.

Four elements of Pakistan’s response are noteworthy. First, if the virus spreads, its healthcare system may collapse, given the paucity of beds in intensive care wards, ventilators, N95 masks and appalling conditions in quarantine camps like Taftan. A doctor was quoted in the media complaining, ‘We don’t even have anti-rabies vaccines. How can we deal with thousands of people who will come here for coronavirus treatment?’ All this has happened due to poor investment in healthcare by successive governments.

Second, there is a great deal of confusion about who is in charge. While Imran Khan has rejected a lockdown, saying it would ruin the economy, the provinces have gone ahead and done so in varying degrees, especially the PPP-led government in Sindh. Punjab, KPK and Baluchistan have followed suit. The army has signalled that it would be working with provincial governments to enforce a lockdown. So who is calling the shots?

Third, Imran Khan has been found wanting on all counts. Even in this hour of crisis, he has not been able to show leadership to unify the country and continues to have a belligerent attitude towards the opposition. Thus, after addressing a video conference of parliamentary leaders, he chose to go offline instead of listening to their views. He was not interested in their views on dealing with the crisis.

Fourth, Pakistan seems to believe that it is the last bastion of Islam. Despite other Islamic countries like Saudi Arabia and Iran banning all religious gatherings, the federal government has said congregational prayers would be offered in ‘limited numbers’ in mosques. Pakistan is literally standing at the edge of an unknown precipice. It needs to look internally rather than harping about J&K.