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Curbing dissent

While Mr Khan claims his opponents are asking people to take to the streets to topple his government by flouting distancing norms, the Opposition is determined to go ahead with its agitation and alleges that public health concerns are being raised now only to curb dissent.

Statesman News Service | New Delhi |

A defining characteristic of the coronavirus outbreak has been the tendency of those who rule to use the public health emergency to expand their powers and put down dissent.

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban gave himself powers to rule his country indefinitely. But he was not the only one; a report by Human Rights Watch last April found that as many 84 governments had armed themselves with emergency powers ostensibly to deal with the epidemic.

Pakistan may have come late to the party, in part because the military establishment already enjoys wide-ranging powers. But as an alliance of Opposition parties gathers steam with a string of rallies held around the country and more planned, the government of PrimeMinister Imran Khan has notified new measures to contain spread of the virus.

On Monday, the government asked Opposition parties to cancel all political rallies, adding almost facetiously that the ruling party would also do so. Reacting sharply to the injunction, Opposition leader Fazl ur Rehman said: “Imran Khan’s government is a bigger threat to Pakistan and its economy than the virus”.

The government claims to be reacting to a fresh surge in cases, and Mr Khan has accused the Opposition of “not caring for the lives and safety of people”.

While Mr Khan claims his opponents are asking people to take to the streets to topple his government by flouting distancing norms, the Opposition is determined to go ahead with its agitation and alleges that public health concerns are being raised now only to curb dissent.

Certainly, Pakistan’s approach to health measures has largely been lackadaisical in the past few months and there were virtually no real restrictions on either festive or religious gatherings. It was, for instance, possibly the only country in the world to keep mosques open during Ramazan.

Even now, with the exception of the restriction on political rallies, the measures announced to curb what the government calls a worrying surge in numbers are largely boilerplate. Factories and shops will remain open but follow Standard Operating Procedures.

Restaurants too can operate but are asked to follow distancing norms. Weddings can take place, with a maximum of 300 guests. In short, the measures to deal with the surge appear largely shambolic, and the target appears to be political rallies.

Of course, Mr. Khan could not resist invoking geopolitical factors in support of his curbs by saying: “We were specially blessed by Allah. We are a very lucky nation; look at Iran and India. We managed to avoid the destruction that coronavirus caused in other countries.”

But now, and notwithstanding the benediction, the numbers are rising in Pakistan, with total confirmed cases having crossed 400,000 and deaths being more than 8,000.

And yet, it is reasonable to suspect that the measures being put in place are as much to put the brakes on an increasingly pesky opposition as they are to safeguard public health.