Unprecedented Opportunity for the Environment and Science

April 22, 2020, marked the 50th Earth Day, half a century since the original Earth Day in 1970 that turned environmentalism into a mainstream global movement. All of us eagerly waited for this occasion, as huge commemorations were planned around the world with as many as one billion people expected to participate. Environmentalists planned to hold massive rallies akin to the ones in 1970 and prepared to launch various programs such as the Great Global Cleanup, a campaign of volunteering for cleaning up litter. In the wake of 2019’s strong climate change activism, Earth Day 2020 was supposed to be one more watershed occasion for our struggle to safeguard the health of our planet.

Then came the coronavirus pandemic. The rapid spread of SARS-CoV-2, a virus new to mankind, is a huge and completely unexpected shock to the world system. It has upended societies and turned the lives of billions upside down. Social interaction has been curbed dramatically, as people are keeping physical distance from others and staying home. Most of the activities we spent years planning for Earth Day 2020 have therefore been cancelled. Earth Day organizers have done their best to adjust by turning Earth Day commemoration into a largely digital affair, with much success.

The real challenge, however, has just started.

Earth Challenge 2020, launched last month, is one of the biggest environmental campaigns scheduled to be held in heel of Earth Day 2020. The largest citizen science program ever, it is working to mobilize millions of people around the world to collect data on environmental conditions, so the data can be analyzed and combined to provide a clearer picture on planet’s overall ecological health. Basically, the Earth Challenge campaign has been formulated with the goal of getting ordinary people to monitor threats to the environment in a coordinated manner.

The coronavirus pandemic throws a curveball in our path. Environmental monitoring is still possible while maintaining social distancing, but the fact remains that it will have to be done under very challenging circumstances.

Additionally, the pandemic and the disruptions to society it has wrought actually diminish the intended usefulness of the Earth Challenge campaign. We are supposed to be making observations about current environmental conditions so we can better understand how human activity is impacting the Earth, but those very conditions have changed momentarily as the virus brings most human activity to a halt. For instance, air pollution, generally one of the biggest environmental problems, is one of the main topics pursued by Earth Challenge but lockdowns around the world have suddenly made the air much cleaner, which is only for a short period. The problem for Earth Challenge is that if we study the environment during the pandemic, we will be presented with a picture that does not entirely reflect how the environment normally is. To put it simply, we cannot monitor threats to Planet Earth when these threats have gone into hiding for the time being. 2020 is therefore the worst time to hold this ambitious environmental science program as we planned for it.

This need not be the case if we reevaluate our goals. We have good reason to, because the spread of COVID-19 presents the world with an incredibly unique opportunity. By dramatically suppressing many human activities, the pandemic has provided Planet Earth with an enormous relief. As a result, our environmental dreams have come true for the time being. The world has struggled with air pollution. Now, much of that has vanished. Animal habitats have been constrained by human trespassers. Now animals are wandering everywhere freely in the relative absence of humans. Human activity has been pumping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere non-stop, while we have yet to find out how to stop ourselves. Now, carbon dioxide emissions all over the world have plummeted.

If we conduct a scientific study of the environment now, we will see something extraordinary – a world that we have been fighting to create for half a century.

It is extremely important to study this world while it lasts. It will inform us of how the environment reacts to the cessation of manmade disturbances, as well as how the strategies to mitigate these disturbances can be implemented. It will provide us with enormous insights into environmental dynamics and how the natural environment and human society interact. As we fight to create a healthier planet, observing how things are now will allow us to better know what our desired planet will be like and how we can create it.

This makes 2020 the most important time for environmental science ever. All those who spent years preparing for Earth Challenge may not have gotten what they were planning for, but instead they have something very, very special. Because of COVID-19, the world’s largest citizen science program will not be able to investigate much how the natural environment generally fares but will be able to discover more about how it works and how certain changes impact it. It is a rare opportunity that has come our way.

Of course, citizen scientists and professional scientists alike face challenges in carrying out their work because of COVID-19, but it is very important that we overcome them in order to avail our great opportunity. Now is the time for scientific endeavor to become more active, not to slow down. That shouldn’t be too difficult for environmental science. Right from the beginning, Earth Challenge 2020 is meant to largely consist of activities happening in the telecommunication sphere and in the great outdoors. Volunteers are supposed to explore and examine the natural environment, such as wildernesses and even just the air around them, which they can easily do while staying away from people. Then they are to upload the data they collect onto digital networks for others to view. Communicating with others remains vital and can be done virtually, which is how all social interactions are being done wherever the fight against the virus is in full gear. The Earth Challenge platform has created a variety of digital resources for use by citizen scientists. We have to rapidly innovate to get our work going, as the impacts on nature of our responses to the pandemic are likely to be short-lived, although, as of late June, the coronavirus pandemic seems to be just starting in the developing world and is seemingly making a comeback in developed countries.

2020 is a year of unprecedented challenges, but there is a lot of benefit we are capable of getting out of it in the field of scientific research. As a result, Earth Challenge 2020 has acquired more significance than we could ever have imagined.

Shahzeb Khan is environment journalist, writer, student of Earth sciences, and director at Pakistan’s People Led Disaster Management (https://pldmsite.wordpress.com/). He tweets at https://twitter.com/justinshahzebkh.

How did the Crash of Flight PK8303 Happen?

As Pakistan mourned the crash of flight PK8303 in Karachi that occurred before the Eid holidays and as the deceased were being identified, an investigation into the cause of the crash was speedily conducted and is ongoing. Immediately after it happened, the crash was covered here; (https://pldmsite.wordpress.com/2020/05/23/crash-of-airplane-pk8303-in-karachi/). It presented a great deal of initial speculation as to the cause of the tragedy. Since then, with the passage of weeks, a lot more information has come out and many theories have been constructed. The black box was recovered from the airplane wreckage and its data has been gathered. The government of Pakistan has promised that an initial inquiry report on the accident will be released on June 22 and a full report will arrive a few months later. But enough information, gleamed from records of communication between pilot and air traffic control, eyewitness accounts, and forensic investigation, has already been made public to provide us with a concise scenario of how the plane crashed. However, there is still much uncertainty about what exactly happened.

We know that the airplane, an Airbus A320 jet airliner that took off from Lahore on a 90-minute flight, aborted its first landing attempt at Jinnah International Airport and made a go-around (circling around to make the same landing). The pilot, Captain Sajjad Gul, reported dual engine failure and then issued a mayday alert to air traffic control. Transmission was then lost and the plane, on its final landing approach, veered off course and crashed into a residential area known as Model Colony. Only two of the 99 people onboard have survived and, at first, there were only injuries among people on the ground. However, a 12-year old girl injured in the plane crash later tragically passed away (https://www.samaa.tv/news/pakistan/2020/06/12-year-old-injured-in-pk-8303-crash-passes-away-in-karachi/).

Before going any further, we should all be aware of the fact that the pilot, Captain Sajjad Gul, appears to have steered his plane to avoid hitting homes so that the plane landed in the middle of a neighborhood road. This is truly an immensely heroic act that a person on the verge of death did to protect others. It undoubtedly saved many people, as the Model Colony neighborhood the plane crashed into was densely populated. Sources describe it as being congested. Yet, no doubt thanks to the pilot’s quick thinking and composure, casualties among people on the ground have been light.

Just as commendable is the heroism of the rescue workers, professionals and ordinary people, who worked to recover victims from the crash zone under great danger, braving high temperatures and a massive fire that broke out around the crash site, while the congested layout of the neighborhood made delivery of relief efforts challenging. Then there are the medical personnel, tirelessly working to treat the injured and getting themselves prepared to treat any injured even as the severe coronavirus outbreak in Sindh has stretched the healthcare sector thin. The agencies of Pakistan tasked with safety and relief have done a commendable job responding to the plane crash.

Also critically important is the job of those who are working to find out how it was that the plane crashed, information that will aid us in improving safety standards to prevent such an accident from happening again. I believe that this awareness is more urgently needed right now than we may think, because this plane crash has not come at an ordinary time for Pakistan and for its aviation sector. We happen to be in unprecedented circumstances, a time of enormous crisis and disruption all across the nation, indeed the world, and this current situation could be a factor in the PIA plane crashing. If so, then we are likely in imminent danger of further aviation accidents/incidents during the time we are in and we need to respond quickly.

First, let us look at the facts available. Sources said early on that a technical issue, most likely failure to deploy the undercarriage, or landing gear, caused the plane to abort landing. Two runways were then offered to the plane. However, instead of utilizing them, the plane made a go-around. Then, according to the air traffic control communications, another technical fault occurred, failure of both the plane’s turbofan engines, which is corroborated by a lot of evidence. Eyewitness reports suggest that the plane’s wings were on fire. The plane flew into the neighborhood while its front part was tilted upwards, which is a sign it was trying to ascend. Photos of the airplane wreckage on the ground show the blades of the turbofan engine to be undamaged, which suggest that they were not turning when the plane crashed.

Records of air traffic communications are reported to have revealed a grave pilot error that took place before the crash. Apparently, the airplane was too high in altitude when it was approaching the airport runway. ATC warned the pilot to lower the airplane but he ignored those warnings and descended too close to the runway, resulting in the plane travelling at a dangerously high speed when it was first about to land. Sajjad Gul is a senior pilot with 24 years of experience in the airline industry.

A preliminary report by the Civil Aviation Authority (detailed here https://www.thenews.com.pk/print/663140-new-questions-rise-over-plane-crash-report-on-crash-causes-in-90-days), who declared that they found skid marks on the first runway the plane attempted to land on, suggests that after the landing gear failed to deploy while the plane was landing, the plane flew so low that the jet engines, but not the belly, scraped the ground three times and were damaged. The plane climbed back into the air again. The aircrew failed to notify air traffic control of landing gear failure until the plane was making a go-around to retry the same landing. The plane ascended to 3,000 feet but could not hold the altitude, perhaps because fuel was leaking, and then tilted, upon which the crash happened.

Multiple things are being reported as having gone wrong at the end of the plane’s journey, but if they are true, they may all be connected. It is possible that when the plane was landing at a high speed, the crew was busy trying to slow it down and forgot to deploy the landing gear in the process. Then the plane engines were damaged by scraping the runway and so malfunctioned in the air, resulting in the plane coming down.

This explanation, or some variant thereof, of how the plane crashed may very well be true. But when it comes to the broader picture of what made the disaster possible, the timing of the plane crash is something that is very important to note. It happened just after airplanes like PK8303 were back in the air after a long nationwide grounding, part of an unprecedented worldwide drop in air travel due to the coronavirus pandemic. In Pakistan, all commercial flights were banned on 29 March. The ban on domestic flights was lifted on 16 May in time for the Eid holidays, which came just after the day the plane crashed. This has been a very difficult and unique time for the aviation industry in Pakistan and the entire world, one that nobody was prepared for. A two-month grounding of airplanes throughout the country is unprecedented. The pandemic and severe economic problems are also disrupting everything in Pakistan and making life for everybody very hard. This backdrop to the plane crash therefore naturally leads us to one question: did the impact of the coronavirus pandemic play a part in the plane crash?

According to a summary report by aviation authorities, PK8303, which had been flying for sixteen years, was grounded under the virus lockdown between March 22 and May 7, after which it did six flights while reporting no defects. It last underwent a routine inspection the day before 21 March and the last major check was on October 19, 2019. This long hiatus in safety inspection may have caused technical defects with the plane to go unnoticed before it resumed flight. Also, when a plane is grounded for a long period of time, it is supposed to undergo test flights before resuming normal operations to make sure its performance is fine. This seems not to have happened with PK8303.

Aviation safety relies a great deal upon the financial capacity of the aviation industry. Making sure flying is safe can be so expensive that, sometimes, airliners tarry at this job in order to save costs. It is a big problem at the best of times, especially for an airliner of a developing country like PIA, but the coronavirus pandemic is putting the aviation industry on the verge of a financial catastrophe. Because of the total grounding of flights, airline companies are making much less money while still maintaining their fleets. The government is supposed to help out, but it is very difficult for ours to do so when it has to deal with the unprecedented coronavirus crisis all over the country and with severe economic problems stemming from other causes, including a severe, long-running locust outbreak and inflation. Plus, virus restrictions impact all activities of life. Airline employees likely could not do their normal job without great risk. In this battle to fight the virus that has taken the country by storm, it must have become harder for aviation to guard against other threats. They might also be tempted to relax safety standards to preserve what little profitability is possible.

Even after the lockdown on planes was lifted, the airlines continue to operate under great strain. Far fewer people are flying than in normal times, which means that airlines continue to be short on cash. There has been a rush as Pakistanis wanted to go back to their hometown to be with their families for Eid, but social distancing measures meant that most passenger planes are occupied far below their full capacity, with every second seat being kept empty. This SOP fortunately prevented PK 8303 from being one of the deadliest plane crashes in Pakistan’s history. Also, the air travel industry has an enormous responsibility to ensure the coronavirus is not spread by air travel, whether it is by infected people traveling to other places or transmission taking place during flight, when lots of people are crammed into a tight space. Airliners now have to save the world in addition to making sure their planes land safely. It is a huge burden that may have stressed PIA’s capacity to a dangerous level.

All in all, the enormous challenges that aviation is going through as a result of the pandemic may have compromised the maintenance and inspection of airplanes, causing technical defects to build-up and go unnoticed. Whether or not this is what made the crash of PK8303 possible, it is a hazard that very likely exists. We cannot ignore this risk. We must recognize that more plane accidents could occur in the days ahead because of the impact of the pandemic on aviation and we have to take action against the threat. We need to conduct a risk assessment to investigate just how aviation safety is being affected by current circumstances. As difficult as it may be during the pandemic, we must pay extra attention to maintaining aviation safety standards, making sure that all airplanes are thoroughly inspected and well-maintained and subjecting planes to adequate testing before resumption of their normal duties. Matters will only get worse if planes start crashing in the middle of a severe pandemic.

It is widely presumed that a malfunction due to internal factors with the ill-fated plane caused it to crash. But there is also the possibility of an external factor that caused damage to the plane while it was flying. Engine failure is generally considered to be a cause of the plane crash, but as for what caused this failure, jet engines are vulnerable to spontaneous malfunction but are also vulnerable to whatever goes into the engine while it is operating. Jet engines suck in a tremendous amount of air, but we always hope that it is only air going into it, because if solid objects collide with the engines, it can cause serious damage and sometimes an accident like what happened with flight PK8303.

When a plane is in the air, such collisions are usually with birds, and indeed, several experts have already entertained the idea of a “bird strike” contributing to the plane crash in Karachi. Birds always impact with flying planes at very high speed, which means they hit with such strong force that various parts of the plane can be damaged. But jet engines are the most vulnerable. A bird being ingested in there can cause the fan blades to buckle in a domino effect that causes engine failure. If the bird’s body goes behind the blades, it can cause some deeper damage resulting in fuel leakage, which can start a fire in the engine. Birds can also strike and damage panels on the airplane wings, such as flaps and ailerons, when they are open, creating difficulty with controlling the plane’s movement at crucial moments, like landing. Bird strikes usually happen when passenger planes are taking off or landing, as airplanes usually fly at altitudes too high for birds.

The bigger a bird is, the more dangerous a strike can be. There are a lot of large birds in Karachi, including vultures, so a hit with one could definitely have taken down the Airbus plane. But if a plane runs into a flock of birds, it is also very dangerous as many birds might collide. It could explain why both engines of the PK8303 plane failed, as birds could have gone into both at the same time. We may need eyewitness and video accounts to tell us if there were birds over Jinnah International Airport at the time the airplane crashed. Also, if a bird strike indeed happened, we should be able to find the bird remains (known as “snarge” in aviation speak) in the airplane wreckage.

We should keep in mind that birds are not the only animals that fly. In fact, right now, one other type of animal is buzzing in the skies over Pakistan in great numbers, because enormous locust swarms have been invading the region for several months now. It is believed to be the biggest locust invasion in 70 years and some of the swarms are the size of major cities. Locusts began swarming in East Africa in 2018 and they very quickly reached Pakistan, where Karachi was inundated by locusts in November 2019 for the first time since 1961. The locust swarms within Pakistan have only been getting stronger since then as locusts are breeding in our farmlands. Pakistan declared a state of emergency over them in February and FAO predicted that swarms across Africa and Asia will further explode in numbers by June, a month that has just arrived.

Desert locusts, the species involved, are large insects and fly in dense formations. Any plane that flies through a swarm could potentially receive a big load of locusts. One locust may not do a lot of damage, but a large number of locusts getting splattered onto even a large passenger jet plane can possibly have a serious impact. Had PK8303 engaged in such a contact with any of the vast locust swarms overrunning Pakistan, it might have enabled the crashing of the plane.

Caution already exist in the aviation world against planes flying through locust swarms. In September 2010, Australia’s Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA) issued a national notice to pilots about the dangers that locusts, swarming in Australia at that time, posed to aircraft. It said that locusts could be smeared on the windscreen and reduce visibility and could block engine intakes and overheat the engines, making failure possible. The insects could also clog the pitot tubes of an airplane, therefore causing difficulty in accurately reading the plane’s airspeed. As for the current locust swarms across Africa and Asia, an official warning so far has been issued just a few days ago by India’s Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) that the locust swarms that recently entered India have become so big that these pose an aviation hazard. They warned of instruments and sensors being damaged by locusts, air intake inlets being clogged, and locusts being smeared on the windshield.

The engine failure the doomed PIA plane is believed to have suffered before crashing on May 22 could have happened due to both jet engines ingesting enough locusts. Locusts are not soft objects. They have an exoskeleton made out of a tough material known as chitin, so it’s definitely not good for such things to go into the engine of a flying plane. And then there is the effect locust collisions could have on the plane’s instruments and sensors, which allow the pilot to know important things like how fast the plane is going. If reports of pilot error on PK8303 are true, then they could have been caused by locust strikes. For instance, if the pitot tubes of the airplane were clogged by locusts and the pilot could not accurately read the airspeed, it could have caused him to approach the runway at too high a speed or to veer off course on the second landing attempt or when the engines failed. We can be pretty certain that locusts did not get smeared over the windshield or the pilot would certainly have reported it.

Southern Sindh is a hotbed of locust swarming in Pakistan right now. So it is possible that PK8303 encountered such a swarm as it made its ill-fated approach to Jinnah International Airport. There have been recent reports of locust swarms in proximity to Karachi, such as this news item on May 5 that said locusts were attacking Karachi suburbs (https://arynews.tv/en/locusts-swarms-attack-crops-in-suburban-areas-of-karachi/). However, Karachi is not being inundated by locusts the way it was in late 2019 and the sighting of a locust swarm over Karachi the day the PIA airplane crashed has not been reported. Nevertheless, Flight PK8303 could have been struck by locusts at any time during its last journey. It took off from Lahore and flew straight to Karachi, which placed its flight trajectory right across Punjab and Sindh, Pakistan’s breadbaskets and therefore prime territory for locust swarming.

Commercial airliners, however, spend most of their flight at an altitude too high for locusts. Locusts can only fly at very low elevations and PK8303 could not possibly have encountered any while it was cruising between Lahore and Karachi. The only times when airplanes are likely to encounter flying locusts is when they are taking off and landing. There is a strong possibility of this happening to PK8303 during these two stages in its last flight, given that Lahore and Karachi are both right in the middle of locust territory. According to statistics compiled by the FAO, while the majority of locust breeding in Pakistan is taking place in Balochistan, the rest is in southern Sindh and northeastern Punjab, exactly where those two cities are (https://tribune.com.pk/story/2230538/2-locust-attack-poses-famine-risk/). Adult locusts also have a strong presence in these areas. Even if the doomed airplane did not strike locusts while trying to land in Karachi, it could have done so shortly after taking off in Lahore, which could have ended up contributing to the crash more than an hour later. If the jet engines were what sustained the fatal damage, the reason they failed only when the plane was landing could be because plane engines are under particularly high strain during the landing phase, so PK8303’s engines would be unable to cope with this action even as they were able to carry the plane along on its 90-minute voyage. If instruments and sensors were damaged, they could have ended up being problematic only during landing.

Furthermore, there is also the possibility that PK8303 sustained damage from locust strikes at any time in its flight history since it was last checked on 21 March or thoroughly inspected on October 19 last year. It could have been struck by individual locusts several times during the locust upsurge in the region, thereby gradually sustaining damage. This damage would be unnoticed for some time but, sooner or later, it would end up triggering a major accident.

If the current locust invasions are responsible for playing a part in the crash of PK8303, it may not necessarily be strikes with the locusts themselves that the airplane experienced. Collisions with birds are much more dangerous than collisions with locusts, but a locust upsurge can raise the likelihood of both. That is because a lot of birds, including birds of large sizes, eat locusts, so wherever there are a lot more locusts in the sky, there are always going to be a lot more birds, and wherever there are a lot more birds, the danger to airplanes is a lot higher. Israel, for instance, has to deal with a very high bird-strike risk because the country lies on a migratory bird route.

Birds usually find their food on or close to the ground and therefore spend a lot of time either keeping their two feet on land or flying too low to encounter airplanes. But a locust swarm means an enormous feast right up there in the sky, a rare spectacle that any insectivorous bird will eagerly take advantage of the entire time it lasts. Also, if locusts are swarming in a particular area, birds far and wide will travel to that area, crowding in the air above it. Finally, the current locust upsurge of Africa and Asia has been going on since mid-2018 and hovering around Pakistan since mid-2019. In that amount of time, the bird populations in the affected regions could have grown. All in all, the skies over Pakistan and the wider region around it have become a lot more crowded and airplanes must now find it much more difficult to avoid running into creatures with either feathers or six legs.

The tragic crash of PK8303 in Karachi on May 22, 2020, may have come about, in part, due to the locust upsurge and the way it is filling the skies with winged objects. It could also have come about due to the coronavirus pandemic and the way it is sucking money from airlines and throwing the aviation industry into a storm of difficulties. But even if these two upheavals of our time have nothing to do with the recent plane crash that took the lives of 98 people, the dangers they pose to aviation is still there and very real. Therefore, there is a heightened chance that further airplane mishaps and disasters will occur in the times we are in.

This means we have to be extra vigilant and take into account the aviation hazards outlined above. If we continue with forbidding mass passenger air travel from occurring, as Pakistan and many other countries have done during the coronavirus lockdowns, it may be a good policy. In this time of overarching crisis, we might decide that only essential goods and people will be traveling by air. But if we continue to allow airplanes to occupy the skies and people to occupy those airplanes, we have to identify the additional risks they currently face and mitigate those risks. We need to make sure that airlines maintain their usual safety standards while handling the novel challenges presented by the coronavirus pandemic. If any airline company is being tempted to cut costs, we need to be able to find out and to discipline them. Airline companies should also be provided with financial assistance from the government or from donations during the coronavirus crisis. Locust swarms have to be closely monitored so we can detect locust presence near airports or air routes. Every measure must be undertaken to keep locusts and birds away from these sensitive areas. If need be, we remove all crops and vegetation that are in proximity to urban areas, perhaps by allowing locusts to deplete them quickly, so planes can take-off and land safely.

Aviation safety and risk is, of course, a big issue at all times. A lot of work needs to be done to make aviation safe within Pakistan and, given the highly integrated nature of global aviation, we need to make sure air travel across the world is safe for Pakistanis and for people travelling on Pakistani airliners.

So as for the recent aviation disaster Pakistan has suffered just before Eid, we are waiting as the investigation proceeds. Knowing the truth is important so that the survivors, the loved ones of the victims, and the nation can have closure and so that further tragedies can be prevented. We are relying on the official investigation to come to a conclusion and we may all gravitate towards believing what seems like the most likely explanation. But we have to consider and think of every possibility in what happened. It may be said that we have to be creative, going through the information we have, not only information directly pertaining to the crash but information way beyond, coming up with any hypothesis that is possible, and see how it resonates with the facts.

For example, pilot error is being considered as a major factor in the crash. The captain apparently made a series of mistakes that could have been avoided. It makes us wonder how such an experienced pilot could have acted out this way and then we may start making judgments on him (we shouldn’t get prejudiced easily). But in relating the crash to the wider circumstances again, I thought of one possibility, which is that, what if the pilot was sick with COVID-19? The disease is spreading rapidly. People working in the airline industry are among those most likely to get infected. Serious illnesses often hamper a person’s mental and physical performance, making us sluggish or slow-witted. COVID-19, for its part, has shown signs of having a neurological impact. Many coronaviruses, also, have been known to infect the brain. As our knowledge of SARS-CoV-2 progresses, perhaps we will find out that it can impact the nervous system as well. We have to find out whether or not Sajjad Gul was suffering this way when he was in the cockpit for the last time. Was his dead body inspected for the coronavirus? Could we exhume him and find signs that he was infected?

Any possibility must be investigated.

So, what does PPLDM consider, as of this writing, to be the most likely scenario? Well, we are almost sure about three things going wrong with the flight; the plane being on an improper trajectory on its first landing attempt, the landing gear not being lowered, and the engines failing. It is unlikely for all three events to be a coincidence, so the storyline we may consider most reliable for now is that the plane’s unusual descent trajectory caused an unstable landing, which caused the cockpit crew to forget to employ the landing gear, which caused the engines to scrape the runway, which damaged them so much that they failed and caused the plane to veer off course and descend. It must be unlikely, also, that it is a coincidence the crash happened in the time of coronavirus-induced turbulence experienced by aviation and just after a long air grounding in Pakistan. If a malfunction was the primal cause of the crash, it is highly likely that technical faults were allowed to build-up in the plane during the pandemic.

However, if pilot error was the primal cause, and all malfunctions were the result of that, how can we relate this to the pandemic? Maybe the pilot was stressed by this and other circumstances affecting Pakistanis at that time. Maybe his thinking was impacted. We can also allow the possibility of human error and malfunction coinciding. So the scenario can be that the pilot steered the plane on an unstable descent path and this combined with a (possibly pandemic-induced) problem with the landing gear or the warning systems resulted in the landing gear failing, and the rest followed.

We watch as the investigation into the causes of the plane crash proceeds and we wait for the official results of the investigation to be released to the public. Hopefully, this investigation is being conducted in a fair, honest and intelligent manner so we can really know what happened.

EID AL AZHA DURING PANDEMIC

Bakr-Eid is approaching. During the three days of Bakr-eid, Muslims the world over observe the Abrahamic ritual called Sunnat-e-Ibrahimi and offer the sacrifice of a halal animal. The meat is distributed among the poor, friends and neighbors, plus extended family. A part thereof is consumed by the family offering the sacrifice. All meat shops are closed during the week that follows Bakr-Eid because there is so much meat possessed by households that no one feels the need to buy meat from the market.

In the run up to the Bakr-Eid, huge halal animal markets are put up in different parts of cities, where traders from rural areas bring their animals for trade. Goats, lambs, cows, oxen, buffalos, and camels are bought and sold in these markets. Buyers take the animals home and nurture them further for whatever time the animal has with the family. On the day of Eid, at dawn, the ritual of sacrifice begins. Individual animal slaughterer called Qisai are in huge demand during the three days of Bakr-Eid. These are men who are trained in slaughtering a sacrificial animal. They go from house to house to slaughter the animal in front of each household, whose senior most member recites verses from Quran before the slaughter begins. The Qisai makes pieces of the animal meat and hands them over to the household, collects his wages and moves on to the next house on his list of households with whom he has entered into prior appointment for rendering his service during Eid. The rest of the job belongs to the lady of the house, who spends hours sorting the meat out, distributing different parts as prescribed, and cooking a special celebratory meal for the family and other guests as the case may be.

It has been announced by the authorities in Pakistan that the customary animal markets will not be allowed for Bakr-Eid this year due to Covid-19 pandemic. The authorities fear that traditional animal markets can be a cause of further spread of Covid-19 in Pakistan. It follows that animal sacrifice will not be taking place either.

This is an inadequate stance. Traditional animal markets should indeed be disallowed, but it falls upon the government to arrange alternative modes of observance of the yearly religious ritual. Small scale rural farmers rely on income from sale of animals during Bakr Eid to cushion them through the year. Even if animal markets are allowed in certain places, Covid-19 could make customers shun them, leaving farmers in the lurch. Government has an obligation to make policy for traders and consumers alike that provides for safe and hygienic observance of Sunnat-e-Ibrahimi. Muslims are not going to be comfortable with scrapping the ritual altogether, more so during pandemic emergency. The ritual is based on religious history that describes how Hazrat Ibrahim Alay Salam (Abraham)’s devotion to God was tested by the almighty who ordered the former to sacrifice his own son to prove his devotion to God. Prophet Abraham discussed the matter with his son Hazrat Ismael. The latter told his father that he feels honored being the one chosen to be sacrificed in the cause of God, and urged his father to carry out God’s orders as early as possible. Hazrat Ibrahim ( Prophet Abraham) took his son to a mountain top to make the sacrifice, whereupon his son Hazrat Ismael took a rope out of his pocket and gave it to his father with the request that Hazrat Ismael’s hands and legs be tied with it. Hazrat (Prophet) Ismael explained to his father that being human, he may get afraid when the ax is coming down on his neck and may move from his place out of fear. Hazrat Isamel is also believed to have told his father that his movement made in fear may shake his father’s resolve too, hence he should tie his son down. After Hazrat Ismael was tied with rope, he laid his neck down to be axed while reciting devotional prayer to God. As Prophet Abraham was about to ax his son’s neck, the voice of God ordered him to stop. Divine voice told Abraham that he had passed the test of loyalty to God and was hereby chosen for the divine mission. Prophet Abraham (PBUH) was ordered to sacrifice a goat and distribute its meat to the poor, the neighbors and the extended family and make a feast for his family out of a portion of the sacrificial meat. Prophet Abraham did exactly that and went on to becoming the founding father of the Abrahamic religions called Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Hazrat Mussa Alay Salam (Prophet Moses) Hazrat Essa Alay Salam (Prophet Jesus) and Hazrat Muhammad (Peace Be Upon Him) are believed to be from the progeny of Prophet Abraham, direct descendants of Abraham.

Muslims observe the Abrahamic ritual once every year and call it Bakr-Eid or Eid-al-Azha. Those who have sons and are wealthy, scarify one halal animal for each son. Otherwise, one household offers the sacrifice of one animal, if it can afford it. Over the years, several households have developed the practice of contributing to the purchase of a big sacrificial animal such as cow or camel. The seller then distributes the meat evenly to each contributor. Muslims believe the ritual of sacrifice wards off evil and devil’s machinations against humanity. Muslims feel they have secured themselves and their progeny after observing sunnat-e-Ibrahimi each year.

Needless to mention, Pakistanis are in dire need of the psychological comfort of feeling they have secured themselves from evil during this unprecedented time of pandemic breakout. Their state has not been able to handle the pandemic well for them. There are rising numbers of sick ones and the health care system is expected to collapse any day if the rise continues. All that Muslim households have for solace in this trying time is their devotional prayers. They will not be at ease giving up on the one ritual they know as provider of security for themselves and their family.

Covid-19 is a golden opportunity for Pakistan to introduce better, more hygienic practices in observing the ritual of animal sacrifice during Bakr-Eid. The selling of animals in makeshift temporary markets for captive consumers has often led to price hikes that no one has any control over. Slaughter of animals at household levels means a very high level of compilation of animal waste such as intestines, etc. While animal hides are donated to charities who have designed their own system of collection, the rest of the waste lies piled up in garbage dumps all over urban areas, from where it is not collected for days due to Eid holidays. Low income neighborhoods suffer the most. They live in attached houses surrounded by narrow alleys. The stench of animal refuse gets to be unbearable. Wild cats and dogs abound and vultures hover over the neighborhood, each posing threat of its own to residents.

No one has been able to do something to ease these burdens on society because the powers that be have not felt the need – at least not a pressing need. People live with the temporary mess and life moves on.

This year, the government of Pakistan has an opportunity to introduce better Bakr-Eid practices. Here is what they should do.

Help traders establish online animal and sacrificial markets and design a regulatory framework for the trade. Develop a licensing system for establishing online sale of Qurbani animals. Each trading outlet must have licensed veterinary doctors who issue certificate for each animal, declaring that it is fit to be sold for sacrificial purpose. Islam has laid down certain guidelines for the purpose. Virtual tours of online markets should be arranged for consumers. Each animal should be allocated a number, to be used as reference number during transaction. The same number should appear on the certificate of fitness signed by the concerned veterinary medical expert for each animal. The price of each animal, per weight in kilograms, should be set by the government. Traders should not be allowed to charge more. If any trader charges more, laws should be made to make the trader accountable to the state and the consumer.

Virtual viewing of the process of sacrificial slaughter can be arranged for consumers by giving them an online registration number and password generated by virtual platforms such as Zoom and others. Consumers can recite the prayer while viewing their sacrificial animal being slaughtered in accordance with their religious beliefs. A screen shot of each animal bought online, preserved by the consumer on his personal device to facilitate identification, will suffice for the purpose of verification. Consumers will have the satisfaction of knowing the animal they are viewing being slaughtered is the one they bought. The reference number of the animal on the certificate of purchase issued by the trader will be attached to the animal as it is sacrificed and can be shown to the consumer before slaughter begins.

All sales, all bookings, should be finalized online and receipts issued online for each transaction. For those Pakistanis who do not use credit cards because they do not want to deal in interest or don’t have enough liquidity for the purpose, alternative means of purchasing online animals should be introduced. These can be direct payment into trader’s bank account, use of easy paisa, Jazz Cash and other such methods prevalent in the market.

An SOP should be made for traders to observe during sale of animals. A standardized form should be prepared to be filled in by traders and consumers both. It should include description of how each consumer wants the meat delivered, either through collection in a drive by process or at his/her residence. For consumers who require meat portions pre-packed for distribution, traders can prepare neat packages made for the purpose. Some may require different portions cut a certain way for consumption. Details such as these and delivery date and time should be settled in advance in all online transactions.

Dumping of animal trash must be regulated by the government. SOP must be established and dumping grounds earmarked for the purpose. These must be situated at a safe distance from residential areas yet convenient for traders. Roof tops of certain high risings that are not near residential areas can also be assigned for the purpose. Rural forests can also be assigned to feed the wild animals. Traders will use trucks for dumping animal trash and the practice will not cause health hazard for population.

Laws must be devised for consumer and trader protection alike. It can be done through a presidential ordinance during pandemic emergency and enforced all over Pakistan.

The best part of this plan is that it will streamline the practice of sunat-e-Ibrahimi for all times to come and improve it at all levels, i.e, it will ensure safe practices in animal rearing because of mandatory health checks and certificates that carry the guarantee of individual veterinary doctors, certifying no hormones are used to fatten the animal, pricing that is regulated per Kilogram weight of each animal bought and sold, viewing of animals by consumers online on Zoom and other platforms, ensuring safer and transparent marketing practices, distribution that is hygienic and employment of work force with guaranteed fixed wages. Hides will go to charities that are security cleared in a transparent manner.

Online markets can also deliver animals to consumers at latter’s homes, after the same have been purchased online, should the consumer prefer to conduct Qurbani at home. Delivery service will generate much needed employment in Pakistan. Pakistanis are in dire need of income due to pandemic lock-downs and related issues.

Telling citizens they cannot observe the ritual this year is likely to backfire. Government will cut a sorry figure when the masses go on to establishing animal markets in the manner they are accustomed to, paying no heed to government’s orders. Authorities will invite rebellion when they clamp down on citizens and prevent them from doing what their religion has ordained for them. There will be bigger mess than ordinarily happens during Baqr Eid, making for higher prices as traders raise the cost of animals because of having to cope with security issues, etc, and as cleaners do not show up in timely manner to clear animal waste because it is created while disobeying government’s orders.

A calamity can be an opportunity for doing better.

Crash of Airplane PK8303 in Karachi

Update: Six days after the publication of the following brief, and after an article appeared in the Pakistani press about avian hazard https://pakobserver.net/what-is-pakistan-aviations-sop-on-avian-hazard-management/, the Government of India issued warning to its aviation sector about the hazards locust swarms pose to aircraft (https://www.thenews.com.pk/print/665220-india-warns-airlines-of-locust-swarm-flight-risk). On June 7, Pakistan also started taking measures to protect airplanes from locust strikes (https://tribune.com.pk/story/2237507/1-fearing-aircraft-damage-caa-launches-anti-locust-spray-campaign-jinnah-terminal/). We welcome this development and hope all regional airlines follow suit as we continue to campaign for upholding safety standards in aviation during this unprecedented time.

Following policy brief was issued by PPLDM on 23 May, 2020, after the tragic passenger plane crash in Karachi.

PK8303, an Airbus A320 passenger plane belonging to Pakistan International Airlines (PIA), en route from Lahore, was approaching to land at Jinnah International Airport in Karachi when it crashed into a residential area. According to reports that have come out so far, the airplane made an attempt to land which was aborted and, as the plane circled around and made a second attempt, it missed the runway by only a few hundred feet, an extremely short distance in aviation terms, and collided with houses in a densely-crowded residential area called “Model Colony,” destroying several of them. The pilot issued a mayday just before this happened.

The airplane was carrying 91 passengers and eight crew (according to reports so far). At least 80 people are confirmed dead. It is unclear yet if the dead were all onboard the plane or if the toll includes people on the ground where the plane crashed. Households in Pakistan tend to have a lot of family members and, because of coronavirus, a lot of people across Pakistan are indoors. The plane crash took place during Ramadan, when Muslims are often homebound during afternoon, although due to the time of crash coinciding with Friday prayer, most men were out of their homes, praying at mosques. Therefore, it is likely that many people were in the houses that were struck. On the other hand, the plane was half-full because of covid-19 fears and related regulations. Due to the crash taking place at the end of an hour-long flight, the amount of jet fuel involved in the resultant fire is low. Two passengers so far are confirmed as having survived the crash, along with 11 or so people from the neighborhood who are reported to be injured. That of course means that they are still alive as I write. Whether their lives will be saved altogether, we have to wait and see for the following days and weeks. Right now, first responders and rescue workers are valiantly working to retrieve bodies from the rubble as fires rage and smoke billows at the site of airplane’s wreckage and surrounding houses and streets.

The plane crash comes just before the arrival of the Eid-ul-Fitr holidays and days after coronavirus lockdown was lifted in Pakistan and commercial flights were allowed. This tragedy comes at a very difficult time for Pakistan and for the whole world. Five million people have already been infected by the coronavirus globally, most of them in a handful of countries. Pakistan is one of the countries where the pandemic is at medium level. Domestic flights were allowed so that Pakistanis could return to their hometowns to spend Eid. PK8303 was one of the planes filled with such people. Due to the crash, a state of emergency was declared in hospitals across Karachi, at a time when hospitals and healthcare workers across the nation are already overstretched. Taking care of people injured due to the plane crash will be a challenge if the injured turn out to be a lot. The upside is that healthcare facilities are on high alert at all times due to the pandemic, so they have been able to respond rapidly. However, providing care to plane crash victims is very different from caring for coronavirus patients, as former requires trauma and burn units.

Information has been coming out rapidly about the crash. Recordings of communications with air traffic control reveal that the pilot made an attempt to land which was aborted, telling air traffic controllers that it was because of a technical issue. He circled around and made a second attempt when he reported loss of engine power. He then issued a mayday alert before the transmission ended, upon which the plane crashed. Reports suggest that the first landing attempt failed because landing great did not deploy. The pilot was told to climb to higher altitude but the plane apparently lost power and was gliding when it missed the runway. It is believed that both the plane engines failed. Reportedly, the tail end of the plane struck the ground first. Survivors must have been from the front part of the plane. Eyewitnesses are reported to have said the airplane was on fire before it crashed on the ground. Right now, we can only conjecture about the cause of the crash. We might get a clear idea of how the accident happened when we open up the black box.

Failure of the jet engines is the likely cause of the crash, but what was the cause of engine failure? If both engines failed and failure of the landing gear also happened, it means the plane suffered from multiple technical faults. In such case, there could have been technical defect/s in the plane that were missed during routine inspections. However, engine failure can also happen if something collides with the engines of a jet airplane. Jet engines, which face forward and suck in air with tremendous force to provide power and thrust, become extremely vulnerable if any object is ingested. Even ice sloughing off the airplane can cause damage. The turbines can be seriously damaged and even fail. Usually, it is collision with birds that causes this sort of thing. Bird strikes are one of the world’s biggest aviation hazards, causing damage even to airplane parts other than engines. This might have happened with flight PK8303 today.

At present, there is another strong speculative candidate that may have struck the airplane in Karachi, locusts. Since December of last year, desert locusts have been swarming across eastern Africa and western Asia in truly biblical numbers. In Pakistan, massive swarms caused a state of emergency to be declared in February and are only getting stronger. Sindh has been suffering from dreadful attack of locusts for months now, even breeding in much of the province right now, and Karachi has been experiencing swarms for the first time since 1961. Could it be possible, then, that collision with locusts caused the airplane to lose control? Desert locusts are very large insects with very tough cuticle exoskeletons. Their swarms can be very dense. A lot of damage can be caused if a plane runs into a swarm and collides with a large number of these insects.

The Australian Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA) once issued a warning to pilots in 2010 about the dangers of flying through a locust swarm. The warning said it could cause loss of engine power and loss of visibility, as expected, and the locusts could also block the aircraft’s pitot tubes, causing inaccurate airspeed readings. (https://www.couriermail.com.au/news/national/aircraft-warned-to-avoid-flying-in-locust-plague-areas/news-story/f3710161cfa721e6cd69898c7dd97402)

If run-in with either a swarm of locusts or a flock of birds happened to PK 8303, it could explain why both engines failed at the same time. The animals would have gone into both. Loss of visibility probably did not happen, or the pilot would have reported it. However, if locusts clogged up the airspeed reading device, it could have prevented the pilot from being able to accurately land his plane on the runway, causing the aborted landing attempt and maybe even the plane flying into the neighborhood next to the runway. Bird or locust strikes are a high possibility when a plane is at low altitude. If a big and dense flock of swarms is involved, eyewitnesses should be able to spot and report them.

Alternatively, even only a few birds could have been responsible for downing the airplane. If so, could it still be connected with the locust outbreaks? Whenever a plane suffers a serious bird strike, it is often because there is large number of birds in the air. More birds entail a greater likelihood of bird-plane collisions. Could it be, then, that the PIA airplane crashed because of collisions with birds that were following the locusts? With such large locust swarms, one should expect that birds will also be gathering in large number to prey on locusts. Even if no locusts were present in Karachi today, birds may have been crossing the city on their way to locust hunting. We need to examine whether the locust plagues have been causing a denser gathering of birds in the sky.

PPLDM has been deeply concerned about the tremendous damage to our food supply that the locusts have been wreaking. While air travel is slowly resuming as coronavirus restrictions ease, we also need to be on the lookout for the additional traffic hazards that locust swarms pose. They could even be a hazard to traffic on the road, including motorcyclists. Studies have suggested people on motorbikes can be seriously injured if they collide with flying insects, presumably of kinds much smaller than locusts, at high speed. As we strive to ensure that the coronavirus pandemic is not worsened by people flying by air, we need to take into account another distinct hazard these days, avian threats to plane’s structure, and issue proper aviation warnings on this hazard. We are already ensuring that the virus is not transmitted inside airplanes by issuing SOPs. What is the SOP on avian hazard warning, a particularly high concern at present? We also need to educate media about this hazard so it can pressurize civil aviation management to cancel flights if plausible extraneous hazards are detected.

Also, because today’s plane crash in Karachi took place during the coronavirus pandemic and an unprecedented drop in global air travel, we should also consider if there is a connection between the two. The grounding of airlines for months and the disruptions caused by the pandemic might have resulted in lax maintenance and inspection of aircraft. I imagine that the keeping up of air safety standards could have been running into some challenges during an unprecedented time like this which nobody has prepared for or is used to. If a passenger jet crashes right after the country’s air travel has resumed following a record-breaking hiatus, and while air traffic is under high burden due to the Eid holidays (trying to keep passengers apart and boarding low when so many people must be trying to get on a plane), there is a good chance it is not a coincidence.

Still, this plane crash is far from unusual within Pakistan or for a Pakistani airliner, unfortunately. Pakistan has a poor air safety record. Major air accidents with significant casualties have occurred every few years throughout the nation’s history. Since the start of this year alone, there have already been five plane crashes before PK8303, though they were all of small aircraft with few people involved. The first was an aircraft that was spraying pesticides to fight locusts when it crashed on January 12, killing two people onboard, and the rest were of military aircraft, including a fighter jet crashing at Shakar Parian Islamabad while practicing for Pakistan Day parade. Two of the military crashes caused fatalities of people onboard.

The enormous tragedy that has occurred in Karachi today has delivered shock and trauma to a nation reeling under the devastation of the coronavirus pandemic and locust plagues and will dampen the spirit of Eid celebrations for us all – celebrations that have already been physically suppressed due to the virus. This is the first time in a few years that a massive and sudden tragedy occurred in Pakistan just before the start of Eid holidays marking the end of Ramadan. The other time was on June 25, 2017, when an oil tanker on a highway in rural Punjab crashed and ignited spilt oil while a huge crowd of people was present, killing more than two hundred and injuring many more. (See “Tragedy at Bahawalpur” at https://pldmsite.wordpress.com/2017/07/20/first-blog-post/)

History has also repeated itself with this sudden high-casualty disaster occurring in Pakistan while the nation is coping with a much larger crisis of longer duration. Ten years ago, on July 28, an Airbus A321, Airblue Flight 202, crashed in the Margalla Hills north of Islamabad due to heavy fog and rainfall, killing all 152 on board, just as two months of monsoon rainfall began that would cause record-breaking floods submerging a fifth of Pakistan, killing 2,000 Pakistanis, and directly affecting 20 million. To this day, Airblue Flight 202 remains the deadliest aviation accident in Pakistan’s history and the 2010 monsoon floods the biggest natural disaster to ever strike Pakistan in terms of the number of people impacted.

2020 is a year of enduring challenges and countless tragedies for the world. As our nation grapples with the tragedy that transpired on 22 May, the difficult truth is that we have to continue to contend with tremendous challenges and crises in the days ahead and for the foreseeable future. There will be no respite. Eid is always supposed to be a joyous occasion for Muslims everywhere, but this Eid, we cannot go out for customary shopping, festivities, and social gatherings on account of social distancing. Widespread food shortages and economic hardships also persist across the nation. The least we hoped for was that people be able to spend Eid with their loved ones, but now, around 100 or so Pakistani Muslim families will be deprived forever of a beloved member. They will spend Eid in deep mourning and the rest of us will spend Eid with dampened spirit.

We may be bewildered by the way so many adversarial circumstances are coming together to harm us, but we must persevere. We must resolve that we will endure the hardships we are going through and be strong in the face of the losses we have suffered. Furthermore, we have to be adaptable, innovative, and smart in the face of everything that this year is throwing at us. It is the only way we can overcome the highly complex and novel challenges that Pakistan and the entire world is going through. This is a time of enormous struggle for our nation. There is no way to tell when the struggle will be over and where it will lead us, but we have to continue fighting with determination and do anything we can to fight back. When we succeed, we will emerge from this era stronger than before.

CIVIL UNREST & VIRUS TRANSMISSION

Following is a COVID-19 issue brief from PPLDM.

On 10 March, a choir rehearsal was held by the Skagit Valley Chorale in Washington State, USA, where the coronavirus pandemic was just beginning to take hold. Lasting two and a half hours, it was attended by 56 people who took precautions such as keeping social distance and using hand sanitizer.

Within weeks, 45 of those people were diagnosed with COVID-19. Two of them died of it. There is little doubt that the choir practice is the cause of this huge cluster of cases. But how could the virus have spread so widely in the room given that it is unlikely that more than a few infected people were present?

At the time of the choir practice, the WHO downplayed concerns regarding the virus spreading widely through the air. The Washington disaster forced experts to rethink this. It is believed that, by singing, infected individuals emitted large amounts of viral particles into the air from respiratory tract. As a result, the choir rehearsal became a super-spreading event (an event that transmits the virus to an unusually high extent.).

It shows that we have to be very careful about events which involve people congregating densely in large numbers. A ‘small number of gatherings’ could be responsible for a high number of COVID-19 transmission. Regulating such gatherings could help us go a long way in slowing the pandemic. Restricting any potentially super spreader activity can sometimes be challenging, especially if the activity happens discreetly, or participants are too numerous to handle easily. Otherwise, it is fairly easy to track and suppress large gatherings of people.

There is, however, one kind of mass gathering that is always very difficult to disperse or control – civil unrest. Whether in the form of peaceful demonstrations or rioting, protesting has been a common feature all over the world, especially during last year. People gather in large number to vent their anger and discontent or to voice their demands in a manner that is disruptive because they mean to create an impact. Demonstrations are effective only when people crowd densely at certain vital spots, usually frequented by lots of other people.

Such disturbance happening while the pandemic is in full swing is a recipe for disaster. It will involve very large number of people tightly packed together. They will be chanting and shouting, thus expelling respiratory particles in thick amounts. The protestors will often come into proximity with a lot of other people like bystanders and law enforcement. Protests are therefore a major coronavirus hazard that Pakistan needs to be wary of as it battles the outbreak.

Should the circumstances be ripe for fermenting protest, dealing with the threat will be a huge challenge. By their very nature, protests are difficult for the authorities to block or control without resorting to actions repugnant to human rights values. The alternative is for the authorities to defuse the tensions that cause protests. Also, when people are aware of what is at stake, they themselves might avoid protesting out of concern for the outbreak. The pandemic is a crisis so big that we might expect people to avoid doing anything to further worsen it en masse.

However, the danger that protests and civil disturbances will break out in Pakistan while the coronavirus outbreak is occurring is very high. We have already seen coronavirus protocol being violated a lot by large numbers of people. Angry people are especially likely to disregard rules or concern for the safety of themselves and their fellow human beings. There will be a lot of anger as the pandemic brings massive disruption and misery to Pakistan. This is going to be a very difficult time for Pakistanis, who may resort to demonstrating due to hard circumstances even when nobody is clearly at fault for such circumstances. For example, in recent years, we have seen angry protests in Pakistan over water shortages, with poor people demanding that water be delivered, even if the water supply to a lower riparian state like us falls short during a season. Since rioting in the sun can make one a lot thirstier, it demonstrates that people will eagerly engage in such confrontational behavior even if it worsens the problem they are angry about.

What worsens the risk for us is that the authorities are likely going to be directly responsible for much of the hardship people will experience. This pandemic is driving governments everywhere to impose a slew of restrictions on all aspects of life for an extended period. Such policies are damaging people’s livelihood and are extremely unpopular with many across the world. These policies will bear down especially hard on Pakistan’s poor and lower-income people. They might see what is being done to them as a bigger source of anguish than an invisible virus killing a relatively small number of people. Plus, if drastic measures are successful in keeping the virus under control (therefore keeping the death count small), ordinary people might assume COVID-19 is not a serious threat to begin with and that the restrictions they are made to bear are unnecessary. So the motivation to engage in protests will grow higher as the reason to avoid protest decreases.

Protests have already happened since coronavirus became an emergency in Pakistan. Early on, there were protests by the pilgrims quarantined in Taftan over the conditions they were being held in, but their protest most likely created no risk that they were not already exposed to. On April 6, there was a protest by 150 doctors, who are the people who should know the best about what their behavior entailed, in Quetta over lack of personal protective equipment for those treating COVID-19. This protest also perhaps did not create new danger, except that the police arresting them provided opportunity for virus transmission.

Of much more concern, a major protest movement occurring during the COVID-19 crisis was launched against the detention of Jang Geo’s Mir-Shakil-ur-Rehman, who was arrested by NAB on 12 March over suspicion of corruption (specifically a bribe he was alleged to have taken from then Punjab Chief Minister Nawaz Sharif way back in 1986). The protests, which still continue, have often involved protestors crowding together in the typical manner. This unrest happening seems especially unbelievable as the grievance seemingly has nothing to do with coronavirus and there are much more important things to worry about. But, as it always turns out to be the case with anything happening during this pandemic, Mr. Rehman’s imprisonment is relevant to COVID-19 in important ways. Prisoners are among the people most vulnerable to the pandemic, as prisons are very fertile places for the disease to spread, so arresting him puts him at risk at a time when police around the world are considering letting people off for charges that do not urgently require detention. Also, media’s role in reporting on the coronavirus crisis is immensely important and a large media group like Jang Geo’s services should be particularly valuable now. Its owner’s arrest has hampered smooth functioning of Jang/Geo network and salaries to hundreds of employees have been halted. It is therefore a highly contentious issue, but it is a bad idea for his supporters to contest the matter in the way they have been doing.

These examples may, unfortunately, be the beginning. There is going to be turmoil in Pakistan. Fear and suspicion of authorities will be rife among the people as hugely controversial policies are pursued. Security forces will be overstretched. There appears to be plenty of mishandling of critical matters by the authorities. As the outbreak continues, Pakistan may resort to imposing lockdowns and quarantines even more, creating the perfect conditions for an outbreak of popular discontent that could greatly worsen the situation we are in. Preventing this from happening will be a huge challenge.

The quickest way for authorities is to break up protests by force. In ordinary circumstances, this is usually done only for disruptive or violent riots. But now, government may feel the need to use force for any protest in which people crowd together. A policy of force has big downsides. As people get hurt, public sentiment is inflamed further. Arresting and detaining people considerably worsens the risk of virus transmission.

An alternative is to defuse tensions. Measures vary depending on the reasons people are protesting and what could placate them. The authorities should, of course, always be willing to do little things like release Mir-Shakil-ur-Rehman, or obtain court orders for payment to Jang/Geo employees by seizing his assets. But when there are much bigger factors that are driving people to take to the streets, giving them what they want is usually no easy task. During this pandemic, in particular, Pakistan will have to navigate its way through many dilemmas and quagmires. For example, we have to tread a thin line between suppressing the spread of the virus and allowing the social and economic activity of the nation to continue. It may prove impossible for Pakistan to adopt a course of action that both protects as many lives as possible from the virus and keeps everybody reasonably happy.

In that case, it will have to be up to people themselves to avoid behaving in a manner that endangers them, the people around, and the broader society. It is important to reach out to every Pakistani and make them understand the danger the pandemic poses and the need to fight it tooth and nail, and to help them understand why things are the way they are. For the poor who resorted to angry protests in places like Karachi during recent summers, awareness was something that they were deprived of as much as water. We have to make sure that it is not the same situation during our current crisis. The pandemic is a crisis for the entire population of Pakistan, so properly informing every single Pakistani about what they need to know is necessary.

One thing that Pakistanis could be made aware of is how they can get their demands across while still practicing social, or physical, distancing. Even if every demand cannot be satisfied in desired time, we should make sure every Pakistani feels like they are being heard adequately. Protests happen because people feel it is the only way to get their message across. Let us provide satisfactory alternatives to this course of action.

If we fail to do that, we must find ways for people to engage in protest without providing the virus with opportunity to spread. All that is needed is for people to stay at a distance from each other and to wear personal protection. Protestors will have an incentive to follow this protocol, because their demonstration will be occupying a wider area, (a desirable thing from protestor point of view). Protesting has traditionally focused on being dense, perhaps because it packs a tight punch. But now, the amount of space protests take place in should be the value protestors should seek. It might be just as effective. People stand out in the open, wave placards, and chant loudly, while being far apart from each other, wearing masks and face shields. In the Washington choir practice, the virus might have spread so much because the crowd was indoors. Enclosed spaces allow respiratory particles to circulate in the same area effectively. But outside, which is where protests always take place, this risk is much lower.

Getting people to either find alternatives to protesting, or educating them to protest in a safe manner are two plausible strategies to be adopted if public discontent cannot be defused. Protesting has always been the last resort for people unhappy with what is happening, but as with many things, what is traditionally done has to be given up during this pandemic. We need to find new ways of doing things. This is a time for civil society and political leaders to reflect on the whole phenomenon of protesting, to reevaluate the mechanism of protest. The upheavals of 2019 made protesting the most valued form of activism for the world. But now, in 2020, we have to discover how to fight injustice and advocate for our cause differently during this global upheaval called the COVID-19 pandemic.

Best of all, we should learn how to get along with each other and cooperate, without resorting to confrontation, in order to make it through this time of crisis.

The brief has been authored by Shahzeb Khan, director at PPLDM.

KEEP MARKETS OPEN 24/7

The following Policy Brief was released by PPLDM on 15/05/2020

Pakistan eased its Covid-19 urban lockdown from 9 May. Government announced SOPs for traders and customers amidst fines if masks were not worn and hand sanitizer not provided in market places, which are required to open in the morning and shut down at sunset.

This timing is the most fundamental flaw in regulation of market place during pandemic emergency. It will turn out to be counterproductive.

The nine hours a day timing will typically create vehicular rush hours on the roads and customer rush hours inside shops, as most people will put shopping off till the last hour, when they have ended their daily job and have catered to other important personal and family needs. Racing to meet the deadline, especially when shopping for Eid, people will congregate in markets close to closing time. Traders and consumers alike will not be able to maintain social distancing or follow hand sanitizing and other safety measures because they would be buying and selling under extreme pressure.

As the new timing creates inevitable bottle necks called rush hours, law enforcement too will be overwhelmed as their ability to enforce social distancing and wearing of masks would be drastically reduced in the face of mad rush of people all around them. They will be reduced to acting either as mere idle by standers, or will be driven to making mistakes under extreme pressure.

Every day at market places there will be hours of mad frenzy that throws caution to the wind. This potential “super spreader” behavior of people, congregated at public places each day, will be created by the very regulation that aims at mitigating the spread of Covid-19 virus.

PPLDM formally requests government of Pakistan to make it mandatory for retailers to stay open 24/7 to avoid bottle necks called rush hours. The pressure of racing against time will thus ease upon consumers and traders alike and both will be better able to follow Covid-19 safety instructions. If costumers see rush in a market place, they will themselves return to their lodgings to come back to market later when the rush is over. This will not allow swelling of congregation beyond the capacity of the market place. Consumers, plus traders, will be thus safer from virus as they have time to observe measures such as sanitizing hands prior to shopping and sales persons demanding that customers enter shops only if they are wearing masks. Sellers and law enforcement will have ample opportunity to provide customers masks at the very entrance to market place, if the latter do not possess their own. All will be better able to ensure regulations are being observed during commercial transactions at the market place.

It would help consumers, traders and government, all three, if 24/7 timing is in place for markets to function during the entire Covid-19 health emergency. This will generate gainful employment while ensuring uninterrupted services to people in safer environment, facilitate meticulous observation of SOPs and enable police to enforce, in a hassle free manner, all regulatory measures aimed at mitigating the spread of Covid-19. The in flow and out flow of virus is “prevented” through a combination of personal protection equipment, hand sanitization and social distancing.

We request government of Pakistan to enforce the pattern suggested above during this special time of pre Eid-ul Fitar shopping frenzy.

PLANET DISINFECTED?

One of the most unfortunate, and dangerous aspects of the world wide panic generated by covid-19 pandemic is the massive surface disinfection activity adopted in nearly all countries of the globe. Surfaces are being washed with sodium hypochlorite and other chemical disinfectants routinely. Buildings, streets, roads, market places, neighborhoods, towns, cities, even districts are being sanitized with chemical ingredients some of which have no approval from environmental protection agencies in respective countries. A spike in demand means labeled products are in short supply. Service providers have no choice but to avail what ever they can lay their hands on in an array of commonly available house hold disinfectants, which are allowed to remain in wet contact with surface for long enough period to kill microorganisms, pathogens and viruses. Surfaces are not wiped dry afterwards but left to air dry. Some are hosed with clean water before disinfection. This is done not once or twice, but routinely for the last quarter of a year with no end in sight. Walk through sanitizer tunnels are installed at entrances to commercial and residential buildings and market places all over the globe. Ambulances and goods carrying vehicles are sanitized. There are places where just about any vehicle is routinely sanitized.

Chemical product labeling programs hardly exist in most developing countries. Labour force that carries out disinfecting jobs is ill trained. High demand for labeled products means availability runs short. Service providers have to make compounds themselves under often inadequate instructions. In USA, for instance, EPA’s Environment Safe Product Labeling Program is voluntary and most products that are being used to disinfect North America are not reviewed because of panic buying to meet the spike in demand, and producers running low on stock. Basically what ever is available is being used to disinfect surfaces everywhere. Human habitat is incessantly given a chemical bath for a prolonged period.

At what cost?

The ecological consequence of this routine dousing of the planet with man made disinfectants is dangerous due to two scientific processes – Surface run off – and – biomagnification. This global disinfection activity not only poses a threat to marine and avian life, it has adverse impact on human and other life forms as well.

The term surface run off refers to over land flow of water after every rainfall or snow melt. Surface run off routinely replenishes Earth’s rivers, seas and oceans. Even in ordinary circumstances, civilization has made surface run off a major source of down- stream water pollution due to presence of agricultural fertilizers, pesticides, and industrial waste. To control latter’s harmful impact on earth’s water system, states have evolved certain SOPs and maintain hydrographs to keep checking the chemical content of water in a given area, referred to as ‘point source pollution.’

Agricultural surface run off is sub-surface run off, the part of water which first leashes into the soil, (natural filter) and moves laterally to the stream, river or ocean. Industrial waste is monitored and controlled through regulations that require industrial waste water to be filtered before it is discharged down stream. Regulations are in place for eroded material to be deposited in a place where it is considered safe. Because points of pollution are known and finite in all such cases, regulatory enforcement is possible. And yet – despite all this effort – agricultural and industrial waste continues to pose a threat to Earth’s ecosystem.

And now, this unprecedented and insane rush to disinfect the entire planet Earth with man-made chemicals is ‘non point source pollution,’ meaning it is generating dangerous run off from all over, all at once, on regular, relentless basis, polluting our ecosystem with harmful substances, poisoning marine life, avian life, and harming human health.

Run off is measured as the quantity of water that is discharged during a given period from a drainage basin and collects in lakes, swamps, ponds, rivers, seas and ultimately, earth’s oceans. Much of the US land, (hub of relentless urban chemical disinfection activity for last three months) for instance, drains into Gulf of Mexico through the Mississippi watershed. All over the globe, surface run off drains into different water systems of the Earth in similar manner.

Urban land is mostly paved, i.e., it consists of vast tracts of impervious surface such as roads, roofs, pavements. On such surfaces, water does not get absorbed into the soil, which is a natural filtration mechanism, but runs off down stream into creeks, lakes, and rivers headed for seas and ultimately, Earth’s oceans. As we disinfect planet earth with sodium hypochlorite and other chemical substances, urban run off gets polluted with high concentration levels of harmful chemical disinfectants. This has adverse impact on marine life.

Hypochlorite has destructive effect on gills, makes it difficult for large size marine vertebrates to breathe, to absorb oxygen. Tiny microbes, plankton or algae, absorb pollutants in the run off. Fish or shell fish consume the microbes or absorb the pollutants directly. Birds consume the fish, increasing the level of pollutants in their own bodies. Birds also quench thirst directly from the run off.

Biomagnification is the process by which the concentration of a substance increases as it passes up the food chain. Organisms high on the food chain have a higher concentration of pollutants in their body than organisms lower down the chain, such as algae. We humans occupy a high status. When we eat sea food, say for instance oysters, we ingest run off chemicals. Ingesting high concentrations of sodium hypochlorite can ultimately lower our immunity to covid-19 as hypochlorite directly impacts the lungs and the esophagus.

In a 2001 lab study on impact of sodium hypochlorite on avian life, the aviary premise was cleaned with 5% chlorine bleach. Seven birds out of thirty five died after developing respiratory disease within twelve days of exposure. Clinical abnormalities started to show after six days of exposure. The reproductive system of all birds was damaged. Think of what we are doing to avian life by giving our planet a chlorine shower every hour, every day, every week, every month for the past quarter of a year. Think of what we are doing to Earth’s marine life – and think of what we are doing to our own health and that of our children.

We are not just endangering entire species of marine and avian life, we may even be ending some through this process.

In South Asia, the monsoon is upon us. During this season, there is a sharp spike in mean discharge per unit of drainage area. Massive urban run off is generated during monsoon and replenishes our rivers and seas. Run off in South Asia’s big cities has lately regularly created urban flooding because the capacity of the drainage system is overwhelmed during monsoon. If we keep adding chemicals to our run off, the monsoon induced urban floods will have devastating impact on avian life and down stream ecosystem, not to mention human health in such an environment. We can have higher rate of respiratory illnesses among human beings (rising parallel to Covid-19), higher rate of skin and eye disease among children and adults, and birds dying all around us.

We have to stop drenching our planet in chemical disinfectants. The carrier of covid-19 is ‘human body.’ Personal Protection equipment is designed to safeguard humans from the virus. Hand sanitization is utilized to mitigate contamination by touch of hand. Where, in this equation of prevention of inflow and outflow of virus, do the hard surfaces of our cities feature?

States of the world need to stop ‘NOW,’ or it could be “too late.”

PAKISTAN FACES TWIN THREATS OF PANDEMIC AND FAMINE

The following issue brief was released by PPLDM on 26/04/2020

“We should therefore be hugely alarmed that Pakistan is in the throes of what is very likely the worst pandemic and worst food crisis of the twenty-first century both at the same time. The outbreaks of coronavirus and locusts may together overcome our modern defenses against disease and starvation and, because the rest of the world is so badly affected, Pakistan should not expect much relief coming from abroad.”

Pakistan, along with a large number of other countries, is currently battling two major outbreaks. One is the novel coronavirus causing the disease called COVID-19, currently sweeping the entire world. The other is the desert locust, which has been ravaging large areas of Africa and Asia for some time.

COVID-19 has so far infected nearly 3 million people globally and killed around 200,000, with the numbers continuing to rise. The virus was first discovered in Pakistan at the end of February. Since then it has been spreading rapidly throughout the country. Over 12,000 Pakistanis are now infected and no one can tell how it will turn out. In China, it appears to be dying down after two months of successful containment measures that can be tolerated by countries that have the resources to compensate for periods of low productivity. Some predict that Pakistan will see tens of millions of infections by June (https://www.dawn.com/news/1542651). The death toll could be in the hundreds of thousands.

Meanwhile, the locust swarms are being referred to as an “unprecedented threat to food security” by the UN’s Locust Watch (http://www.fao.org/ag/locusts/en/info/info/index.html). Swarms originating in East Africa started to rampage in countries including Pakistan in mid-2019 but really kicked off after 2020 began, prompting Pakistan to declare a state of national emergency when February began. The infestation has been steadily increasing in Pakistan, causing huge crop losses, and continues to persist without signs of dying down, while countries to the west are being devastated. Experts predict the coming of rising temperatures and summer rainfall might cause locust populations across the region to further explode 400-fold by June (https://www.reuters.com/article/us-africa-locusts/running-out-of-time-east-africa-faces-new-locust-threat-idUSKCN20L1TY). Who knows how much they will grow in South Asia when the summer monsoon comes.

So we now have two severe crises at the same time, one attacking our health and the other our nutrition. Our government has declared that a national lockdown policy is not feasible because the country is too poor to afford its supply chains shutting down, so the virus spread must be countered through other measures. The locust outbreak is wreaking massive economic damage and driving people to hunger, vastly aggravating this conundrum. In turn, the COVID-19 pandemic is hampering international efforts to fight the locust outbreaks. Together the calamities present Pakistan with an unprecedented challenge.

In fact, the danger looming ahead may be something greater than we could ever imagine. Pakistan is facing both an epidemic and a famine at the same time and, throughout history, epidemics and famines have both consistently been the greatest threats to human lives and well-being (besides intra-human war and violence).

Disasters in which people died of other causes usually have minute casualties by comparison. The 1556 Shaanxi earthquake in China, the deadliest known earthquake in history, killed around 830,000 according to historical accounts. The deadliest tsunami, Boxing Day 2004, killed nearly a quarter of a million in the Indian Ocean. Cyclone Bhola, which killed anywhere from a quarter of a million to half a million in East Pakistan in 1970, is the deadliest tropical storm on record. In the same region, a tornado that killed 1,300 people in 1989 is the deadliest known tornado. The deadliest flooding, the 1931 Yangtze floods in China, is believed to have killed more than 150,000 people directly. The deadliest known volcanic eruption, 1815 eruption of Tambora, directly killed perhaps more than 10,000.

All of this is nothing compared to the enormous death tolls of history’s worst epidemics and famines, not to mention the suffering and havoc inflicted alongside. As a side effect of the above calamities, in fact, the 1815 Tambora eruption resulted in epidemics and famines that killed 60,000 people in the local region and more than 90,000 people worldwide, the so-called Year Without a Summer, while as many as four million Chinese may have died from the disease and starvation that stemmed from the 1931 Yangtze floods.

The deadliest pandemic in history is either the 1918 Spanish Flu, which may have killed as many as 50 million people, maybe even 100 million people, worldwide, or the 14th century Black Death, which killed probably as many as 200 million people across Eurasia, including perhaps as much as 60% of Europe’s population. Both pandemics were similar to COVID-19 in that they involved spread of pathogens new to the world. The worst epidemics in history were those of diseases brought to the Americas by European visitors after 1492, which wiped out 90% of American Indians, turning the continents into pristine wildernesses. The sixth century Plague of Justinian may have killed 25 million in the Eastern Mediterranean. 5 million Romans may have been killed by the Antonine Plague of 165 to 180 AD. In the late 1950s, Asian flu killed 1 to 2 million worldwide.

The deadliest famine in history is the Great Chinese Famine of 1959-1961. Caused in part by outbreaks of insects like locusts as well as governmental mismanagement, both concerns for Pakistan right now. Upper estimates of the death toll are 36 or 45 million. As many as 25 million people may have died from the 1907 Great Qing famine in China. Three famines in India in the late 1700s killed at least ten million people. That includes the Great Bengal Famine of 1770 which may have killed a third of Bengal’s population. From 1315 to 1322, more than 7 million were killed in widespread famine across Europe. 5 million Russians starved to death during the famine caused by the Russian Civil War in 1921-22.

With this kind of record, it is clear that epidemics and famine are immensely deadly forces, even if they have been somewhat calmer in modern times. We should therefore be hugely alarmed that Pakistan is in the throes of what is very likely the worst pandemic and worst food crisis of the twenty-first century both at the same time. The outbreaks of coronavirus and locusts may together overcome our modern defenses against disease and starvation and, because the rest of the world is so badly affected, Pakistan should not expect much relief coming from abroad. Both the virus and the locust multiply extremely rapidly and have the potential to infect all people and consume all crops respectively.

All indications, therefore, are that Pakistan is in for what may be the biggest calamity in its history. We need to wake up to the unprecedented danger we are in and we need to do something. Putting Pakistan on a war footing immediately, along with the rest of the world, is perhaps our only choice. Importantly, we have to apply our minds to the task, because discovering innovative solutions that could save us will be an epic endeavor. The severity of the crisis at this stage may be nothing compared to what is coming. We need to avail this time for preparation, which will significantly improve our chances. Every effort will be worth it, for the very survival of our nation is at stake.

THIS ISSUE BRIEF HAS BEEN PREPARED BY SHAHZEB KHAN, DIRECTOR PPLDM.
Pakistan’s People Led Disaster Management
PO Box 552
Islamabad PC 44000

EASING THE BURDEN ON HEALTHCARE DURING COVID-19 PANDEMIC

COVID-19 is not a very dangerous disease as far as diseases go. Many who contract the virus don’t seem to be affected at all. Of those with symptoms, 80 percent end up modestly ill. Among those who do come down with severe illness, only five percent end up in critical condition. We are quite good at treating the disease. If people get adequate medical care, chance of survival is high.

Yet, this virus is plunging the world into chaos for two reasons. First, from the start of the pandemic, nobody in the world had natural immunity to it. Second, the world has no medication that can cure and no vaccination that can prevent the disease. The virus suddenly emerged a few months ago and is spreading rapidly through the world, infecting people in huge numbers and overwhelming health care systems of nation states.

Where the pandemic is in full swing, hospitals are being filled to the brim with patients. In some areas, hospitals lack enough room to take in the surge of patients and new facilities have to be built hastily.
The inability of healthcare systems to cope with the scale of the pandemic is a factor behind the severity of the COVID-19 crisis. When the pandemic gets into full swing in the developing world, which it is likely to do, a massive globe-spanning catastrophe will likely ensue.

Relieving medical systems from the burden is necessary. As preventing people from ever contracting the virus is not likely, the goal most of us hope to achieve is preventing too many people from being infected with the virus at the same time, known as flattening the curve (the curve on the diagram showing the prevalence of infections over time). Most people might still end up getting infected by the time the pandemic is over, but at least patients aren’t streaming into hospitals too fast.

To achieve flattening of the curve, highly restrictive measures are being imposed upon society. Mass gatherings are done away with, people are made to stay home, and non-essential economic activity is halted, but the economic slowdown adversely impacts the capacity of the medical sector itself. Even in the most advanced countries, such measures have often not eased the severity of the medical crisis. Healthcare systems are still feeling tremendous strain in the midst of the pandemic. Italy, for example, turned itself into a ghost country yet ventilators were still rationed for a period of time. As the virus continues its expansion across the world, we will need to find ways to solve this issue.

The overburdening of healthcare is terrible not only for people suffering from COVID-19 but people suffering from other illnesses that requires urgent treatment. People get injured, get cancer, suffer heart attacks, strokes, kidney failure, respiratory distress, etc., and as coronavirus spreads, none of this stops.
This means that this pandemic further endangers people who need medical treatment for ailments besides COVID-19. Conversely, people who have coronavirus find it harder to get treatment because hospitals are busy treating other conditions. It’s happened in Italy. It’s happening in India. Reportedly, it has started happening in Japan. Patients suffering from another disease also run the risk of being infected with COVID-19 if they go to hospitals. If they contract COVID-19 in addition to the conditions they already have, the consequences can be severe. Lockdown measures also make it difficult for them to access treatment.

The situation is the worst for people needing treatment for respiratory ailments, because they need the same equipment and personnel used for treating COVID-19. Ventilators are essential not just for COVID-19 but for a lot of conditions. Most people with severe medical conditions have therefore become indirect victims of the pandemic. It is a grave issue.

We need to find a solution to the conundrum of healthcare systems buckling under COVID-19.

A solution can be found in the alteration the global education system is currently undergoing while in the throes of COVID-19 pandemic. The globe is turning to online education as temporary response to Covid-19 till vaccine is found. All over the world, including Pakistan, buildings that were being used for imparting education to people are shutting down as students are made to stay home and turn to online lessons.

PPLDM has already written about how online education provides cure to many of the fundamental faults in Pakistan’s education system while simultaneously freeing capital for investment in other sectors to accelerate our economic progress. Bill Gates has extrapolated that online education is the future of education because this pandemic will make families afraid to send their children to school and online education will evolve to be of too much convenience to be set aside.

Pakistan can convert its nation-wide school buildings into hospitals where Covid-19 patients are treated. Each room can isolate and serve a single patient, mitigating intra-hospital spread. We can convert some of the local school buildings into testing facilities. Some should be utilized for stockpiling of PPEs. Imran Khan wants to reopen the construction sector to boost economy. Let us start with converting our schools in our urban metropolis, and our rural areas, into general hospitals, hospitals that treat only Covid-19 patients, and medical test facilities including separate Covid-19 test facilities and for stockpiling of Personal Protection Equipment. Part of the buildings in far flung rural areas can be converted into safe housing for doctors with security that includes CCTV cameras. We are currently using our police to strong arm people in urban areas for lock-down enforcement. Police should be instead appointed to ensure security of school buildings thus converted into medical facilities, medical professional’s residences, testing facilities, labs, hospitals and stockpiling facilities. Military can collaborate in this endeavor.

Let us equip our school buildings with state-of-the-art medical machinery. Let us convert them into Covid-19 test facilities for now, and other essential medical facilities for population’s long term benefit. Let us use some of the school buildings as labs and some as PPE manufacturing factories. Let us spend the money international donors are providing Pakistan to fight Covid-19 pandemic in this manner. We will ease the burden on our health care system. We will also provide health care facilities to far-flung areas where Covid-19 is breaking out and where health care is either non-existent or in short supply.

Needless to mention, we have to make 4G and 5G technologies available to our areas where the same is hitherto nonexistent. We have to do this on war footing because these technologies are indispensable for online education/ home schooling to keep students safe from the pandemic without halting our human resource development because we are driven to halting our educational system.

The lawmakers will have to make emergency laws to mandate doctors to work in designated far flung areas during health emergency. Many of those who have recently graduated from medical hospitals in Pakistan, but have opted out of working in the health care sector, should be drafted to work under enforced medical emergency and penalized for not doing so without good reason. In fact, many of our medical graduates do not go on to working in health care sector for no good reason at all. The state spends a huge amount on training of these individuals, but because the state is lax and has no laws for ensuring this crucial sector is staffed with adequate personnel, dropping out is easy and the rate is high. One NGO has estimated the dropout rate among female medical graduates and young workers to be 80%. This high rate is the rate of drop out only among medical doctors and does not include nurses. This practice must be discouraged and the Covid-19 emergency is an apt time to make laws to discourage this practice, indeed, a crime against society because a poor state’s precious capital is wasted by such irresponsible conduct. Those who don’t want to work as medical professionals should not avail the precious seats in Pakistan’s medical colleges and those who have availed them should be committed by law to give a specific period of their post-graduation life to serving in medical profession inside Pakistan. They can go out for further training, but work in Pakistan they must.

The contact tracing is an essential part of containing the spread of Covid-19. It helps collect essential data for researching the pandemic. For instance those who were in contact with a Covid-19 positive person but did not contract the virus are needed for researching if there are natural immunities to the virus.

Pakistan should utilize its students, including medical students, to carry out contact tracing. It can use teachers to supervise how students are carrying out their contact tracing responsibility. Contact tracing can be done from home through emails, cell phone text messaging and mail systems. Those who are entrusted with the job of tracing will have to work in close liaison with the police. Local police stations can make field visits to the residences or work places to help collect data on those who were exposed to the virus. A contact tracing hub should be established where data is collected and shared within Pakistan and with the international community. Pakistan’s software engineers should be mobilized on war footing to establish the hub and its operational mechanism should include local and provincial government, the education sector, the medical sector and the law enforcement, among other necessary personnel.

Infection prevention and control policy at local levels will be enhanced through buildings which have been converted from schools into health care and testing facilities. We should aspire to test as many as we can. We can instruct people in safety measures at testing facilities. We can enter into an arrangement with China and other friendly neighbors whereby we collect samples in Pakistan but send them for testing to labs in friendly neighboring countries that have capacity to do so. China has offered to help. Establishing testing labs in Pakistan and helping with test results is where we should ask China to help. We can also seek help from any friendly neighbors where domestic testing labs are not overburdened.

Testing our population, providing adequate medical treatment to our population and equipping our population with protection against the virus is the most effective way to overcome this calamity.

If our state follows the guidelines provided in this policy brief by converting our education system into online system and converting our existing school buildings in urban and rural areas into healthcare facilities, we would have a long term solution to the most fundamental problems in two critical sectors of our domestic economy; our health care system and our education system.

This PPLDM policy brief has been authored by Zeenia Sadiq Satti & Shahzeb Khan.

Questions about the Coronavirus Pandemic

COVID-19 is a disease completely new to the world. The virus that causes it, SARS-COV-2, evolved recently and was first detected only a few months ago. The pandemic it is causing so far appears to be only beginning. There is a lot we need to find out concerning the COVID-19 pandemic.

There are therefore many questions that we have to ask that urgently need to be answered. Some of these questions the experts may already know the answer to, so they just have to explain it to the general public. But many questions nobody knows the answer to yet. There remains a lot for us to discover about the virus, the disease it causes, its spread around the world, and what we can do about it. There also seems to be a great deal of confusion in the information being given out. Many questions, of course, are widely asked and researchers are trying their hardest to find answers to. But we should also keep thinking of new questions to ask. Asking questions is the most important thing we can do. It helps to guide the research.

So, to aid in the world’s struggle against COVID-19, presented here is a list of questions about the new coronavirus, most of which are rarely asked and none of which are clearly answered. You can present them to local experts or you can disseminate them broadly.

The first questions we need to ask are about the viral disease itself, of course.

•(1) Is it possible for some people to be exposed to the virus but not get infected? Is there immunity that we don’t know of?

•(2) How clearly is the distinction made between illness, which is people being affected by the virus, and infectiousness, which is people being able to transmit the virus to others? For example, when they say that sick people have recovered from COVID-19, do they mean those people are also safely non-contagious?

•(3) When the virus is detected, whether inside the human body or not, how do we distinguish between finding live viruses and the remains of viruses that once were?

•(4) Can it be indicated how people who have the virus got infected?

•(5) There are indications that some people have died of COVID-19 without them being known to have the virus. If an infected person dies and is buried and significant time passes, is it possible to examine their remains to detect if they had the virus?

•(6) Exactly where in the human body is the virus to be found and how many types of bodily fluids can harbor the virus?

•(7) There are some hints about the virus being able to infiltrate the circulatory system. Some infected people display cardiovascular symptoms and sources say some of these cases are from the virus infecting the heart. Also, the virus attacks cells with the ACE2 receptor, which are found in the lungs but also in the blood vessels. This raises the serious question: can the virus be found in blood?

•(8) Can you get the virus through a cut on your skin?

•(9) Could the virus possibly then be vector-borne, like by mosquitoes or ticks?

•(10) They say the virus cannot be contracted by eating food. Presumably, this is because, while the mouth leads to a respiratory tract, it closes when eating. But after food passes by, doesn’t it leave behind virus particles sticking to the walls of the throat and esophagus which can then go into the respiratory tract?

•(11) Also, aren’t gastrointestinal symptoms of COVID-19 a sign that the virus can infiltrate the digestive system?

•(12) Does the likelihood of contracting the virus increase if there are a lot of dust particles in the air and they carry the virus?

•(13) They say that sneezing is not a common symptom of COVID-19, but can people infected with COVID-19 also have another condition at the same time that makes them sneeze, like another infection or an allergy attack, and can this sneezing transmit the virus?

•(14) Does being exposed to any other virus in the past give people a level of immunity to SARS-CoV-2, like how contracting cowpox used to protect people from smallpox? The virus that caused SARS back in 2003 is similar to the virus causing the current pandemic. Are people who were infected with SARS back then less affected by COVID-19 now?

•(15) Can people be immunized against COVID-19 by being exposed to such a low infectious load of the virus that it does not progress to any significant illness but results in antibodies being created?

•(16) We hear that people with underlying health conditions are especially vulnerable to contracting the virus. What happens when people are infected with COVID-19 and with other infectious diseases (of the kind caused by viruses, bacteria, etc.) at the same time? Do other diseases have the same effect they normally do?

•(17) Does COVID-19 leave healthy people with new morbidities, which is to say that they have lingering health damage they did not have before?

•(18) How does childhood stunting affect a person’s vulnerability to COVID-19?

•(19) The old and those in poor health are who usually succumb to Covid-19. Is there any indication that most of the people who died from COVID-19 were already going to die shortly of old age or health complications?

•(20) We understand why the virus goes hard on the old, but not why it spares the very young. The immune systems of young children are yet to fully develop, rendering them vulnerable to many diseases. Why isn’t COVID-19 one of them?

•(21) Are there any conditions which allow the virus to survive for a long period of time outside the human body?

•(22) Can the virus be transmitted through water, rendering COVID-19 a waterborne disease?

•(23) What is the longest length of time a person has been infected or ill with COVID-19?

In a similar vein are the questions about the pandemic, the way the infection is spreading through the world and its impact.

•(24) What is it exactly that makes the pandemic such a severe crisis for people? Is it the mortality from the pandemic that people are mostly concerned about or is it also the debilitating or damaging effects of so many people falling ill (similar to how the recent Australian bushfires and the 2010 Pakistan floods are considered huge disasters despite their very low death tolls)?

•(25) If infections from the virus are undetected, can we find evidence of them by noticing a rise in the general rate of illness?

•(26) How is the COVID-19 pandemic, and our response to it, impacting the treatment of other diseases?

•(27) Are the measures being taken against the pandemic, including lockdowns and keeping people home, resulting in smaller numbers of people falling victim to other illnesses and injuries like car accidents, workplace accidents, violence, and respiratory ailments from pollution, thus compensating for the burden the pandemic is placing on healthcare systems?

•(28) Does the coinciding of the COVID-19 pandemic with flu season and allergy season in many parts of the world worsen the spread of the virus by resulting in many virus-infected people also having flu or allergic reactions and therefore sneezing/coughing the virus out?

•(29) If the virus can be found in human feces, does it have potential to become another one of those diseases spread through the fecal-oral route i.e coming out through feces, contaminating water, therefore food that is ingested?

•(30) What are the implications of the two disasters co-coinciding – the desert locust outbreaks in Africa and Asia and the COVID-19 pandemic?

Then, of course, we need to know all about the actions being taken against the spread of the virus. The ways we are responding to it have to be thoroughly scrutinized and suggestions need to be given as to what can be done.

•(31) Why is it going to take a very long time to develop a vaccine for the virus? Simply exposing the virus to soap causes it to burst open, rendering it inactive but leaving its individual components, like the RNA and spike proteins, intact. These are all that are needed to provoke the needed immune response in the body. Why not collect enough of the virus particles, split them open, and inject the remains into people?

•(32) In the bat species that harbors the ancestral virus, do the bats have antibodies or anything that could be used to help humans?

•(33) They say that flattening the curve could result in the same number of people being infected in the end anyway. The goal is just to make sure too many are not infected at the same time. But in China, the epidemic (at least its first wave) seems to have petered out after two months. How it is that they have so far shortened the curve in addition to flattening it and could this work for other places?

•(34) We have two ways to respond to the pandemic. One is to slow the spread of the virus, flattening the curve, and the other is to do nothing. It is generally believed that the former option will result in the outbreak lasting a longer time while the latter option will result in the outbreak quickly running its course, as was demonstrated by St. Louis and Philadelphia during the 1918 Spanish Flu. But there seem to be indications that blocking the spread results in the epidemic quickly coming to an end, including the fact that it seemingly happened in China, and that letting the virus spread unabated may result in the epidemic lasting a very long time. So which is it? Will flattening the curve prolong or shorten the duration of the outbreak?

•(35) Since COVID-19 patients are being concentrated in hospitals, do those hospitals become highly hazardous places where anybody present is at risk of contracting the virus, including patients hospitalized for other conditions? For that reason, shouldn’t separate facilities and clinics be set aside for COVID-19 patients?

•(36) The severity of the pandemic means that people with limited qualifications are being called upon to help treat the virus, including medical students being allowed to graduate early. But providing the wrong care can be much worse than providing less care. How do we safeguard against these sorts of dangers?

•(37) In hard-hit places, medical practitioners of every specialty are being recruited for the fight against COVID-19. But how qualified are they for the job and how does each medical field provide the ability to deal with COVID-19?

•(38) Given the enormity of the disaster, is there any possibility of resorting to using human experimentation to make inroads into treating the disease?

•(39) We are told that making the immune system healthier can improve our chances of fighting off COVID-19, can immunity boosting for that purpose be done quickly enough through injections of nutrients to keep people safe in this current pandemic?

•(40) Can we coat surfaces everywhere with copper if it is an effective anti-microbial agent against the virus?

•(41) Can dogs or other animals sniff out coronavirus infections?

•(42) Why can’t static electricity be used to filter out tiny particles, like the virus we are all concerned about? Electrostatic forces act on small objects but not on air. So if a facemask has a net static charge, which can easily be created, couldn’t it either make virus particles stick to the fiber or keep virus particles away from the mask while allowing air to flow through?

Lastly, we need to broaden our scope and delve into the more general subject matter that surrounds this current pandemic.

•(43) Why is it that viral infections are such a widespread phenomenon anyway? Viruses do not force their way into cells. What goes on is basically the cell sensing virus proteins, letting the virus in, coming into contact with the virus genome, and deciding to follow its instructions. It appears that cells allow themselves to be victimized by viruses. If nature did not do it, can humans simply design cells to keep viruses out?

•(44) The perfect recipe for a pathogen with high potential to go pandemic includes a long incubation period, high virulence, and hosts with no immunity. But if a pathogen has a very long incubation period, during which time it is present in the human body while causing no harm, doesn’t that give time for the immune system to develop antibodies against it, therefore compromising the pathogen’s ability to progress to causing serious illness? (Might this explain SARS-CoV-2’s low virulence?)

These questions will hopefully serve as useful guidance for both researchers and ordinary folks trying to understand Covid-19. There will be many more we will be asking as we proceed on the voyage of discovery alongside this pandemic.