Archive for the ‘Analysis’ Category

Coronavirus: Need for Evidence

August 24, 2020

By Anjum Altaf

Official figures suggest that the pandemic has abated in Pakistan. This is welcome news but we need to be sure. It would be unfortunate either if the verdict is wrong or if real gains are undone through premature relaxation. 

I have some misgivings based on observations since the beginning of the epidemic. At the outset I noted the remarkably casual attitude of individuals implementing measures to control the disease with many not following SOPs themselves. 

I then tracked the case of a neighbour who tested positive for Covid-19 in a house with eight other residents. No one from the local health authorities called for contact tracing. A few days later the person died in a hospital. Still, no one in the house was traced and tested.

I encountered families who let symptomatic elders die at home rather than visit a hospital or be tested preferring a ‘proper’ burial to a few extra years of life and the risk of being ostracised by neighbours. Such behaviour could yield significant under-reporting of Covid-19 infections and deaths. Empty hospital beds, confirmed by many doctors, are not sufficient proof the pandemic has abated.

All along, I hardly saw real social distancing or effective use of masks. Many local markets remained busy with people finding ways to work around restrictions. This was particularly widespread during the extended Eid-ul-Fitr break when both shopping and travel returned to near-normal.

The most striking event was ten of 25 members of the national cricket team testing positive before leaving for England. These were young men in their prime, athletically fit and well-nourished which suggested possible high prevalence of infection in the young. True, all of them were asymptomatic but they remained potential virus carriers. With that order of prevalence in the young and fit, what could one say about older people especially those with comorbidities?

The fact is not much can be said without the benefit of testing and if testing is reduced the number of confirmed infections would fall. Further, if people avoid testing and hospitals out of choice or fear, recorded deaths would decline. In addition, the positivity statistic might be distorted by increasing numbers of healthy people being tested to meet requirements for air travel.      

These observations suggest there are justified grounds for caution — independent confirmatory evidence is needed. Such evidence is not hard to furnish — one can count the dead and compare the numbers with previous years. Many countries are now releasing such data on excess deaths to demonstrate progress in controlling the epidemic. In Spain, for example, at the height of the epidemic, fatalities were 155% more than the corresponding week in 2019. By middle of May excess deaths were down to zero confirming control of the epidemic for the moment.

No such data has been released in Pakistan but what little has become available corroborates the phenomenon of excess deaths. A BBC report dated July 5 contained comparative data for June 2020 and June 2019 on confirmed burials in selected graveyards under municipal jurisdictions in Lahore and Karachi.  

The burials in June 2020 were between 50% and 181% higher those in June 2019. The number of  burials attributed to Covid-19 ranged between 10% and 40% of the excess deaths, the rest remaining unexplained. 

This suggests either that Covid-19 deaths are being significantly under-reported or that non-Covid deaths have increased greatly above average because of impaired medical access, patients stying away from hospitals, or being unable to afford medications and treatment. The actual situation is probably worse because one would expect the lockdown to reduce deaths below the norm due to fewer traffic accidents and reduced air pollution.  

Release of comparable data for July would answer many questions on how the epidemic is trending. If excess deaths in the same graveyards in July are well below those for June, it would be an independent confirmation of a decline in the epidemic’s intensity.

If the intensity has actually declined, there could be a number of explanations that can only be confirmed later. Deaths could have remained relatively low because of the minimal number of infections imported from abroad given Pakistan’s pariah status as a tourist destination, because of the very youthful age distribution of the population, or lower than anticipated infectivity as suggested by a very recent paper in the Quarterly Journal of Medicine (‘Secondary Attack Rate of COVID-19 in household contacts: Systematic review,’ 29 July, 2020). The last hypothesis can be validated via a follow-up survey of households reporting Covid-19 deaths. My check on the household of the neighbour mentioned earlier revealed no other person with symptoms after a month. 

It would indeed be ironic if lax implementation of disease control measures has hastened herd immunity, something suggested by the experience of the cricket team. This outcome can also be easily confirmed by a well-designed protocol of randomised serological testing.

The death rate in many developed countries has fallen because the most vulnerable, especially the very old with comorbidities resident in crowded institutional homes, succumbed early in large numbers leaving behind those with better immunity. This is akin to a forest fire rapidly consuming the dry tinder before being slowed down by the remaining healthy trees. But this explanation does not apply to Pakistan where the total number of reported deaths has been relatively small.

In the absence of independent confirmatory evidence, it is not clear whether the virus has been really controlled or if there is a dangerous sense of complacency that would give it a nasty second life. It is possible to provide robust evidence to ease doubts. Hopeful pronouncements mixed with dire warnings are a poor substitute for convincing evidence. Everyone would benefit from an end to the uncertainty and fear that are preventing a graduated resumption of activities to enable the most badly affected to restore their livelihoods.

This opinion was published in The News on August 18, 2020 and is cross-posted here with the author’s permission. The writer was dean of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at LUMS.

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Epidemics Within Epidemics

August 4, 2020

By Anjum Altaf

The Coronavirus pandemic is bad enough but, as dozens of countries have demonstrated, it can be controlled — there were just 3 new cases in Sri Lanka on June 12. Even in places where the number of infected persons was very large before the alert was sounded, Italy for example, new cases per day have dropped from 6,557 on March 21 to 163 on June 12. In Pakistan, they continue to rise — from 144 on March 21 to 6,397, the highest to date, on June 12. What makes the pandemic so recalcitrant in Pakistan, where the initial cases were minimal for lack of tourists, are the epidemics within the epidemics. 

The first of these is the blight of ignorance. A country where the majority cannot verify information for itself is hugely handicapped. All it should take is a visit to one of the many data sites ( is excellent) to look up the trends on new and active cases, recoveries, and deaths for any country. A cursory glance would reveal the declining trends for most and, by contrast, the alarming upward slope for Pakistan.

Just this one glimpse would dispel all rampant doubts and conspiracies and convince people that we are now entering seriously troubled territory. And, it would make people realize that we really have nothing in place to arrest this inexorable upward trend. Some familiarity with exponential growth would remove the complacency induced by the slow start  of an epidemic which can be foolishly equated with road deaths and the like. One would know that even small numbers accumulate relentlessly — Pakistan is now amongst the countries with the largest number of confirmed cases in the world.

The slightly more aware observer would also note the ominous inflection point in the trends for Pakistan right around May 30. Take the number of active cases which were 40,931 on that day. It had taken 21 days to double to that number from 20,291 on May 19. It took less than 13 days to double again to 83,223 by June 12. The rate of increase is rising, not falling, a flashing red sign. Now recall that Eid was on May 23. It shouldn’t take a genius to put two and two together. The very benevolent allowance to shop till you drop before Eid and the even more generous extended holiday to go home and hug your loved ones has shown up inevitably in the May 30 inflection point.

Consider by contrast how China handled the 40-day new year holidays in which about 3 billion trips are made in a normal year. Once again, the charts will reveal the amazing fact that there was virtually no outbreak in any province outside Hubei where the epidemic erupted. 

The kind of numerical illiteracy that exists in Pakistan is to be blamed squarely on its rulers who have not invested in meaningful education and kept the population steeped in myths. But that is another story needing separate attention. For the moment, it can be mitigated only if the population has enough trust in its government to take on faith what they are being told and do what they are advised in their interest. Here too, a double strike is at work. The people have no trust in their leaders who have compounded the problem by saying contradictory things at different times including the suggestion that the pandemic is a visitation of divine wrath for allowing women to dress immodestly.

An inevitable consequence of the blight of ignorance, lack of trust in leaders, and the ridiculous melange of messages from the latter, is the epidemic of rumours whose transmission rate outpaces that of the virus by many orders of magnitude. There is hardly any theory that has not been promoted via a relentless barrage of social media messages. As a result, it is hard to find a person who takes the pandemic seriously for what it is, a health crisis threatening the lives of thousands of essential workers and an economic crisis that would plunge millions deeper into poverty. 

A consequence of all this is the bizarre interplay of two other epidemics, that of paralysing fear and false bravado. Some families are locked up having sent their help away. Others continue to mill around confident that nothing can happen to the God-fearing. The polarizing opposition of the former demanding an extended lockdown and the latter deriding it as folly has put paid to any sensible discussion of what could be done.  

Add to this the slow spreading epidemic of incompetence that starting in the 1970s has now percolated right through to the top. A befuddled government steering without a rudder is now telling people they are on their own after lulling them with do-not-worry platitudes. A minister pronounces what everyone knows — cases will hit 1.2 million by end-July. So, what’s the plan? The Prime Minister will personally ensure SOPs are followed and hit the violators hard. It is a lethal combination whose outcome can be in little doubt. 

Yet another epidemic, that of hot air, has gripped the intellectuals. Every institution with fancy pretensions has come alive with webinars and COVID-bulletins as if mortally afraid they will be held to account for sitting while death ravaged the land. Never mind that no one reads the bulletins, least of all those for whom they are intended, and most webinars just have retired luminaries  shooting the breeze recalling how they worked miracles in past crises. Add to them various ex-ministers who straight-facedly harangue people to do what they had not done themselves when in power. 

All in all, it is a right terrible mess the cost of which is borne by those without the luxury to work from home or the economic cushion to turn the break into an extended retreat to further their intellectual horizons. Arundhati Roy has vowed the first thing she would do once the epidemic is over is organize a public trial. In Pakistan, we should begin with a public investigation into the Taftan fiasco that let the virus infiltrate and run rampant in the country. 

This opinion was published in The News on June 17, 2020 and is cross-posted here with the author’s permission. Dr. Altaf is a former dean of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at the Lahore University of Management Sciences.

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Coronavirus: An Interim Verdict

August 1, 2020

By Anjum Altaf

While the pandemic has months to run, enough time has passed since its inception to render an interim judgement on its management in Pakistan and India. Despite giving the governments as much benefit of doubt as I possibly can, I am afraid I have to assign both a failing grade. The governments would no doubt contest this award so let me justify my verdict.

As always, the proof of the pudding is in the eating so let us look at the actual situation at this time. Both countries are reporting the highest number of deaths per day to date — Pakistan over a 100 and India close to 400. Despite everything they have thrown at it, the graph of new cases continues to rise and their number exceeds the number of new recoveries so the load on hospitals continues to grow. Unlike most other countries, where the outbreak was much more severe, the curve of new cases in India and Pakistan has not even flattened let alone reversed which is the only real marker of success.

Despite what the governments might say, this is the stark reality and if only more people in each country could read charts, the failing grade would need little further justification. In fact, this inability of the majority to make sense of charts is the real failure in both countries for which all their governments are responsible. This failure makes dealing with the pandemic a lot more difficult than it should be otherwise.

But let’s begin from the beginning. Both countries were late in closing their borders and in adequately screening arrivals there and at airports after news of the epidemic broke in January. Both then imposed lockdowns around March 24 when the number of deaths were less than ten. One can give them the benefit of doubt for this intervention based on the state of knowledge at that time. The epidemic had ripped through Wuhan, Milan, and New York and there was genuine fear it might do the same in South Asia. Thus the first reaction to hit the brakes hard could be justified especially given the political risk of being accused ex-post of not doing enough.

But very early on, it became clear that the behaviour of the infection was quite different in South Asia than elsewhere with its spread being much slower. The one big factor on which there was near consensus was that fatalities in the badly-hit locations were overwhelmingly concentrated in people above the age of eighty. It also became known that a lot of deaths were occurring in old people’s homes run on a for-profit basis. And finally, from the US it emerged that ethnic minorities with a history of deprivation were disproportionately affected.

None of these conditions applied to South Asia in quite the same way so there was need to review the decision to impose the total lockdowns. To do so, the lockdown needed to be disaggregated into two distinct components: closure of activities where large numbers of people could assemble together (e.g., colleges, stadiums, etc.) and the stay-at-home orders. While the first was manageable with some adjustments, the latter was completely infeasible in India and Pakistan. This was made obvious in India by the terrible uprooting of millions of migrant workers and in Pakistan by the population’s rejection of the component and its non-enforcement by the authorities.

The stay-at-home component revealed a startling lack of awareness on the part of the authorities of the reality of life in their countries. There was simply no ability to feed the households who were asked to lock themselves up nor the ability to transfer cash into their accounts to enable them to buy essentials needed to survive. It was only the fortuitous inability to implement the component that saved Pakistan from the humanitarian disaster that occurred in India.

This inability to think for themselves and the knee-jerk copying of a measure that was not at all sustainable in their countries contributes largely to the award of the failing grade. In academic parlance this would fall in the category of mindless plagiarism. Even the contention that the stay-at-home measure slowed the spread of infections is not borne out because there is hardly any difference in the pattern of spread in the two countries one of which implemented it very stringently and the other where it was completely absent. And even if the pace has been slowed, the harsh fact is that the number of cases continues growing. Even with a doubling rate of 15 days, the numbers mount fairly quickly. Pakistan now has about 125,000 cases, India 310,000; both exceed China where the total is 83,000 despite much more explosive growth at the outset.

Both Pakistan and India are now faced with a situation they are unable to defend. While most countries are relaxing lockdowns after the spread of the virus has been contained, Pakistan and India are doing so while the infections and deaths per day are recording ever higher numbers. This is a clear indicator that their response strategies have failed and giving the reversal fancy names like smart lockdowns or holistic approaches cannot mask the failure. In essence, there is now no strategy left to contain the virus.   

Given the fragile nature of economies in which the vast majority of workers were employed in the informal sector and survived on what they earned that day, even the first component of the lockdown needed to have been more nuanced. Many schools and factories could have been reopened on a two-day-a-week rotation with adequate physical distancing and many places could have been given the incentive to become COVID-ready in order to be allowed to resume operations. For example, private construction in which workers are in any case separated from each other, could have continued with minimal adjustments enabling a very large number of people to continue earning their living.

Pakistan, but not India, would also get a failing grade on communications and management. The mixed messages, the waffling, the many spokespersons with little credibility, the number of decisionmakers with no domain knowledge, and the blatant political in-fighting, left the population completely confused about the seriousness of the problem and open to bizarre conspiracy theories. This debacle was made worse by the capitulation to clerics, the permission to allow Eid shopping, the long Eid holidays when people went home, and limiting the hours when shops could remain open instead of extending them to thin crowds. After all these oversights, to tell the people it was their responsibility to deal with the virus was the unkindest cut of all and an abdication of the trust reposed in a government by the people.

What was doable in India and Pakistan were the most low-cost measures that had a reasonable chance of acceptance — universal adoption of masks, frequent hand-washing, and physical distancing, where possible. Ignoring what was doable in favour of what much better endowed countries were doing when faced with runaway infections was a serious error of judgement. 

The mistake that both India and Pakistan made was to fall into the trap of believing that the lockdown was a solution to the problem and entertaining the naive hope that the infection would somehow go away if the lockdowns were extended long enough. There was no basis for such a presumption; in fact, it was known from day one that a successful lockdown was only going to buy time to prepare for the inevitable load of infections and that time had to be used intelligently to do the other things that were needed to root out the virus. These included screening, testing, tracing, quarantining, and isolation, something that was quite feasible when the number of cases were very small and all coming from outside the country. The same task is well-nigh impossible now that the infection has spread within communities and travelled all over the country in trains and buses.

This mistake was compounded by turning the policy debate into one of lives versus livelihoods and taking a moral stance on the value of lives. In actuality, in countries like India and Pakistan, it was always going to be a case of lives versus lives, an assessment of whether more lives were to be lost to the virus or to the collateral damage caused by the policy response to it. In fact, this is what people were saying had anyone been listening: “We are not afraid of dying of the virus because we are going to die of something else anyway.” In Pakistan, there grew a great fear among people of going to hospitals even for non-COVID ailments out of concern of what might happen to them if they were tested and found positive or if they would be allowed proper burials if they died. There is still the real danger that excess non-COVID deaths caused by inattention and lack of medical care might exceed the deaths by COVID which are reportedly only of the order of 2,500 in Pakistan and 9,000 in India at this time.

Neither country employed the very simple and low-cost check of tracking excess deaths in a representative sample of urban graveyards and crematoria. Nor was this data made publicly  available for use by analysts to provide an independent indicator of the impact of the pandemic. Anecdotal reports from India suggest a fair number of excess deaths in Mumbai and Delhi over comparable periods in previous years while none have been reported in Pakistan thus far. Had the reports from Pakistan been confirmed it would have supported the hypothesis that even if the prevalence of infections was high, most of those infected were recovering on their own. This would have allowed an intelligent  re-orientation of the response strategy.  

The optimistic scenarios now being offered by the governments that the infections would peak in July-August are just that. One cannot identify any measures in place that would effectively flatten the curve or reverse it. All talk of smart lockdowns etc. is just facesaving. The fact that both countries used up their most potent weapon right at the beginning and are being forced to relax the lockdowns now when the cases are mounting is an acknowledgement of policy failure. This does not mean that a return to total lockdowns is what is called for — that was an inappropriate policy response from the beginning and remains so now.  

Despite all the uncertainty that remains, what seems most likely is that both countries are likely to see the worst case scenario that would have unfolded if nothing much had been done and that the pandemic would burn itself out when the threshold, whatever it is, for herd immunity is crossed. At best, the very stringent lockdown might have averted deaths of the order of 30,000 according to the most credible modelling exercise in India but the cost that the poor have had to pay for this gain has been extraordinarily high. And it is quite likely that in the final reckoning the excess non-COVID deaths might be more than the number of deaths averted.

Pakistan has been burdened with incompetent governments virtually throughout its history but it has taken an external shock of this magnitude to drive home the reality of the price that has to be paid for poor governance. This was a situation requiring real-time adjustments to policy as fresh evidence accumulated and new information became available almost by the day. Instead, there was a leaden-footed response by people lacking a scientific mindset and more attuned to scoring points and praying for divine interventions. India is less unfortunate in this regard but its governments are equally uncaring about the welfare of the poor and the present government’s  preference for grand surprises illustrated by actions like demonetization and lockdown without notice have ended up inflicting very similar pain on its most vulnerable citizens. 

This opinion was published in The News on Sunday on June 14, 2020 and is cross-posted here with the author’s permission. The writer was the Dean of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at LUMS.

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Javed Jabbar vs. Pervez Hoodbhoy: Ten Rounds

July 21, 2020

By Anjum Altaf


Mr. Javed Jabbar has posted a public video titled “Two Nation Reality” to refute certain statements about Pakistan by Dr. Pervez Hoodbhoy. I feel the issues raised in this exchange are worthy of a detailed analysis.

In this introduction I wish to explain my motivation for undertaking this analysis and laying out how I have organized it.

The video was forwarded to me with a ‘must-watch’ label by someone whose opinion I respect. He was impressed by how Javed Jabbar had successfully refuted Pervez Hoodbhoy with infinite gentility. That statement intrigued me sufficiently to make an exception to my standard policy of deleting, without watching, all videos sent to me via social media.

The issues debated in the exchange go to the heart of the controversies that are generally avoided in Pakistan much to our disadvantage. Mr. Jabbar’s initiative is therefore to be greatly appreciated and it becomes incumbent on us to take it forward with the seriousness it deserves. After watching the video, I scrolled through the more than a hundred comments posted by viewers and felt that the seriousness required was lacking. The commentators acted more as partisans than analysts with the majority labeling Dr. Hoodbhoy as “anti-national,” “angry,” and “vitriolic” while lauding Mr. Jabbar for being “calm,” “reasonable,” and “patriotic.”

This raised a red flag because it is common for people to remain loyal to pre-existing views and dismiss contradictory perspectives as not just being wrong but vitriolic as well. They also tend to consider opinions that coincide with their own as being reasonable and, in particular, give undue credence to those they deem to be uttered in a calm and collected tone. In my view, there is no such one-to-one association between the manner of speaking and the truth or correctness of what is said.

I felt there was need to deconstruct the statements in order to give readers the opportunity to consider them in more detail. I also decided to remove any possible subliminal bias that may result from either watching the video or listening to the audio. I therefore had the audio transcribed in order to present the statements made by both protagonists in writing which is as neutral a form as is possible — the visual and tonal clues being stripped out.

There is one potential bias that I have not been able to circumvent. Since the video was made by Mr. Jabbar, he had the discretion of presenting very brief selected extracts of statements by Dr. Hoodbhoy so that the viewer is not cognizant of the surrounding text, before or after, in which the statements might have been embedded. For his refutations, Mr. Jabbar, seated in a relaxed manner with soft music, and at one point the national anthem, playing in the background, has as much time at his disposal as he desires. The readers of this analysis would have to discount any bias that may accrue from the fact that the video has been made by one protagonist and is not on a level playing field.

The video opens with the following text on a slide:

“At the Adab Festival, Karachi end-January 2020, Professor Pervez Hoodbhoy made certain remarks. On viewing a recording later Senator (r) Javed Jabbar disagreed… as follows.”

Mr. Jabbar then makes his appearance and speaks the following preamble:  

“I respect, Professor Sahib, your right to freedom of expression, everyone’s right, and I don’t think there should be any curbs on responsible freedom of expression. But if that freedom of expression uses half truths, quarter truths and no truths, then it is my humble duty to respond.”  

This preamble sets the context for the exchange: Mr. Jabbar believes the statements made by Dr. Hoodbhoy are false and feels obliged to set the record straight. The exchange is organized in a format in which a statement by Dr. Hoodbhoy is followed by a response from Mr. Jabbar. There are in total ten such statements and responses.

This format brought to my mind the image of a boxing match and I have accordingly framed this analysis as a contest. I will present each statement and response separately as one round of the contest, score it very much as referees do in a boxing match, and give my reasons for the assigned score. At the end of the series, the scores for each round would be aggregated to determine the winner of the contest — in my assessment. Readers would be free to disagree and assign their own scores which would open up the opportunity for an extended and much-needed discussion.

To conclude, I would write a summation of my views with a focus on what I learned from the exercise.

Round 1 – Pakistan

Pervez Hoodbhoy: Pakistan is in a state of confusion because it was born in a state of confusion. 

Javed Jabbar: Confusion. Confusion is actually good. Confusion means change; confusion means evolution. Every nation evolves. The United States in the late 18th Century had a declaration which said “all men are created equal.” Equal? The Afro-African Blacks were never equal. The Native Americans were never equal. Even in the 21st Century they are fighting for equality with White Americans. Pakistan from the word go said “all citizens are equal.” The French revolution said, Liberty, Fraternity, Equality. It took France 150 years to give women the right to vote in 1944. Evolution. Not confusion.


In this case, we can set aside Dr. Hoodbhoy’s assertion because, whatever its merit, Mr. Jabbar has declined to respond to it. He has dodged the assertion by channeling it into a completely different direction.

The only connection of the response to the assertion is the repetition of the first word “Confusion.” After that, Mr. Jabbar makes an assertion of his own — that “Confusion is actually good.” This is strange because, while confusion might do some good at times, in general it is not considered a positive state or attribute. When one says to someone “You are totally confused,” it can rarely be interpreted as saying “You are a really good fellow.”

Next, Mr, Jabbar defines confusion as change and evolution. I doubt if anyone will subscribe to this definition. The dictionary defines confusion as follows: “uncertainty about what is happening, intended, or required” and “the state of being bewildered or unclear in one’s mind about something.” The synonyms offered by the dictionary for ‘confusion’ are uncertainty, indecision, hesitation, bewilderment, perplexity, puzzlement, etc. all of which have negative connotations. There is not even a remote connection to change or evolution.

Mr. Jabbar then makes the statement “Every nation evolves” which, whatever it means, does not address Dr. Hoodbhoy’s statement. If this means that every nation changes, it is a truism since one cannot really expect that any nation would stay frozen over time. If it means that every nation develops or grows, this is by no means a certainty. There are many examples of nations and even civilizations declining.

Following this, Mr. Jabbar takes the response in the direction of “Equality” with examples that Native Americans or Afro-Americans were never equal in the United States and that women in France got the vote only in 1944. But what has this got to do with Mr. Hoodbhoy’s statement which was not even remotely concerned with equality in Pakistan unless Mr. Jabbar redefines confusion to mean equality or inequality as well.

Mr. Jabbar ends his response with a curt “Evolution. Not Confusion.” One can concede that Pakistan is evolving but that sheds no light on whether either its starting point or its state today can be characterised as one of confusion in its standard meaning of being uncertain or bewildering. 

This is a really puzzling response given that Mr. Jabbar had infinite time at his disposal to think through and frame his answer. One can only conclude that he really had no answer and decided to evade the question by talking of completely unrelated things.

If this were a real boxing match, I would award it here to Dr. Hoodbhoy by a Technical Knock Out (TKO). But, it is not and the contest has to continue. I only hope that Mr. Jabbar recovers and picks up his performance to make the challenge of greater interest to readers.

ROUND 1 to Hoodbhoy (by default) 

Round 2 – Nationhood

Pervez Hoodbhoy: The basis for Pakistan as articulated by Mohammad Ali Jinnah was that there are only two nations that live on the subcontinent. They are mutually hostile. They can not ever live in peace. That was Part I. Part II was that Muslims form a nation. The second part is completely nonsensical. 

Javed Jabbar: Who invented the Two Nation Theory? Not Mr. Jinnah, not Chaudhri Rahmat Ali, not Allama Iqbal. The Arya Samaj, an exclusive Hindu organization, was set up in 1875. The Hindu Mahasabha was set up in 1915. The RSS was set up in 1925. Mr. Jinnah was acknowledged as the ambassador of Hindu-Muslim unity. But even Mr. Gandhi introduced religion into politics. When all these people started taking about Hindu Rashtra, that the whole nation should be the Hindu nation, Allama Iqbal, Chaudhri Rehmat Ali, finally Mr. Jinnah were obliged to say No. Within this region live two nations. There are other nations but the two major nations are the Muslim nation and the Hindu nation. Because we have different beliefs, we have different heroes, we have different diets, we have different customs and cultures, which doesn’t mean that the Two-Nation Theory promoted hatred against Hindus. Never. Mr. Jinnah was a man who believed in peace and non-violence. 


In Round 1, Dr. Hoodbhoy stood in the centre of the ring for the entire duration but Mr. Jabbar failed to come out of his corner. He sat on his stool and threw misdirected punches. Here again, Mr. Jabbar refuses to engage with Dr. Hoodbhoy’s statement head-on. Is it “nonsensical” or not to claim that Muslims form a nation? Instead, Mr. Jabbar lurches into whodunnit territory, a search for who invented the Two Nation Theory. This is irrelevant because if the claim is nonsensical, it remains so no matter who came up with it first.

Mr. Jabbar affirms that Mr. Jinnah was acknowledged as the ambassador of Hindu-Muslim unity and only when people started talking about the Hindu Rashtra, he felt obliged to assert that two nations lived in India.

Mr. Jabbar’s affirmation gives rise to two possibilities. Either Mr. Jinnah realized that Muslims were a separate nation only when people starting talking about a Hindu Rashtra or he always believed that Muslims were a separate nation even when he was the ambassador of Hindu-Muslim unity.

Which was it? If the former, Mr. Jinnah’s assertion was a purely political gambit. If the latter, he must have believed that different nations could live together in the same country despite their differences. In which case, it is not clear why he argued that Muslims needed a separate country because they had different diets, etc. After all, Muslims had coexisted in India with Hindus for over a thousand years despite different diets and beliefs.

All this is of great interest but Dr. Hoodbhoy’s assertion that it is nonsensical to claim that Muslims form a separate nation remains unrefuted. This is not to claim that it cannot be refuted, just that Mr. Jabbar fails to do so.    

ROUND 2 to Hoodbhoy

Round 3 – Scholarship

Pervez Hoodbhoy: He [Mr. Jinnah] never wrote a single research paper. He never wrote an essay. 

Javed Jabbar: Mr. Jinnah was a political leader. He was a statesman. He created a new nation. He created a new nation-state. He changed the map of the world. He was not a professor or a lecturer who was supposed to write an essay or write a research paper. If that is what you wanted him to be, fine. Then perhaps we should have waited for another 50 years for someone to come along, an academic, a respectable professor, to give us Pakistan.


Dr. Hoodbhoy is on weak ground here, although, to give him the benefit of doubt, it is not obvious in what context this very brief statement is embedded. However, given that we can’t speculate on that, it is not clear why the statement is relevant. It is by no means necessary for every leader to have written a research paper or an essay.

In boxing parlance, Dr. Hoodbhoy has slipped on the mat and Mr. Jabbar homes in for some quick punches. He easily shows that the statement has no real import. Mr. Jinnah was a political leader and he created a nation-state. One doesn’t need to be a scholar to be able to create one. Mr. Mujibur Rahman was also a political leader and created a nation-state without ever having written a research paper or an essay. 

It is quite possible that Dr. Hoodbhoy was placing this in the context of the Indian freedom struggle in which, surprisingly, most of the political leaders had both read and written a lot. (Actually, not surprisingly. They were not elected leaders; they became leaders on the strength of their intellect.) The most towering intellectual of the movement was undoubtedly Baba Sahib Ambedkar who, with two doctoral degrees, had command over a very wide spectrum of disciplines. Gandhiji was very well read and wrote copiously — his collected works have been printed in 98 volumes. Mr. Nehru was the author of at least four highly regarded books.

Mr. Jinnah was not in the same league being solely a very highly regarded barrister although it is not clear what difference it might have made had it been otherwise. It should be pointed out that among the Muslim leaders, Maulana Abul Kalam Azad and Maulana Husain Ahmad Madani were very well read and had written a lot and both argued from within Islamic scholarship that nationhood needed to be territorial, not religious. In this regard it is paradoxical that modern, born-again, Muslim leaders like Mr. Jinnah and Muhammad Iqbal, who was well-read but not in Islamic scholarship, took the opposite view.

As it turns out, Mr. Jabbar also subscribes to territorial nationhood. On accepting a position as the representative of Balochistan, he writes: “While it is also correct that I am not a resident of Balochistan, one is a citizen of Pakistan and about 45 per cent of the territorial dimension of my national identity is derived from Balochistan!” The exclamation mark would seem to reflect that it is a revelation for Mr. Jabbar — a pity that he seems unaware of the scholarship of Maulana Azad and Maulana Madani.    

ROUND 3 to Jabbar

Round 4 – Contradictions

Pervez Hoodbhoy: He [Mr. Jinnah] gave a lot of speeches which at different times said very different things. He didn’t have an idea of Pakistan. I am sorry although many of you believe that he did, he did not. The audience here will applaud what he said on 11th of August 1947 but do they want to hear what he said in the Frontier where he said you are Muslims first and Indians second? And this is before Pakistan was formed. In 1948, here in Karachi, addressing the Bar Council, he said this will be a land where Islamic law will be applied. 

Javed Jabbar: What he said on the 11th of August is not contradicted by what he said in 1945 or 1948. What did he say? He said Pakistan will be a country which will be guided, governed, by Islamic principles. What are those Islamic principles? Look at Surah Al-Baqarah, Ayat number 62, the same Ayat comes as Ayat number 65 in Surah Al-Maida. What does God tell us? He says whether you be Muslims, Christians, Jews, any other faith, as long as you do good and believe in the Day of Judgement, you have no fear. So the Quaid was actually endorsing pluralism, democracy, participation. There was no contradiction between what he said on the 11th of August and all his other pronouncements.


This is a difficult round to judge. Mr. Jinnah did give a lot of speeches and said different things at different times but that should not be a surprise as times change. All political leaders say different things at different times — think of Imran Khan who has made innumerable somersaults within a few brief years and is still considered  a great leader. It can be conceded that Mr. Jinnah did not have a clear idea of Pakistan. It was not certain till the very last whether it was going to be one state or two and he himself conceded that what he got in the end was moth-eaten and not what he had in mind. But the main assertion here is that Mr. Jinnah said different things at different times.

Mr. Jabbar could have finessed that charge by arguing that it is quite natural for politicians to say different things at different times when circumstances change. Mr. Gandhi, for example, was well-known for saying very contradictory things during his political career. Instead, he goes on the defensive to argue that there was never any contradiction between anything that Mr. Jinnah ever said. This claim can be demolished by any serious scholar who sifts through the collected speeches of Mr. Jinnah. This line of defence was unnecessary because, as stressed earlier, there is no politician who does not change his views over time as circumstances demand.

Mr. Jabbar diverts the argument into what God tells us which is that “whether you be Muslims, Christians, Jews, any other faith, as long as you do good and believe in the Day of Judgement, you have no fear.” If that is indeed the case, it is not clear why Muslims who were all doing good felt afraid in India. Or was it only the Muslims who were not doing good who felt afraid and wanted a place of their own where they could continue in their ways, as they have? Mr. Jinnah seemed quite convinced that both Muslims and Islam were in danger despite the fact that all Muslims, barring a few “showboys,” were doing good and based on this conviction he rejected pluralism, democracy and participation in the larger polity. It is not possible that Mr. Jinnah was unaware of what God tells us.

ROUND 4 – Draw 

Round 5 – Science

Pervez Hoodbhoy: How would Pakistan survive in a world where science and technology is what makes countries strong? He [Mr. Jinnah] had no plans for that.

Javed Jabbar: Professor Sahib, if you look through the speeches and statements of Mr. Jinnah, you will find an extraordinary focus on literacy, on education, being the basis for development. He went out of his way to encourage women to achieve education. He stressed this to civil service officers, he said it to armed forces officials. Education. Science and technology is part of that process. So, to dismiss all his utterances and to assume that he never made any plans for science and technology, perhaps you are right. He should have sat down and written out five-year plans even before he had created the country.  


Dr. Hoodbhoy is right that countries cannot survive today without science and technology. However, and I am sure Dr. Hoodbhoy intended that, it is not just science and technology that is borrowed from abroad but one that emerges from inculcating a scientific attitude in a nation’s own students and citizens. But it does not seem fair to assert categorically that Mr. Jinnah had no plans for that. It is a tall order to expect in the midst of an an intense battle for nationhood to be devoting attention to what could wait for the creation of the nation. Mr. Nehru was deeply attuned to the importance of science and technology but it was only after independence that he put his beliefs into practice with, for example, the setting up of the very high quality Indian Institutes of Technology. Had Mr. Jinnah lived for a few years after 1947 and still done nothing for the promotion of science and technology, Dr. Hoodbhoy’s charge would have carried more weight.

Mr. Jabbar is right that Mr. Jinnah stressed the importance of education but not right to assume that science and technology is automatically a part of the process of education. Had that been so, there would have been a lot more science and technology in Pakistan with the spread of education. What we have experienced has been the contrary. The understanding of science and technology, and especially that of mathematics, has declined precipitously, especially since the period of Zia ul Haq when education was turned into a political weapon and transformed into indoctrination. Education is now biased towards Islamic Studies and Pakistan Studies which are taught from the cradle to the grave. Science, without experimentation, has become the memorization of facts and even History and Geography have been marginalized in the curriculum.   

ROUND 5 – Draw

Round 6 – Ideology

Pervez Hoodbhoy: Today we do not need an ideology for Pakistan. Countries survive without ideologies.

Javed Jabbar: Every country is inspired by a set of principles, dreams, aspirations. That is what we call ideology and we are proud that Islam has given us the elements of an ideology. Which doesn’t mean we don’t respect non-Muslims. They are also equally entitled to all the protections of that ideology. Historic countries like China, which has been there for thousands of years, China needs an ideology. Whether it was the original communism or today’s communism, needs an ideology. The United States has an ideology. They call it the Constitution. 


Both arguments have problems. One can understand where Dr. Hoodbhoy is coming from because Pakistan has a very overt ideology called the ‘Ideology of Pakistan’ which is consciously taught in all schools and colleges and there is no room for dissent. Anyone questioning this ideology is labelled ‘anti-Pakistan’ and courts harassment of various sorts. As a dean at a university, I received directives from the Higher Education Commission warning that some instructors were propagating ‘anti-national’ views and urging institutions to instil patriotism in students by stressing the ‘Ideology of Pakistan’ in the curriculum.

However, this does not mean that we do not need an ideology for Pakistan or that countries can survive without ideologies. This is a misreading of the concept of ideology.

Mr. Jabbar is also subject to the same misreading. Even if every country were to be inspired by dreams and aspirations, that cannot be called an ideology. In reality, not all people in a country have the same dreams and aspirations.  So, the question arises immediately: Whose dreams and aspirations? Did the ideology of Pakistan reflect the dreams and aspirations of the Bengalis?

Second, Islam may give us a set of principles but it does not give a country an ideology. If it did, the ideologies of Saudi Arabia, Iran and Turkey would have been the same, which they are not. In fact, the ideologies of all three contradict each other completely. The Turks don’t love the Saudis, the Saudis don’t love the Iranis, and the Iranis don’t love the Turks. 

Mr. Jabbar is right that all countries need ideologies but these ideologies are not fixed for ever. The ideologies of the original and present communisms in China are very different — Mao would never have agreed with Deng Xiaoping’s dictum that “it doesn’t matter if a cat is black or white so long as it catches mice.” And the ideology of the USA is certainly not its Constitution. That reflects a complete misunderstanding of the concept of ideology. If a constitution can serve as an ideology, no country would need anything else because each country, including Pakistan, has one.

One has to see an ideology as a set of ideas that are needed to legitimize the distribution of power and privilege in a particular society. The more unjust and unfair these are, the greater is the need for an overt ideology and the greater the efforts needed to get the people to subscribe to that ideology without the need for coercion. 

Before the age of democracy, the ideology that legitimized the dominance of monarchs was the ‘Divine Right of Kings’ and the dominance of the Church by the ideology that the poor on earth would be rewarded in heaven which could only be reached with the blessings of the clergy. The evil of colonialism needed the ideological construct of ‘The White Man’s Burden’ obligated to civilising benighted natives. Many a learned person in Europe subscribed to this convenient ideology.

In the economic domain, the dominant ideology for long was the ‘trickle-down theory’ which legitimized the rich getting richer while the poor were to wait with patience. The ideology of the United States is not its Constitution but a set of ideas centered around meritocracy and the free market. The population has bought into the myth of the ‘American Dream’ that everyone can make it through hard work with the corollary that those who don’t just have themselves to blame. The accompanying idea is that the best way to make it is via the free market with the corollary that it is inefficient for the state to intervene in the interest of those who have failed. The global version of this ideology is the neo-liberalism incorporated in the ‘Washington Consensus.’

No country is really without an ideology and ideologies can also change over time. Today, one can see very clearly the contest of ideologies in the USA with Bernie Sanders advocating Socialism while Joe Biden represents the Free Market status quo. It is also very clear that the American Establishment, wishing to retain its privileges, has thrown its money behind Biden just as it backed Hillary Clinton four years ago.

It is true that if one looks at a country like Sweden there does not seem to be something called the ‘Ideology of Sweden’ but a little more reflection would reveal that Swedish society and economy are organized around the ideas of ‘Democratic Socialism.’ The more just and fair a country’s system, the more its ideology becomes invisible and the less the need to impose it on people. 

Seen in this framework, Pakistan’s ideology is crafted around the ideas that both Pakistan and Islam are in danger and that this danger can only be contained by extreme centralization of power, militarization, and elimination of dissent. Note that if Islam is in danger, it must be so at the hands of non-Muslims. So, how can such an ideology respect non-Muslims as Mr. Jabbar claims? This ideology that ends up privileging guns over butter imposes certain costs on society in terms of freedom of expression, innovation, beneficial trade, regional autonomy, and spending on social services. What has this ideology bought us over seventy years and whether its continued cost is worth paying is for the readers to decide?

There cannot be a better illustration of the deliberate reinforcement of ideology through innocuous entertainment than the Prime Minister of Pakistan, in the midst of a pandemic, ordering the national television channel to serialize a play from Turkey in order to make our young “familiar” with Islamic history. Turning pseudo-history into emotional myths that inculcate the veneration of rulers is the aim of ideological indoctrination. And the way the population is lapping up the myth shows that the propagation of ideology works. Some have already put up a statue of the Turkish hero in Lahore.

There is a major sociological puzzle for readers to think through. Why do people accept and not reject myths? How come we can put up a statue to a little-known Turk from Anatolia but can’t rename a square to honour Bhagat Singh, a real son of Lahore? 

ROUND 6 – Draw 

Round 7 – Two-Nation-Theory

Pervez Hoodbhoy: In 1971, the Two-Nation-Theory went into the Bay of Bengal.

Javed Jabbar: After breaking away from the state of Pakistan, did Bangladesh go back into West Bengal? Did it say now we want to re-merge with India because religion is no longer the basis for our existence? Today, Bangladesh remains proudly Muslim, predominantly Muslim Bangladesh. Muslim Bangladeshi nationalism is the foundation of Bangladesh. The Two- Nation-Theory today is beautifully alive and well. 


This argument rests on what one considers the Two-Nation-Theory to be. If it is taken to mean, as originally propounded, that Muslims and Hindus are separate nations then the theory cannot be argued to have gone into the Bay of Bengal in 1971. For the people who believe that Muslims and Hindus are separate nations, nothing has changed. In their interpretation, Hindus conspired to break a Muslim nation into two.

It is the unstated extension of the Two-Nation-Theory that needs to be the focus of attention. If this extension is taken to suggest that because Muslims are a separate nation that was enough to warrant a separate country for them or sufficient to sustain one, then the second part of this extension certainly went into the Bay of Bengal in 1971. But this is an unwarranted extension. There are many countries, like Pakistan, comprised of groups who consider themselves distinct nations but that is not automatically taken to mean that each nation should have a separate country even if it wants one. In fact, the various nations are being continually advised to live together amicably and assured that their grievances would be addressed over time. As for the sustainability part, Muslims have been fighting each other since almost the very birth of the religion.

The central contention of the Two-Nation-Theory remains to be addressed. Are Hindus and Muslims separate nations? he answer to this question is independent of whether Hindus and Musims love or hate each other or whether Muslims can live together or not.  

Mr. Jabbar’s argument is also problematic. East Pakistan rebelled against West Pakistan not because it wanted to yield its autonomy to India; rather, it wanted more autonomy from West Pakistan which the latter was not prepared to concede. Religion had nothing to do with the struggle. 

Mr. Jabbar argues that ‘Muslim Bangladeshi’ nationalism is the foundation of Bangladesh but does not ask which dimension of this nationalism is dominant. Clearly, since the province was already predominantly Muslim, the Bengali part was more important to the people of East Pakistan than the Muslim part. This would suggest that ethnicity and language are stronger attributes of a sense of nationhood than religion. In this framework, one can also understand the perpetual problems in Balochistan.

It cannot be maintained that the Two-Nation-Theory is “beautifully alive and well” if we have arrived at the conclusion that ethnicity and language are stronger attributes of nationhood than religion. If India had to be divided, it might have made more sense to devolve it on the basis of ethnicities or languages — the more than a million deaths resulting from the division of the Punjab and Bengal and the ethnic cleansing that followed leaving ten million more homeless might have been avoided. For proof, see how amicably Punjabis of all religions get along when they meet outside the subcontinent despite the legacy of terrible religious conflict at the time of Partition. In India, the subsequent reorganization of states and the creation of new ones on the basis of language is a recognition of the centrality of language to the sense of nationhood. Why does the sense of being a muhajir continue to exist in Pakistan and why is there a continuing demand for a Seraiki Subah despite a common religion?

In advocating a nationalism based on geography and not religion, Maulana Husain Ahmed Madani credited his experience in Saudi Arabia for shaping his perspective. He mentioned that the Saudis referred to all visitors from India as ‘hindis’ quite independent of their religion, caste, ethnicity, language or province of residence. For further confirmation, ask migrant workers in Saudi Arabia from Pakistan how they are received and treated there. Is it their religion or their place of origin that dominates the social interaction? It is clear that for the Saudis, being Arab carries more weight in the interaction than being Muslim. 

ROUND 7 – Draw

Round 8 – Bangladesh

Pervez Hoodbhoy: We mistreated the Bengalis, we thought of them as lesser people, we exploited them, and then we massacred them. 

Javed Jabbar: The massacres that occurred in which thousands of Bengali brethren were killed were unpardonable. Should we forget. Should we forget those tens of thousands of children, women, men, who without weapons were also massacred only because they were West Pakistanis? Should we forget? 


Mr. Jabbar has conceded the case by accepting that the “massacres” that occurred in East Pakistan were “unpardonable.” But then he has offered a mitigating argument that we should not forget the West Pakistanis who were also killed. 

This attempt to equate two negatives does not make them equal. Recall, Mr. Jabbar’s defense of the Two-Nation-Theory in Round 2 where he seeks to assign blame to the side that initiated the theory. He should be consistent and apply the same principle in this case too. The aggravation was all on the side of the West Pakistanis, first with the resort to the One Unit Scheme in 1955 and then with the negation of the electoral verdict in 1971 in which the party from the majority province had earned the right to rule in a fair election.

Note also the implicit bias in Mr. Jabbar’s statement when he enumerates the deaths on the two sides — “thousands” of Bengalis versus “tens of thousands” of West Pakistanis when, by all accounts, the count was overwhelmingly the other way around.

Note also the emotionalism in the argument — Bengali “brethren” “killed” as opposed to “children, women, men” “without weapons” “massacred.” This, when the overwhelming weapon power was in the hands of the West Pakistanis.

It could be argued that this tragedy was a direct outcome of the confusion that prevailed at the time of the movement for Pakistan as asserted by Dr. Hoodbhoy in Round 1. Till the very end there was confusion as to whether the demand was for two independent states or one and it was allegiance to the Two-Nation-Theory that tilted the balance towards an unsustainable outcome as prescient statesmen like Maulana Azad were quick to predict.

One presumes Mr. Jabbar is aware of what Ayub Khan had to say about our Bengali “brethren” as early as the 1960s. Here are just two quotes from his diaries: 

When thinking of problems of East Pakistan one cannot help feeling that their urge to isolate themselves from West Pakistan and revert to Hindu language and culture is close to the fact that they have no culture and language of their own nor have they been able to assimilate the culture of the Muslims of the subcontinent by turning their back on Urdu.” 

Without meaning any unkindness, the fact of the matter is that a large majority of the Muslims in East Pakistan have an animist base which is a thick layer of Hinduism and top crust of Islam which is pierced by Hinduism from time to time.” 

If Mr. Jabbar has missed these observations, he can find them on pages 132 and 138, respectively, of the Diaries of Field Marshal Mohammad Ayub Khan, 1966-72, Edited by Craig Baxter, Oxford University Press, Karachi, 2007.  

This also highlights the ironies of politics. Before the creation of Pakistan, Bengali Muslims were a leading component of the Muslim nation advocating a separate state. The Muslim League was founded in Dhaka on 30 December 1906 on a proposal by Nawab Salimullah Khan, the fourth Nawab of Dhaka. After the creation of that state, the same Bengalis were deemed insufficiently Muslim and advised to learn about Islam by reading Urdu. This ideology of oppression could rightly be termed the “Light Brown Man’s Burden.” How is it different from the attitude of Churchill who said he “hated Indians” and considered them “a beastly people with a beastly religion”? Note that he did not differentiate between Muslims and Hindus.  

It is also a commentary on the calibre of our political leadership. With such sagacity at work, is it any surprise the Bengalis finally decided to bid farewell to the enlightened West Pakistanis?

ROUND 8 to Hoodbhoy 

Round 9 – Balochistan

Pervez Hoodbhoy: If Muslims could always live in peace together, you would not have the separatist movement in Balochistan, which again no body is allowed to mention. 

Javed Jabbar: 99 percent of them, if not more, want to remain part of Pakistan. They want the fulfillment of their rights, which we owe to them, make all possible efforts to make sure they obtain their due rights. We launched a new book on Balochistan, self-critical, by a serving Major General of the Pakistan Army. So there is no restriction on freedom of expression on Balochistan. As for a secessionist movement, this is a problem many nation-states face. States in North-East India have been wanting to secede. Scotland wants to break away from the United Kingdom. In Spain, the Basques and the Catalonians want to secede from Spain. It is not unique to Balochistan. It is a challenge for us to reconcile and to give them their due rights and everyone wants that to be settled peacefully. 


Dr. Hoodbhoy’s statements are completely unambiguous. It is a straightforward application of logic to say that “If Muslims can always live in peace together, you would not have a separatist movement in Balochistan.” No one can disagree with the logic of the statement.

It is also just a slight exaggeration to say that “no body” is allowed to mention Balochistan. There are very clear constraints in place on the discourse related to the province. As a former dean at LUMS, I am personally aware that a discussion on the topic was disallowed at the university. 

Mr. Jabbar begins his response with an assertion — “99 percent of them [the Baloch], if not more, want to remain part of Pakistan.” If this is indeed true, it is wonderful news but what is the evidence on the basis of which this statement is made? Is it a survey that is available for others to see?

Mr. Jabbar says that the Baloch want their due rights which we owe them and we should make all possible efforts that they obtain them. The obvious question comes to mind: If these are their due rights and we owe them, then what has prevented us from giving them the rights till today?

As for limits on freedom of expression on Balochistan, Mr. Jabbar claims they don’t exist because a serving Major General has written a self-critical book on Balochistan. Dr. Hoodbhoy is likely to argue that this supports his contention — the army can have its say but many others can’t.

I presume Mr. Jabbar has read The Wandering Falcon (Penguin Books, India, 2011) by Jamil Ahmed who served as the Chief Secretary in Balochistan. In it, he wrote (pages 33, 34): There was complete and total silence about the Baloch, their cause, their lives and their deaths. No newspaper editor risked punishment on their behalf. Typically, Pakistani journalists sought salve for their conscience by writing about the wrongs done to men in South Africa, in Indonesia, in Palestine and in the Philippines — not their own people. No politician risked imprisonment: they would continue to talk of the rights of the individual, the dignity of man, the exploitation of the poor, but they would not talk of the wrong done outside their front door. No bureaucrat risked dismissal. He would continue to flatter his conscience through the power he could display over his inconsequential subjects.” This clearly contradicts Mr. Jabbar’s assertion thatthere is no restriction on freedom of expression on Balochistan.”

Mr. Jabbar has also dismissed the secessionist movement as no big deal since such movements exist in many other places as well. This does not refute the claim that a secessionist movement does exist in Balochistan. It is also strange logic to assert that because secessionist movements exist in other parts of the world, the one at home can be ignored. It is equally hard to square the concession that a secessionist movement does exist with the claim that “99 percent of them [the Baloch], if not more, want to remain part of Pakistan.”

However, equating the secessionist movement in Balochistan to that in Scotland is going too far since while 48 percent of Scots want to secede they are allowed to express their preference in a peaceful referendum as against which force has to be used in Balochistan where, according to Mr. Jabbar, fewer than one percent of the population wants to leave Pakistan. Need one remind Mr. Jabbar that a secessionist movement existed in India in the 1940s and in Pakistan in 1971. What is the principle on which he decides which secessionist movement to support, which to oppose, which to ignore, and which to deny?

Much of this confusion arises because the history of Balochistan is excluded from our textbooks. While we are told a fair bit about the nature of the accession of Hyderabad state to India, we know next to nothing about the nature of the accession of Kalat state to Pakistan. In Muslims against the Muslim League: Critiques of the Idea of Pakistan edited by Ali Usman Qasmi and Megan Eaton Robb (Cambridge Univesrity Press, 2017) there is a chapter on this history that can provide a useful starting point. The following paragraph (page 382) gives the genesis of the secessionist sentiments in the province:

“Following the partition of India, the rulers of [the princely states of] Bahawalpur, Khairpur, Chitral, Dir, Swat and Amb decided to accede to Pakistan. Kalat, the largest princely state to become part of Pakistan, only acceeded in March 1948, seven months after partition. The history of Kalat state, its politics and its intricate relationship with the British Raj and the All India Muslim League complicated the accession process with accusations and counter-accusations about the process still being raised by Baluch nationalists and the Pakistani government, seven decades after the accession. The fractured relationship between Baluchistan and the central government since the accession has resulted in five distinct waves of insurgency in the province. Much of the discontent stems from the way the accession was handled by Pakistan’s founding fathers and civilian bureaucrats.”  

Mr. Jabbar concludes with a feel-good statement that “It is a challenge for us to reconcile and to give them their due rights and everyone wants that to be settled peacefully.” It is not clear why this is a challenge and why it has remained one for over 70 years. When do “we” intend to meet the challenge given that “we” actually want to give the rights and “everyone” wants it to be done peacefully? 

Mr. Jabbar’s arguments have not been able to refute Dr. Hoodbhoy’s straightforward claims.

ROUND 9 to Hoodbhoy

Round 10 – People

Pervez Hoodbhoy: What we need is a Pakistan that is built upon common interests of the people. Of the people of Pakistan which must include the Baloch, the Sindhis, the Pathans, the Punjabis, the Gilgitis, Baltistanis. Everyone. This is not a country which was made for the armed forces of Pakistan.

Javed Jabbar: You know to single out the armed forces which have played a major role in our history and sometimes that role has not been what the armed forces should have done. For example, coming in to the political sphere, the armed forces should not have done it. But that is part of our history. And in the political sphere, particularly after the 18th Amendment, we have enormous provincial autonomy, levels unprecedented in our history. So, therefore, the concept of participation through regular elections, through democracy, is now a part of the Pakistani political psyche and merely the existence of the army does not negate that. We are a very democratic people. Throughout the year there are elections for bar associations, teachers’ associations, doctors, architects, engineers, chambers of commerce, private clubs. People of Pakistan love democracy from the word go despite four military interventions. So we are coexisting between the army and the civil. There has to be a balanced relationship which I hope we will evolve in the years to come. 


Dr. Hoodbhoy has made two non-controversial statements: That Pakistan should be built on the common interests of its people and that the country was not made for the armed forces.

The first is something no can disagree with but note that is the expression of an ideology that Dr. Hoodbhoy espouses which negates his earlier claim that Pakistan does not need an ideology. What he is asserting here, albeit indirectly, is that Pakistan needs an ideology based on justice, fairness, and equal representation of all its citizens.

The second is factually correct since there is no record in the narrative of the Pakistan movement that can be cited to prove that the country was being created for its armed forces.

There were really no grounds nor need for Mr. Jabbar to disagree with either statement but he has felt obliged to do so. After conceding that the armed forces should not have played the role they did and interfered in the political sphere, he whitewashes it by saying that is part of our history. There are many things like genocides that are part of the history of nations but cannot be absolved for that reason.

Mr. Jabbar’s defence becomes even weaker when he states that the mere existence of the armed forces is not problematic because Pakistanis love democracy and vote all the time and there is also a lot of provincial autonomy. Dr. Hoodbhoy has presumably no problem with the mere existence of the armed forces as long as it abides by the role assigned to it in the Constitution. His problem is with the armed forces overstepping its mandate which shows no signs of abating. This overstepping includes negating the very same democratic choices of the people that Mr. Jabbar celebrates. 

As for Pakistanis loving democracy, this claim needs to be supported with evidence. One comes across far too many people, especially amongst middle- and upper-income groups, who feel Pakistan would be better governed by the ‘danda’ because its people are “ungovernable.”  

Mr. Jabbar says “we are coexisting between the army and the civil” as if that is quite an acceptable state of affairs. He does not explain why we need to coexist in this way nor whether this coexistence has been good for the health of the country and its people. 

Mr. Jabbar concludes with a recommendation for a balanced relationship between civil and military which he hopes will evolve in the years to come. There are two problems with this position. First, why does Mr. Jabbar wish to grant an equal role to the military when it has been mandated a subservient role in the Constitution? Second, given that he hopes the balanced role will evolve in the years to come, he is clearly acknowledging that the role has been imbalanced so far in favour of the armed forces. This was precisely the problem that Dr. Hoodbhoy had raised at the outset. What entitles the armed forces to this outsized role? Mr. Jabbar’s response that the military has played a major role in our history is tautological and not a reasonable justification. 

Finally, in the interest of transparency, Mr. Jabbar should have made a full disclosure that he served as a minister under a military government, during one of the interventions in politics he claims the military should not have made. 

ROUND 10 to Hoodbhoy 

Summing Up

And the winner is PERVEZ HOODBHOY.

After a 10-round contest, Pervez Hoodbhoy comes out ahead winning 5 rounds to Javed Jabbar’s 1 with 4 drawn.

It was a comfortable margin at the end but the contest was close for quite some time. Mr. Jabbar came out strangely groggy virtually conceding the first two rounds. He then clawed one back when Dr. Hoodbhoy slipped on the mat in Round 3. The next four rounds were drawn as neither contestant threw any convincing punches. Dr. Hoodbhoy was much more sure-footed in the last three rounds and Mr. Jabbar just wilted under the pressure.

The big surprise, indeed the big puzzle, was why Mr. Jabbar put up such a weak performance. He is by all accounts a seasoned professional but his skills were conspicuous by their absence. This is all the more a mystery because he was fighting on his own turf. Dr. Hoodbhoy’s remarks had been snipped out of a longer speech while Mr. Jabbar had all the time at his disposal to prepare his response. 

The only conclusion one can draw is that Mr. Jabbar really did not intend to engage with Dr. Hoodbhoy at the intellectual level. It was as if he saw his reward not in the contest but just in the showing up and being recognised. Stranger things have happened.

If the latter is indeed the case, it is a great pity because the issues being contested were of the highest importance. They are not, as many claim, old history that ought to be left behind in the interest of moving on. In fact, each one of them casts a big shadow on the present and weighs on the directions that are possible for the future.

Take the national question, for example. It was instrumental in the breakup of the country in 1971 and continues to mar relations between the Centre and the provinces to this day. Or, take the issue of a centralizing ideology that severely constricts the paths leading to the future. Not only that, it constrains both civil liberties and regional relations that are vital for the development of the country.

Among the most important questions is the determination of the intended beneficiaries of the struggle for Pakistan. For whom was the country intended and how has the reality played out? Both ideology and the national question have a bearing on the answer to that question. Pakistan has been badly left behind in the world because of the unexamined burden it has been carrying, a fact that is illustrated starkly by the faster progress in the erstwhile East Pakistan across all indicators that matter for the welfare of ordinary citizens. 

It is in this context that one should express one’s gratitude to Dr. Hoodbhoy for continuously raising the issues that many would like to brush under the rug. The fact that many viewers of the video produced by Javed Jabbar labelled Dr. Hoodbhoy “anti-national” for his efforts is greatly to be regretted. Dr. Hoodbhoy could easily have been a chaired professor at any of the leading universities in the world. The fact that he has chosen to train students in Pakistan and fight a lonely fight needs to be acknowledged, lauded, and appreciated.

The fact that Dr. Hoodbhoy is on solid ground is evident from the way Mr. Jabbar has conceded the former’s primary assertions even while trying his best to whitewash them. On Bangladesh, Mr. Jabbar’s response was “The massacres that occurred in which thousands of Bangladeshi brethren were killed was unpardonable.”  On Balochistan, he said “They want the fulfillment of their rights, which we owe to them.” On the role of the armed forces, he said “sometimes that role is not what the armed forces should have done. For example, coming in to the political sphere, the armed forces should not have done that.” Mr. Jabbar had no answer to Dr. Hoodbhoy’s claim that Pakistan was in a state of confusion; the best he could do was to redefine confusion as something desirable. Mr. Jabbar’s labelling of Dr. Hoodbhoy’s statements as “quarter truths, half truths, or no truths” is belied and his assertion insufficient to make them so.

These are major concessions by Mr. Jabbar confirming the strength of Dr. Hoodbhoy’s arguments. In an intellectual debate, readers have to learn to engage with the arguments on their merits and need to have the moral courage to acknowledge the truth even when it goes against their deepest convictions. Only the ability to come to terms with the past can guarantee a better future. The fact that Dr. Hoodbhoy’s tone is deemed aggressive and Mr. Jabbar’s gentle ought not to distract intelligent people from the merits of the views being expressed.

The future of Pakistan and its suffering people rests in the hands of its young students. It is their obligation to debate the tough issues and develop the ability to distinguish platitudes from truth no matter how unpalatable.     

The analyst, a PhD from Stanford University, was Dean at the Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS) and Provost at Habib University in Karachi. He is the author of Transgressions: Poems Inspired by Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Delhi 2019, Karachi 2020.

This analysis was originally published as a 12-part series in Sindh Courier and was cross-posted on the Eqbal Ahmed Centre for Public Education.

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Count the Dead

June 15, 2020

By Anjum Altaf

The relatively low number of Covid-19 deaths reported in South Asia continue to puzzle analysts. While the low numbers might be true for reasons yet to be fully confirmed, there are now serious charges of undercounting. 

Reports of undercounting have been circulating in India for a while but now an investigative piece in the London Telegraph has leveled charges of deliberate malfeasance. It claims to have seen written orders to a West Bengal hospital that in case of Covid-positive determinations, the cause is not be recorded on death certificates. A doctor at a government hospital in Cooch Behar is reported as saying: “We were ordered to strictly refrain from using the word ‘Corona’ in the death certificates until it gets a nod from the state government’s opaque committee.” In Pakistan, doctors told the newspaper that “deaths were being undercounted because of stigma around the disease and public resentment at strict burial regulations.”

Such charges need investigation without delay. If proven false, it would validate the low mortality rate and enable the countries to confidently move towards resumption of normal life with necessary precautions. If true, the danger of a looming unmanageable and damaging crisis becomes very real. Undercounting, by promoting a sense of complacency, does not do anyone any good. Truth will out in the end simply because the dead do not disappear.

This suggests a very simple, inexpensive, and transparent check — COUNT THE DEAD.

This is the check that is signalling trouble in India. Staff at a crematorium near Kolkata say “we used to cremate 15 to 20 bodies usually in a week, prior to the arrival of Covid. But now we receive that number of dead bodies in a single day.” The municipal corporations of Delhi have reported 426 corona positive cremations or burials while the Delhi government’s official bulletin has reported 194 Covid deaths during the same period. In Ahmedabad, a graveyard reported 376 burials in the first 25 days of May compared to just 61 in the same period last year.

Similar trends have been noticed in other places. Moscow has reported 20 percent higher fatalities in April 2020 compared to its average April mortality total over the past decade. In New York City, between March 11 and May 2, “there have been 23,000 more deaths than would normally be expected, while only 18,706 deaths have been reported from Covid-19, suggesting that up to 4,300 additional people may have died from the virus.” In Paris, March-April deaths were 89 percent in excess of same period in 2019 but in early May the excess had fallen to just 6 percent as the epidemic was controlled. 

A very simple first check would be to count the total number of burials in Lahore and Karachi starting from the date the first case was reported and compare them with the same-period averages over the past few years. Any significant deviation from the norm should trigger an alert for further investigations. The burial counts would also be tallied against the numbers reported by the city authorities to address the concerns about undercounting.   

Needless to say, the number of burials would need to be adjusted for inadvertent impacts of the lockdown, e.g., fewer deaths because of reduced environmental pollution and vehicular traffic and increased deaths because of lack of access to medical care for non-Covid diseases. These adjustments are not difficult to make but may not be needed initially. Any significant deviation from comparable periods in previous years would alert authorities to some abnormality. On the other hand, the absence of an upswing could suggest that even if the infection was spreading (something that cannot be confirmed without large-scale testing), it was not resulting in above-average number of deaths or hospitalizations. This would provide a platform for further analysis.

My attempts at pursuing this inquiry have been stymied because most graveyards in Lahore and Karachi either do not retain this information or are unwilling to release it. This is quite in keeping with the tradition where either data is not valued or every minor piece of it is treated like a state secret whose key is tucked away in the waistband of someone with no respect for research. This harmless data should be in the public domain and readily accessible as it has been in other countries for hundreds of years. Daniel Defoe’s account of the 1665-1666 plague in London (A Journal of the Plague Year) begins with a listing of the weekly bills of death posted by the infected parishes in the city. The contemporaneous diary of Samuel Pepys of the same plague mentions the bills of mortality,” the weekly tallies of burials printed by the Company of Parish Clerks in London.

My request to those who are forever blabbering about transforming Pakistan into the cutting edge of global research is to start by paying attention to the little things. City authorities should mandate graveyards to release what information they have and to immediately begin recording burials if they are not doing so already. Count the dead because in this case the dead may have tales to tell.

The writer was Dean of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at LUMS. This opinion appeared in The News on June 1, 2020 and is reproduced here with the author’s permission.

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Mixed Messages

May 19, 2020

By Anjum Altaf

Between the commencement of Ramzan and the easing of the lockdown, I was at the wrong end of a rant for advocating the avoidance of congregations in mosques. A gentleman accused people like me of hypocrisy for continuing to drink at the Punjab Club while keeping the devout from visiting the House of God.

I am not a member of the Punjab Club but was sufficiently intrigued to investigate what was going on there. I was informed that everything was closed except for the bakery and that home deliveries were continuing for members who wished to entertain and had sent their cooks home. It also came out that tennis had been restarted but a couple of days later a rather urgent message affirmed it was discontinued. This was the first time I had influenced an action in Pakistan though undoubtedly the outcome owed more to a rather secretive and privileged institution wishing to avoid being thrust into the limelight. 

This experience whetted my curiosity as to what might be going on at other places unfamiliar to me. Enquiries about the Islamabad Club were rewarded with a notification from the management stating the following:

“The management has decided to open the track of Islamabad Club Polo Grounds (ICPG) strictly for walking or jogging only. This facility will be for the use of Club members and their families only. No guests or sporting activities shall be allowed, nor food and beverages or any other services will be available to the members.”

My position from the outset had been that parks should have remained open but still the fact that the ICPG was open for members and their families to walk or jog while my neighbourhood park remains padlocked for cooped up children even after the lockdown’s easing struck me as inconsistent and inequitable.

What was going on? Who wanted to impose the lockdown and who were the people who believed it need not constrain their lives? Were they the same or different “elites”? What was even more confusing was that even the self-proclaimed “non-elites” were indulging in the same behavior. Images of our Covid war-room showed the gentlemen sitting close to each other without bothering to wear masks. Ditto for ministers attending some ceremony or the other surrounded by unmasked minions. The message from on high was that social distancing and the like were for plebians only.

Unlike the USA and UK where macho men like Trump and Johnson are the butt of jokes, people here take political and religious role-models seriously, especially when they want to, and given the precariousness of the situation, the under-preparedness of the health system, the already low compliance with state directives, these sort of mixed messages are downright dangerous. 

All this is not helped by the fact that our leaders do not speak the language of the plebians, something I sensed at the time they wanted to uplift the poor via the Millenium Development Goals (MDGs). Hoping to make my contribution by disseminating their message to beneficiaries, I realized there was no equivalent term in local languages that could convey what was underway. Much scratching around yielded “sadsala tarraqiati ahdaf” which was no better comprehended by the beneficiaries.

The MDG was harmless circus. It provided a good living for all the huffers and puffers without a deleterious impact on society — the status quo remained unchanged. The fact that those involved did not take it seriously themselves became obvious when its 15-year life ended in ignominious failure in 2015 only for it to be replaced, without any post-mortem, by the gravy train of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) with yet another 15-year lease of life.

The situation with the Covid-19 epidemic is different because miscommunication is no longer harmless; it can result in a serious loss of lives. As a knee-jerk reaction to what was happening in other countries, our government too announced a natiion-wide “lockdown” but without clearly spelling out what it entailed. Everyone had their own interpretation. Asides from the obvious binary cases like schools and colleges, it was not clear what was open or shut. 

As one example, private medical clinics remained open in Kohat but closed in Peshawar. One doctor in Peshawar, who sees about 25 patients a day, said four of her patients died for lack of attention during the closure. Aggregate that ratio over private clinics in the city and more people might have died from lack of care than from the Covid-19 epidemic.

What did “lockdown” mean? Once again I scoured Urdu language outlets but came up with nothing besides “laakdown” except for one occurrence of “bandish-e fa’aliyat” of which the less said the better. Even a high school student could have done better than that with “taala bandi” given our long aquaintance with “naaka bandi.” 

I suppose the plebians might have reacted too negatively to “taala bandi” as an imposition and it was considered better to leave them with the ambiguous “laakdown” or “bandish-e fa’aliyat.” As a result, almost everything that could stay open stayed open, people freely rubbed shoulders in crowded places, travelled between cities when they could, all the time complaining of the disappearance of their jobs.

Ditto for social distancing. In the padlocked neighbourhood park I mentioned earlier, I saw six guards breaking their fast sitting around one small table while many others remained unoccupied. Either they did not comprehend what social distancing meant or they did not think much of it like our warriors in the Covid control room. I didn’t try to find a local equivalent for the term given the overwhelming potency of the signalling from the top.

And what to say of the ad nauseam regurgitation of the term “flattening the curve” in a place where most have never seen a graph or a curve in their lives except for the kind that graced the giant film billboards of yesteryears. 

Now the “lockdown” has been eased and, to make confusion worse confounded, we are moving to “smart lockdowns.” May the Good Lord keep us under His protection. 

The writer is the author of Transgressions: Poems Inspired by Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Delhi 2019, Karachi 2020. This opinion was published in Sindh Courier on May 15, 2020 and is reproduced here with the author’s permission.

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Parsing the Epidemic

May 5, 2020

By Anjum Altaf

Whoever is advising the leadership on the Coronavirus epidemic is doing a poor job.

The Prime Minister is reported as saying that the lockdown has been imposed by the uncaring “elites” because they feared the poor would carry the infection with them into the posh areas. However, he is said to have added that the outbreak has shown the disease does not discriminate; it affects everyone whether rich or poor implying that the “elites” are not just uncaring, they are also stupid. 

Personally, one can agree that the “elites” (whoever they are) are uncaring and indifferent whenever anything outside their personal interests is involved. One can also agree that the lockdown, in the form it was implemented, was a bad decision; it was premature, driven by panic, and not sensitive to the specificities of local conditions. In particular, to the fact that, thanks to the “elites,” this is a country where the vast majority, day after day, eats what it earns that day. Leave aside that it has to refrain from eating the basic caloric minimum to put money aside for the rent and water to be paid at the end of the month. Given that, a prohibition on large gatherings and closure of colleges was understandable but preventing vendors from plying their trades was not wherever such activities could have been accommodated within the guidelines of wearing masks and social distancing. After all, if a concession could be made for congregational prayers, it could equally have been made for many other activities that were carried out in much less confined spaces.  

Be that as it may, I don’t really think it was the “elites” who came up with the decision to impose the lockdown. The likely reason points more to the dependency for ideas and money on the West that the Prime Minister decried in the same address. These kinds of decisions, because of an almost complete lack of local competence and the displacement of what little exists by sinecures, are almost always deferred to international agencies who advise on policies and to donor agencies who funnel the funds to implement them. This phenomenon was witnessed very clearly during the 2005 earthquake. The lockdown, this time around, was most likely a function of the WHOs one-policy-fits-all-poor-countries dictate that could not be denied for fear of drying up the funding pipeline. Its nation-wide implementation was a function of our leadership’s one-size-fits-all-regions response which required the least amount of thinking consistent with the capacity of the intellectual resources spread across its kitchen cabinet. 

What is really of concern, however, are the mental models that are driving the actions of our leadership. Start with dependency which should be the simplest concept to grasp. In what sense are we against it when the Prime Minister’s own cock-and-hen scheme was lauded for its invention and affirmation by Bill Gates? For confirmation of the contradiction between word and deed, just keep watching how all the post-Covid recovery policies are turned over to the UNDP, World Bank and IMF to be funded by USAID, DFID and the like. Meanwhile, local outfits, some part of the government itself, are rendered invisible despite them busting their behinds to get noticed. 

Move next to “elites” whose interpretation defies all comprehension. Listening to the speeches, one gets the impression that “elites” refers to those who ruled in the past, a meaning that can be found in no dictionary. The dictionary defines “elite” as “a select group that is superior in terms of ability or qualities to the rest of a group or society” while in political and sociological theory, the “elite” are a small group of powerful people who hold a disproportionate amount of wealth, privilege, political power, or skill in a society.”  

In the first, meritocratic, sense, there is nothing necessarily evil about belonging to an elite group — the Prime Minister himself rightly and deservedly belongs to a sporting elite for which honour he worked very hard. In the second sense, of a small group with disproportionate wealth, privilege, or political power, there is no way that the present leadership can be distinguished from previous leaderships. Of course, within this traditional “elite” some sub-groups hold more firepower than others which can yield one interpretation of the Prime Minister’s lament of helplessness. In any case, there is no convolution of meaning that can convince an audience that a small group with disproportionate amount of wealth, privilege or political power can transform itself into a “non-elite” just by being honest. A belief in any such conceptualization is the sign of deep delusion.

There is a lethal corollary to what the “elites” have wrought in Pakistan with immensely damaging consequences for the “non-elites.” In any normal polity, public intellectuals are a part of the meritocratic elite holding themselves at a certain critical distance from the power elite which they are supposed to hold accountable. But in the upside-down world of this country, “public” intellectuals are also vetted and promoted by the power elite, with self-selection being the outcome of choice, quite independent of credentials or prior performance in any field whatsoever. Loyalty is the currency in demand and dissenting voices are obviously “disloyal.” 

Finally, and most worryingly, there is the mental model of the virus itself which is supposed not to discriminate but afflict rich and poor alike. This model leads straightaway to a vision in which the rich can exercise their power and privilege to barricade themselves against the poor lest the latter carry the infection into the enclaves of the former. With everyone being equally vulnerable, the rich have to buy their survival at the expense of the poor.

But all the available evidence that has gone abegging defies this presumption. The virus, in all other places, has quite disproportionately affected the poor, the marginalized, and those already suffering from other ailments. It has disproportionately affected the old as against the young and men as against women. It has also disproportionately affected people living in dense areas as opposed to those with space at their disposable. In short, the virus has discriminated in all sorts of ways, an appreciation of which could have yielded much more targeted measures than a blunt lockdown ridiculously aimed in some imaginations to barricade the rich against the poor.

The Prime Minister’s heart is clearly in the right place beating for the well-being of the poor deprived of their livelihoods while the rich, in their comfortable isolation, experiment with baking sourdough breads. But, it seems, his ear is not tuned to the sources that can guide him in following his heart to the right remedies. This couldn’t have been more obvious than the sight of him, signalled to the entire nation, sitting with folded hands behind a tearful cleric-in-residence who aimed to turn the entire crisis into a morality play quite like what it must have been in medieval plagues when science as we know it was yet to be born.

And, here is the supreme irony of framing the crisis in moral terms as the wages of our sins. While the virus discriminates between rich and poor, young and old, women and men, all for reasons that can be fathomed, it does not discriminate between the religious and the irreligious, the devout and the impious, the faithful and the faithless, the worshipper and the non-worshipper, the honest and the dishonest. So much for the tearful moral explanation that has been discarded centuries earlier by all those from whom we are now condemned to borrow both ideas and money.

A caveat is necessary here for those quick to blame the vast majority of citizens for giving credence to such moral interpretations and for attributing crises to an angry providence. It is the “elites” who have, quite consciously and deliberately, kept them sheltered from even the slightest exposure to a scientific mindset lest, God forbid, they become curious and actually begin to march towards the rich enclaves in search of answers. Ignorance and fear among the many remain the surest guarantees of the continuation of “elite” rule.

So much has been revealed by this virus.

Anjum Altaf has a PhD from Stanford University. This opinion appeared in Sindh Courier on May 4. 2020 and is reproduced here with the author’s permission. 

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Mapping the Virus: A Research Proposal

May 2, 2020

By Anjum Altaf

Pakistan, like many other countries, is flying dark in this Coronavirus pandemic. Very little is known for certain and what little is becoming known is not being factored into the decision-making. As a result, policies are are almost entirely reactive, based largely on fear, the happenings of the previous day, the push and pull of various influential lobbies.

Given this muddle, the most blunt and expensive set of measures built around a country-wide lockdown have been imposed in the country in a knee-jerk mimicry of actions taken in countries like Italy where the virus spread with great rapidity. 

There was not much contextual analysis of how feasible these set of measures might be in a country like Pakistan. To start with, a complete lockdown is an impossibility, a truth that can be confirmed by just venturing out to any market on any particular day. This is inevitable in an economy where one or more members of over half the urban households have to go out to earn what they eat that day. In theory, this could have been mitigated if provisions to meet their daily needs could have been delivered to households deprived of earning opportunities. But such arrangements on the scale required are impossible in a society without any public safety net whatsoever.  

Just as infeasible was the advice to maintain social distancing. The density at which the majority of urban residents live makes that impossible. Once again, one has to venture out on the street to see the extent to which the advice is being followed — three people on a motorbike makes a mockery of social distancing. Washing hands frequently requires water and soap, the buying of which for many households is a tradeoff at the margin with an item to eat. At the very least, such advice needed to be backed up with a free or subsidised supply of the commodities. 

More than a month into the so-called lockdown, which does not preclude people using their personal transport to move within cities or between cities and provinces, there is absolutely no sense if the set of measures has had any impact on the spread of the virus. And, there is no way of assessing the relative contribution, if any, of the various measures in the policy package. As a result, there is no basis to decide if and when the lockdown ought to be relaxed and which measure is to be withdrawn first if a phase-out is to be pursued. Quite to the contrary, the relaxations are being driven by industry lobbies, i.e., construction (which should not have been restricted in the first place), or the threat of social groups, i.e., clerics (whose self-serving demand merited no consideration whatsoever).

In a society with a research-minded leadership, all this could well have been factored into an intelligent research design. For example, Kohat district which has just recorded three deaths to date, could have done without the lockdown and experimented with simpler measures like masks. If the infections had spiked, social distancing and/or a lockdown could then have been introduced. It is indeed ironic that, quite without thinking, this is exactly what has been done with the relaxation for Ramzan prayers in mosques under a set of operating procedures under the proviso that the dispensation would be withdrawn if infections spiked. Indeed, given the variation in the country, such an experimental approach could even have accommodated hypotheses linking the severity of the virus to the length of women’s sleeves or men’s trousers for that matter.    

Add to all the above, no benefit is being derived even from the evidence that has become available from other countries. For one, it is quite clear that Covid-19 related deaths are predominantly among the very old and, even within this group, among those with other pre-existing conditions. For another, there are a number of countries that have not gone for the blunt and expensive lockdown strategy and have not had any the worse outcomes compared to those that have. This type of evidence should factor into a review of the policies put in place at the outset. For example, does it make sense to keep parks closed while mosques are open? And should elementary schools remain closed or could they open with social distancing teaching students through a two-days-a-week rotation?

What then is to be done in the situation we are in now related both to the progress of epidemic itself and a decision-making apparatus that is incapable of data gathering and analysis on any systematic or meaningful scale? Let us start with the two numbers that are displayed daily on the dashboards of virtually all our media outlets — the running total of the number of confirmed cases and the number of deaths resulting from them. The first number is not of much use since, in the absence of an adequate number of tests, it tells nothing about how many people might be infected in the country. Its only utility is that we can get a sense of the trend in whatever reality it is measuring, most likely a subset of the number of people going to hospitals with symptoms.

The second number is not of much greater use either. It is most likely the number of people expiring in hospitals whose death certificates record the cause of death as Covid-19. We don’t know for sure if the death was due to Covid-19 or of some other condition exacerbated by the virus. We don’t know the age, sex, or income level of those who have died. Nor do we have any clue to the number who might have died of Covid-19 at home without ever making it to the hospital. Once again, the number is useful only for indicating a trend in whatever it is measuring. Both the indicators are doubling to date every seven to eight days since the first Covid-19 deaths were reported on March 18 and the country-wide lockdown was imposed. These trends should be source of continued concern. But, by itself, this number of daily deaths (20 to 30) is no comparison, by many orders of magnitude, to the total number of deaths that occur in the country every day (approximately around 4,000).

What is really needed is some idea of the prevalence of Covid-19 in the country, its lethality, the extent of the immunity that has been built up, and the identification of hotspots, if any. Only then can there emerge a sensible and targeted strategy of isolation, quarantine, and healthcare facilities on the one hand, and opening up of some activities, like elementary schools and parks, on the other.

This however is too much to expect — we will simply not have serological testing at the scale required to ascertain prevalence nor the randomized testing to identify hotspots. We have to figure out what we can do with the very sparse data that is relatively easier to obtain and understand. [As a digression, I would like to mention that as a Professor of Economics and Dean, I was always intrigued by new faculty members returning from research universities in the USA and Europe with PhD degrees based on extensive and reliable data sets available there. Within a year they were complaining that they felt handicapped because similar time-series data of good quality was not available in Pakistan. It seemed to me that this was something they should have thought through before embarking on their dissertations and focused instead on getting the most out of the kind of sparse information available in Pakistan.] 

In this regard, one good suggestion I came across in a newspaper was to monitor the number of patients with acute respiratory disorders admitted to ERs or ICUs of major hospitals. This statistic, collected from a nationally representative set of hospitals, could be compared with the corresponding statistic for the same time period in the previous year. It would yield a sense for what is different during the current epidemic and the extent to which the epidemic is manifesting itself in a higher case load which would be one reasonably good indication of how different is the situation as a result of the epidemic. Is it really a crisis, a minor bump, or just hype triggered by fear?

A second, equally simple, complementary indicator could be obtained by monitoring a nationally representative set of graveyards in the country. Tracking the number of burials per week (for which permission records are kept) and comparing them to the corresponding period a year ago would yield a sense of the lethality of the virus. It would correct for the possibility that many Covid-19 affectees are not showing up at hospitals and dying unattended and unrecorded. It would also capture the possible indirect impact of the lockdown that should not be ignored — that the number of deaths due to other diseases might spike because of either lack of medical care,  non-availability of transport, inability to afford medicines, shortage of funds to buy enough food, or just plain deaths of depression and despair.

Of course, this statistic would need some adjustments. Just as the average number of deaths could increase because of the indirect effects of the lockdown mentioned above, they could also go the other way because of a likely decrease in the number of traffic accidents and deaths due to air pollution which has dropped dramatically since the lockdown. However, these are adjustments that can be made relatively easily by a competent graduate student. If there are excess deaths over the comparable period of a year ago, it would be a robust signal of the seriousness of the epidemic and help pinpoint hotspots. If, however, there are few excess deaths, it could indicate that even if the prevalence of infection is high the fatality rate is so low as to not be a cause for panic.

A continued monitoring of trends in the two statistics already being reported in the newspapers complemented by data on the two indicators suggested in this article should provide sufficient information to determine if the panic induced blunt and expensive suppression measures need to be continued or whether much less expensive measures like wearing masks and washing hands might be quite enough to contain the epidemic. 

Continuous monitoring of these simple indicators would be enough to tell us fairly soon if this epidemic is really something to fear or whether it is just a more difficult version of the regular flu as some have begun to claim. If the former, harsher measures could be reintroduced later. If the latter, life could start returning to normal with basic precautions merited by common sense. The millions of despairing people out of jobs deserve a better and more informed set of policies.

The writer earned a PhD from Stanford University. This opinion appeared in Sindh Courier on April 30, 2020 and is reproduced here with the author’s permission. 

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Hold the Hurrahs

April 29, 2020

By Anjum Altaf

A number of congratulatory articles have lauded the containment of the Covid epidemic in Pakistan based on the relatively smaller number of deaths to date (222) compared to those in the USA (47,973) and Italy (25,085). The authors have also offered a number of explanations for this difference ranging from outstanding management to contextual variations. 

I would love these people to be right but would urge caution. The conclusion could be premature owing to a lack appreciation of the nature of exponential growth. Take a look at the number of Covid-related deaths in Pakistan. The first two were reported on March 18. Since then, the cumulative numbers at weekly intervals up to April 21 are as follows: 7, 26, 55, 96, 192. Ignoring the initial turbulence, the number of deaths are doubling roughly every seven days.

The lockdown along with its associated measures went into effect on March 18 but there has been no impact on the doubling time. This is contrary to the experience in many countries where the doubling time has lengthened considerably. One is forced to conclude that the lockdown in Pakistan has been largely ineffective which should not be a surprise if one has kept one’s eyes open to its enforcement. 

The reality is that the curve of infections and therefore of deaths has not flattened at all. Extrapolate the number of deaths to see where the trajectory might be headed. Staring from 192 deaths on April 21, the sequence would be as follows at one-week intervals: 384, 768, 1,536, 3,072, 6,144, 12,288, 24,576, 49,152, 98,304, 196,608. By 23 June, just two months from now, the number of deaths could be in the neighbourhood of 200,000.

Only a miracle can prevent this outcome because the crisis management has been inadequate. Even stretching the doubling rate from 7 to 14 days would only postpone the inexorable trajectory of exponential growth. What is needed to beat the virus are measures that cause the number of new cases to decline as they did in China. The likelihood of that happening in Pakistan is low because preventive measures have been muddled — recall that Hubei province was sealed off for two months and residents in Wuhan were similarly sealed inside their homes.

While uncertainties related to the virus and its transmission remain, a simple explanation can suffice for the seemingly huge difference to date between the deaths in the USA and Italy compared to Pakistan. Just one variable, the starting point, can be central. The number of foreign visitors per day in these countries probably exceeds the total number that arrive in Pakistan in a year. For a hypothetical order-of-magnitude comparison, suppose that by mid-February, before any preventive measures were put in place, 5,000 infected persons had arrived in the USA, 2,500 in Italy, and 10 in Pakistan. Use uniform doubling times of 7 days and mortality rates of 2% to project the number of deaths in the three countries. The pattern should become obvious. Pakistan appears to be doing much better at the moment but it is at most two months behind — that is the amazing arithmetic of exponential growth; once it passes an inflexion point the initial differences become irrelevant.

This is not to deny contextual differences. The virus is disproportionately affecting individuals over 60 years of age and the fraction in this cohort is much smaller in Pakistan. It transmits more in dense locations and Pakistan is over 50% rural. It is more lethal for low-income individuals with co-morbidities and in Pakistan such individuals have a low life-expectancy anyway. But even adjusting for these, the pool of vulnerable people in a country of 220 million remains huge (between 2 to 3 million low-income people over the age of 60 in urban Pakistan). Thus, despite the differences, the potential for the number of deaths to climb into the tens of thousands remains real.

There is great need to be realistic and cautious and to address the crisis with the seriousness it deserves. I would urge everyone to read the story that illustrates exponential growth. A sage impressed a chess-loving king and was promised anything he asked for. He requested the following: One grain of rice to be placed on the first square of the chessboard and the number doubled on each succeeding square. The chess board has 64 squares. It would be worth the reader’s while to go through with this computation. 

Now relate this to the Covid-19 crisis. Consider the number of dead to be 1 on March 18 and double this number at the end of each week. Compute the number of dead after 64 weeks if nothing works in the interim to change the trajectory. Of course, this exponential growth cannot continue for ever because after a point the population to be infected will get exhausted. But terrible damage can occur well before that point is reached.

The writer has a PhD from Stanford University. This opinion appeared in The Sindh Courier on April 27, 2020 and is reproduced here with the author’s permission.

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Rules and Discretion

January 17, 2020

By Anjum Altaf

What should be the allowance for discretion in the application of rules? This ought to be a contextual determination and one can use recent events in the worlds of cricket and politics to argue where the line ought to be drawn in Pakistan.

Healthy institutions rely on discretion to take advantage of unforeseen opportunities when changing rules would consume valuable time causing opportunities to be lost. But there is a huge caveat in this simple formulation: that discretion is to be employed for a higher purpose and not self-interest. The more upright the office-bearers of an institution, the more the availability of discretion can lead to gains in efficiency and achievement.

But what happens when office-bearers cannot be trusted to place institutional gains over self-interest? The damage from the abuse of discretion can result in losses far outweighing any possible gains from their legitimate use. In such situations, it would be best to stick to inflexible rules and sacrifice the possible gains that remain purely hypothetical in the absence of the integrity that is a perquisite for their beneficial use.

Let us turn now to Pakistan where it seems that every man has become a blind adherent of Adam Smith believing that it is the self-interest of the baker and the butcher that advances the welfare of society. This may be fine as far as the private sphere is concerned although in actuality it is problematic even there — it presumes, for example, the butcher acting within some ethical norms and not peddling donkey meat to maximize his gain. But the presumption does not hold at all when an individual is made responsible for a public trust. In such a situation, the individual is required to act in the public interest and not his own.

In Pakistan we have allegedly reached the point where every man is a butcher who is in it for himself. No doubt there are exceptions but they have withdrawn from the jungle in which only the most dishonest can survive or advance. Even if this allegation is not strictly true, as long as it is the general perception the ill-effects are bound to show up one way or another. And it is hard to deny that the general perception is precisely this, embedded into our psyches by our own leaders. As a reality check, there is one simple challenge: identify one major project in Pakistan since its creation that has not been scarred by a scam. And, in case there is one to be found, do furnish an assurance that a dormant scam would not be discovered a quarter of a century from now.

One should note that there is no lack of sanctimonious messiahs who decry the abuse of discretion when wandering in the wilderness. But just watch their actions when the very same people are entrusted with positions of trust. Therefore, the bottom line of this argument is that, no matter what anyone might say, we have to minimize discretion in Pakistan at least for this phase of our existence. We may forego the advantages of being fleet-footed but we would also not suffer the damage from being incompetent or dishonest. On balance, we would be better off sticking to some set of rules without discretion.

Take cricket, for example, where the team selected recently to tour Australia was deemed the worst ever to have visited that country. There is very little doubt that personal likes and dislikes have plagued Pakistani sports for decades and that the discretion allowed to selectors has resulted in gross injustice and heartbreak for many excellent performers in domestic tournaments. One way out of this unsavoury morass would be eliminate the discretion and select teams based exclusively on performance in first class matches. The two to three top performing players would qualify automatically for each position and be rotated in the national teams. A detailed set of rules could be specified to operationalize this process. There is no doubt that one would lose out on fast-tracking an occasional superstar like Wasim Akram but in general the team would be better off without the sidelining of scores of excellent players like Fawad Alam.

The crisis in politics from the arbitrary use of discretion is even more dangerous for the country. This is well illustrated by the recent controversy over the extension of the Chief of Army Staff’s tenure. This situation is particularly egregious because discretion has been employed in the absence of any provision to grant a legitimate extension. The judiciary has highlighted the abnormality and rightly recommended that proper rules be put in place. But, once again, given the track record of office-holders, there should be no room for allowance of any discretion in such sensitive matters. The most senior officer should automatically be appointed COAS (could anyone be actually worse than Zia ul Haq?) and there should be no provision for extension of tenure (there is no one really that indispensable).

The poor outcomes that result from the abuse of discretion are not the only damaging consequences that ensue from dishonest practice. Much more destructive is the societal ethos that takes root when discretion is routinely abused for patronage and individual gain on the basis of personal preferences. It engenders an environment in which people abandon the pursuit of merit and gravitate towards either bootlicking and grovelling for favours or the outright purchase of offices and positions. And once such a set of individuals entrench themselves in positions of advantage the malady just reinforces itself over time. No honest or meritorious person can be allowed to break into the system for fear of overturning the applecart.

Pakistan is very deep in a crisis of governance because of the blatant and unchallenged misuse of discretion over decades. The practice has been highlighted fortuitously by the recent egregious consequences in cricket and politics. We ought to take advantage of these exposures to begin to stress the primacy of rules and to eliminate room for the abuse of discretion.

This opinion was published in Dawn on January 5, 2020 and is reproduced here with the author’s permission. The writer was the dean of the school of humanities and social sciences at LUMS.

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