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Is Pakistan's army deployment an admission of failure?

Mavra Bari Islamabad
April 29, 2021

Prime Minister Imran Khan has asked the military to assist the civilian administration in tackling the pandemic. Pakistan is witnessing a surge in COVID-19 infections and deaths as a "third wave" grips the country.

Army soldiers patrol in a Peshawar market to implement COVID rules
The Pakistani military says it is helping the civilian administration in difficult timesImage: Abdul Majeed/AFP/Getty Images

Pakistan has deployed troops in 16 major cities to assist civilian authorities in enforcing measures to stop the surge in COVID-19 cases. The soldiers will make sure that people are following standard operating procedures (SOPS), including social distancing and masking.

Pakistan is currently witnessing a spike in coronavirus infections. On Wednesday, the Muslim-majority nation recorded 201 deaths from coronavirus, the country's highest single-day toll since the start of the pandemic.

As of Thursday, Pakistan has logged 816,000 confirmed COVID cases and 17,680 related deaths, but experts say the actual figures could be much higher.

The "third wave" has overwhelmed hospitals, with many reporting a shortage of ICU beds, ventilators and oxygen for critically ill patients. Although, the authorities have started a mass vaccination drive, the country lacks doses and the inoculation pace is quite slow.

The military says it is helping the civilian administration in difficult times.

Failure of civil administration?

Unlike leaders of other countries, Prime Minister Imran Khan has decided against imposing a nationwide lockdown. Khan maintains that a lockdown would hurt the economy and put pressure on daily-wage laborers. Alternatively, the government enforced "smart lockdowns" in areas with high positivity rates.

Pakistan struggles to contain third COVID wave

But the government now realizes that the situation is getting out of control and that a lockdown would be necessary in coming days.

Last week, Khan urged people to wear masks and follow COVID rules in a televised address to the nation.

"If we find ourselves in a situation similar to India, we will have to close down cities," Khan said on Friday.

Most Pakistanis are not paying heed to the government's COVID advice. People are offering mass prayers in mosques during the Islamic month of Ramadan, while political parties continue to engage with crowds in different parts of the country.

"The government should be enforcing SOPs, not the army. But we don't have many options now. Had the government imposed stricter measures from the beginning, shut down the wedding halls and stopped mass gatherings, we wouldn't be in this situation," Sarah Kamal, a banker in Islamabad, told DW, adding that Khan failed to communicate effectively with the public by not enforcing lockdowns.

"Now the situation is so dire that the military intervention was needed," she said.

Army's 'efficiency'

Unlike the civil administration and law-enforcement agencies, the  military is known for its discipline and its ability to enforce strict measures.

Qaisar Haroon, who runs a bakery chain in Rawalpindi, told DW that one of his bakeries was sealed by the army "within minutes" because he mistakenly violated curfew rules.

Army troops patrol on a street in Lahore to implement COVID rules
Army troops patrol on a street in Lahore to implement COVID rulesImage: Arif Ali/AFP/Getty Images

"We need the kind of efficiency exhibited by the army to make sure we don't find ourselves in a situation like the one in India," Haroon said.

Hamza Shafqaat, deputy commissioner of Islamabad Police, told DW that Pakistan had a COVID positivity rate of 16% last week, and, since the armybegan assisting, it has fallen to 10%.

"People are fearful of the army. Their symbolic presence is enough to make people follow rules. Unfortunately, police officers do not get the same respect," he said.

Encroachment in civilian spheres

But civil society activists say the enforcement of pandemic measures is the responsibility of the civilian government.

The labor rights activist Farooq Tariq told DW that the army's deployment had implications for civil rights. He said three men were killed in South Waziristan region while the army was implementing pandemic rules.

"Shooting people to enforce SOPs! It is terrible and inhumane. We condemn this state brutality and demand immediate justice," he said.

It is unclear in what circumstances the three men were killed.

Rights groups say that, since coming to power in 2018, Khan has allowed military generals to take over civilian departments.

"From government jobs to business and property, Pakistan's military controls every aspect of society," Tariq alleged.

"The pandemic has provided an opportunity to the military to increase their presence. The military should not have any role in civilian affairs," he added.

Pakistan: Ramadan poses severe challenge to combating COVID