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As India evacuates from Wuhan, why is Pakistan insisting on keeping its citizens at coronavirus ground zero?

Last week, Dawn quoted a senior aide to Prime Minister Imran Khan as saying: “We believe that right now, it is in the interest of our loved ones in China [to stay there]. It is in the larger interest of the region, world, country that we don’t evacuate them now".

By: Explained Desk | New Delhi | Updated: February 2, 2020 9:03:04 pm
coronavirus, coronavirus death toll, coronavirus in India, Indian students in Wuhan, coronavirus India, coronavirus cases in India, coronavirus symptoms, coronavirus causes, Express Explained, Indian Express Pakistan says it is keeping its citizens in the danger zone out of “solidarity” with China.

Several videos have appeared in social media about Pakistani students in Wuhan complaining about the failure of their government to evacuate them from ground zero of the novel coronavirus that has now infected over 14,000 individuals and killed more than 300.

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This is happening even as India has flown out two planeloads of its citizens from Wuhan, and countries around the world are increasingly walling off China to contain the spread of the infection.

Why has Pakistan taken this position?

Pakistan says it is keeping its citizens in the danger zone out of “solidarity” with China.

Pakistan also says it would be “irresponsible” to take an “emotional decision” and pull out its citizens from China.

Last week, Dawn quoted a senior aide to Prime Minister Imran Khan as saying: “We believe that right now, it is in the interest of our loved ones in China [to stay there]. It is in the larger interest of the region, world, country that we don’t evacuate them now.

“This is what the World Health Organisation is saying, this is China’s policy and this is our policy as well. We stand by China in full solidarity. If we act irresponsibly and start evacuating people from there, this epidemic will spread all over the world like wildfire.”

Is Pakistan the only country to take such a line?

There is a clear divergence in the response of the world’s nations to the outbreak.

On the one hand are countries like the United States, Australia, and Singapore, who have temporarily shut their doors to non-citizens who have recently travelled to China.

Vietnam has barred all flights to and from China, and Japan has barred foreigners who have recently been to Hubei, the province at the centre of the outbreak.

Mongolia and Russia have closed their land borders with China. North Korea had been the first country to take this step.

Several major businesses are temporarily cutting ties with China — Apple has shut all 42 of its stores in the mainland, its third biggest market, where it generates about a sixth of its global sales.

But on the other hand, there are countries like Pakistan — as also southeast Asian nations such as Cambodia, Indonesia and Myanmar, where the response has been quieter, and where governments have, in fact, sought to downplay the dangers of the outbreak.

In Myanmar, home remedies are being peddled over loudspeakers, and official and semi-official agencies have been reported to be joking that the virus would not, in the manner of most things “Made in China”, last long; in Indonesia, the government has asked people to relax and work less hard because “to prevent it is very easy as long as your immunity is good”; and Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen told a news conference that anyone who was wearing a mask would be thrown out because it triggered needless panic.

Why are these countries reacting in this way?

With Pakistan, it would appear to be a kind of “live together, die together” sentiment in line with its “higher than the mountains, deeper than the ocean, stronger than steel, and sweeter than honey” friendship with China, its “all-weather ally”.

All these countries also have close dealings with China, and the stern gaze of Beijing is intimidating. China has been touchy about the outbreak, and has described the US travel ban as “not in keeping with the facts” and not “in keeping with friendship”.

China’s handling of the SARS epidemic had been criticised globally, and although it has been acknowledged that it has been much more open and transparent this time, many doctors and health officials in the West remain worried.

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Hun Sen has asked rhetorically: “Is there any Cambodian or foreigner in Cambodia who has died of the disease? The real disease happening in Cambodia right now is the disease of fear. It is not the coronavirus that occurs in China’s Wuhan city.”

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