Pakistan: Interview with The Struggle Leader Awais Qarni
We interviewed with The Struggle Leader Awais Qarni for the current situation of Pakistan about Covid-19. He is also editor of Asian Marxist Review and organizer of the youth organization of The Struggle, Revolutionary Student Front (RSF).
1-As the capitalist crisis combined with the pandemic, it became destructive for the system. Bourgeois economists talk about the biggest recession of 150 years. In order to control the anger of lower classes, governments practice new oppressive/authoritarian politics with and use nationalist propaganda. Could you inform us about the policies of the government after the pandemic started? What are the demands of the poor working people?
A.Q: The COVID-19 outbreak exposed the failure of neo-liberalism on the global scale. The government and authorities of Pakistan didn’t realize the intensity of this fatal virus until mid-march and when they decided to take some actions the virus already spread throughout the country. The main factor that contributed to its spread was the religious groups. At first, the government failed to quarantine the groups coming from Iran, instead there are rumors that they were kept at Pak-Iran border at Taftan, Baluchistan but a government official and very close aide to Prime Minister Imran Khan, Zulfi Bukhari, made sure that these people pass through the border facilities and spread around the country. When the other countries were planning to keep the people, coming from other countries, quarantined for at least fourteen days, an irresponsible and careless act by a Government official has put the entire country at risk. The other main contributor to pandemic spread is a missionary organization, whose high profile leader is very close to the Prime Minister and the military, who were allowed to hold massive public gatherings and travel which is now not only resulting in the huge number of corona patients but also aiding to its spread from cities to the peripheries.
At first, the PM Imran Khan was continuously opposing a countrywide lockdown, just like other right-wing neo-fascist rulers of the world – Bolsonaro, Duterte, Trump etc… but Sindh, the only province ruled by an opposition party, took the lead for the lockdown. With the first phase of fourteen days lockdown the government tried to take measures against the viral spread. During these weeks, the most the government did was that PM Imran Khan spoke to the public and asked for funds, especially from overseas Pakistanis, many times on TV and asked a cleric, the same leader of missionaries who are responsible for the disaster at the first place, to pray on live television shows, in his misogynist remarks the Maulana blamed the ‘immodesty’ of women for the current pandemic crisis. That’s the most they have done to control the pandemic. In the second phase, the lockdown has been relaxed mostly due to the pressure from religious organizations and the business owners, and the clerics who have practically denounced the second phase of lockdown and announced to hold the religious gatherings. Additionally, due to the Islamic fasting month, Ramzan, the government almost lifted the lockdown, unofficially.
The medical staff are fighting this battle on the forefronts, many songs and anthems have been released to praise the medical employees, the police was saluting them. But once the doctors asked for basic Personal Protective Equipment (PPEs) and protested for these genuine demands the same police brutally assaulted them.
For the students, the officials announced online classes. This is a bizarre and absurd decision. It shows how far the ruling elite is from the ground realities. The vast majority of students don’t have access to the basic internet facilities neither have appropriate gadgets nor the teachers have the capability or training of online teaching. Additionally, the private colleges and universities not only issued fee bills but also increased the tuition fee. Pakistan has no infrastructure for modern education techniques. The decision of online classes has been taken in a country where 25 million kids are out of school and have no access to basic education. The students are protesting for a semester break and fee relaxation.
PM Imran Khan also announced a relief package of PKR1.2 trillion, of which only PKR150 billion were allocated for poor families with PKR3000 (18USD) per family. In the skyrocketing inflation PKR3000 is only insult to the injuries. The hidden object is to subsidize the industrialists, exporters and capitalists.
The policymakers and experts do know the fragility of Pakistan’s economy. And they very well understand that the pandemic cannot be controlled without massive measures but they are not able to take such actions. As PM Imran Khan said on 17 March “If we shut down the cities, we will save them from corona at one end, but they will die from hunger on the other side.” Without lockdown the virus will spread massively but they can’t uphold lockdown for a longer period. They cannot provide basic food necessities to the vast majority of the people. This is where Pakistan’s ruling elite has been confined. This dead-end is a historical paradox of comprador capitalism. Within the parameters of the existing economic system there is only catastrophe. Whatever the ruling has done, is doing or will do only deepens of crisis.
2- What were the conditions of the workers and oppressed before the pandemic? What has changed?
A.Q: Even before the pandemic the ruling elite was imposing IMF dictated brutal neo-liberal economic measures. The inflation is continuously rising, the public institutes were being privatized, the health and education budgets were being slashed. The pandemic just exposed the fragility of capitalism and has exacerbated the contradictions. Families are committing suicides and women are being raped by dodgers. The big companies including some multinationals are laying off thousands of workers. The media workers were already the exploited layers and in this pandemic the industry is downsizing the employees and cutting down the wages. There is already huge unemployment and millions of daily wage workers lost livelihood under this crisis. There are estimates that this pandemic will result in doubling the number of below poverty masses.
3- There is a lack of protective personal equipment for healthcare professionals worldwide, even in advanced capitalist countries. Nearly 100 health workers were taken into custody after they took action for the provision of the PPE’s in Pakistan. What can you say about the current situation of health workers, their demands and actions?
A.Q: The doctors, nurses, paramedics, sanitary workers and other hospital staff are the front-line soldiers in this battle against the pandemic. But in Pakistan, even before the corona crisis, the health sector was vulnerable. The current regime had cut down the health budget to almost half, it allocated PKR13.376 billion to the health sector for the fiscal year 2019-20 which is PKR11.65 billion less as compare to the budgetary allocation for the fiscal year of 2018-19.
The official report of National Command and Operation Center, established recently to overcome the pandemic crisis, revealed an alarming situation regarding the medical incapability of Pakistan against COVID-19. At the peak of the corona crisis till the first week of April, Pakistan has only 3844 ventilators and only 20 labs capable of conducting COVID-19 tests. But the international journals contradict the claim by saying it has only 2200 ventilators. Additionally, the country has a vulnerable capacity of 163 test per million. Pakistan has 10 doctors and 6 hospital beds to cater to the needs of 10,000 people. No doubt that the country has surpassed the 13323 active COVID-19 cases, as of today, 27 April.
In this situation the ruling elite is sending medical troops on the battlefield without the ammunition. According to a research by the National Emergency Operation Centre, an approximate of 253 healthcare providers and paramedical staff, so far, have been tested positive for coronavirus. The doctors do not have even the basic personal protective equipment (PPEs). They are fighting on the forefront yet they are the most exposed and vulnerable to this epidemic. The government surrendered before clergy allowing them congregational Tarawih prayers during Ramzan while doctors are begging to extend and strict the lockdown. The doctors are protesting, even the Grand Health Alliance (GHA) went on hunger strike, young doctors are protesting and demanding PPEs and established agitation camps in the hospitals. They are protesting against the government while taking care of patients at the hospital.
4- For years, identity polarization has been the biggest weapon of the ruling classes in the Middle East and Asia. We are now entering a new era. Pakistan and India have a huge worker population without basic living conditions. In India, Modi rules by dividing the laborers around the Hindu-Muslim conflict. What would be the realistic possibilities in terms of the class struggle for the sub-continent in the post-pandemic period?
A.Q: As the most serious advisor of capitalists The Economist wrote in its editorial that India and Pakistan hold a fifth of humanity. True that, but the region also holds 42 percent of world poverty as well. The deprived and oppressed masses are the most vulnerable to the epidemic. The Economist praised Modi’s actions and lockdown strategies but there are hundreds and thousands of workers who all of the sudden have nowhere to go and nothing to work, earn and feed. There are many shocking videos making rounds at social media platforms showing that there is no work and survival in cities, people wanted to move to their villages have no transport. Many are walking on foot for hundreds of miles just to reach their homes. Yet PM Modi is urging the propertied classes to take care of vulnerable families and feed the stray dogs.
Modi has a track record of unnecessary “heroism”, there was a time when all of a sudden, he banned certain banknotes and issued new currency that resulted in huge rush and panic among the lower classes whose life savings were about to become mere pieces of paper. And again, this time, the largest lockdown in history arrived with only four-hour notice at 8 pm on March 24.
Due to the historical belatedness and incompetence, the bourgeoisie of the Subcontinent was never capable of carrying forward tasks of the bourgeoisie democratic revolution and raise the quality of life for the masses. The pandemic proved that incompetence once again. Both the countries’ ruling elite, across the Redcliff Line, miserably failed to cater to the basic needs of life. It’s the millions of deprived workers who have been left to die either of pandemic or poverty and starvation. But as French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau once said “When the poor have nothing more to eat, they will eat the rich!”. So when the workers have nothing to hold they will snatch everything they produce – and that is the Revolution, which is the only Solution!
The ruling elite always used patriotism, nationhood, ethnicity, religion and everything to divide the working class but the history also witnessed the greater power of unity and solidarity of workers. When they enter the arena of class struggle, they fight against the only division of wealth and labor. And a revolutionary movement not only defies such ethnic and religious division it also transcends the geographical divisions. The masses and workers of India and Pakistan not only share the border and common past and memories, they also share culture, language and resistance. We recently witnessed how the students’ movement of both the countries encouraged each other’s resistance.
There is a festering wound of Kashmir that has intentionally been left behind by British Imperialists. Both the countries’ ruling elite always used the Kashmir issue to suppress the movements. Even during the pandemic firing is being continuously exchanged at Line of Control. Unlike the rest of the world the lockdown is not new to Kashmiri people, especially Indian held Kashmir. They were already quarantined for several months. But the Modi regime is still arresting journalists for the so-called treason charges. The situation in Pakistan held Kashmir is a bit different but equally vulnerable as the region mostly survives on foreign remittances and the present disaster of COVID-19 and oil crisis resulting in huge unemployment of workers in the Middle East and Europe. A militant uprising against the misery and deprivation in either part of the South Asia region can spark full-scale movement.
5- The existence of an international socialist organization is essential against the crisis of capitalism. What do you want to say related to this? And is there anything you want to add?
A.Q: In the COVID-19 crisis the need for an international socialist organization expressed its cruciality more than ever. Lenin asserted that capitalism always has a way out, but this time the price is hundreds of millions of lives of the oppressed masses. Capitalism is a vampire living on the blood of deprived classes. The future of mankind lies in Socialism and not in barbarism and for that the working class has to overthrow this historically obsolete system. The working class has to fight this decisive battle on the international scale. A socialist international organization will be a decisive tool to unify this battle.