Coronavirus and the failure of Pak-Iran border policy

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By Umer Karim

The coronavirus pandemic has emerged as the most significant challenge of our times. Countries across the globe have been forced to shut down completely in order to contain the spread of the disease and yet, it has wreaked havoc in several countries claiming more than 250,000 deaths. In Pakistan, the virus and its management on the provincial and national levels has laid bare governance lacunas and structural issues hampering its control. Yet the episode has also given us a unique insight into the foreign policy outlook of the country in particular when it comes to its neighbors.
As COVID-19 started to emerge in China, the Pakistani government found itself in a difficult situation. The opening up of Chinese government scholarships had seen a spike in the number of Pakistanis studying in China with a report suggesting that about 19,000 students were enrolled in Chinese educational institutes by 2017. There were about 1,300 students in the Hubei Province of China and 800 in Wuhan city, the epicenter of the pandemic.
The government decided against the repatriation of these students residing in Hubei presumably out of a fear that any such attempt may also inadvertently bring the pandemic to Pakistan where health facilities and infrastructure is not developed enough to cater to such a situation. Families had to endure immense emotional and psychological trauma but this decision at the end of the day helped Pakistan to evade the influx of the virus from China. Later on, even the critics of the government later acknowledged the decision as being the right one. Here it must also be mentioned that Chinese authorities didn’t pressure Pakistan to take its citizens back and were willing to provide stranded students with healthcare.
Unfortunately for Pakistan, the challenge from COVID-19 didn’t end there and was soon haunting the government as the country’s western neighbor Iran emerged as the next epicenter of the virus. Here again, the epicenter was the city of Qom renowned for its profile as a center of Shi’ite learning and shrines. The scale in the Iranian case was evidently much bigger as thousands of pilgrims from Pakistan traveled to Iran throughout the year visiting holy sites and shrines across the country. As the pandemic started to take hold in Iran, most of these pilgrims started returning home. These returnees were to enter Pakistan through the town of Taftan in the province of Balochistan.

Pak-Iran border

The provincial government was clearly concerned by this return of thousands of pilgrims as they might have acquired the virus during their stay in Iran. Also, provincial authorities didn’t have sufficient resources to efficiently enact a quarantine regime at the Pak-Iran border where the returnees could be kept isolated in accordance with health protocols. The events that unfolded next can be analyzed in three domains. The center-province coordination, priorities of the decision makers and Pakistan’s engagement with Iranian authorities.
Since the passage of the 18th constitutional amendment, healthcare has been a provincial subject and the federal government has little power to interfere with the health sector of the provinces. This means that decision makers in the province and within the federal government have to harmonize their respective responses to situations like coronavirus in order to avoid negative repercussions.
Yet, the federal government decided to open the border with Iran ignoring pleas by provincial authorities. Federal authorities have implied that unlike China, the Iranian government was not willing to keep Pakistani citizens within Iran and they could not deny Pakistani citizens the right to return– something they actually did in the case of Pakistani students in China. This shows a clearly different approach by Pakistan’s decision makers in terms of their engagement with Iran on the issue of coronavirus.
As these groups of 6,000 people crossed back into Pakistan, local authorities didn’t have the required infrastructure to house them and they were made to stay in squalid camp conditions with effectively no segregation. At this moment, the province-center coordination was fully coming apart at the seams. New reports suggest that contrary to provincial suggestions and on the intervention of federal authorities, notably the prime minister’s health advisor, not only was the quarantine period reduced to one week but it was only enforced upon pilgrims and students while allowing other returnees to carry on.
This episode unveils a much deeper structural malaise lying at the heart of governance mechanisms within Pakistan. The 18th amendment was meant to scale up provincial autonomy, but it seems it has only added to the political confusion– and the relatively backward provinces remain dependent upon the whims of the centre. Pakistan is fortunate that the coronavirus death rate remains significantly low as compared to other nations. If this had not been the case, this failure to devise a comprehensive policy with regards to opening up the border with Iran would have cost the nation dearly.
(Umar Karim is a doctoral researcher at the University of Birmingham. His research focuses on the evolution of Saudi Arabia’s strategic outlook, the Saudi-Iran tussle, the conflict in Syria, and the geopolitics of Turkey, Iran and Pakistan. He tweets @UmarKarim89)