2020 Review by Fr Liam O’Callaghan in Pakistan

Last year was turned upside-down by the Covid-19 pandemic, which caused such devastation, death and suffering; worldwide almost 80 million people have been infected with 1.75 million deaths. Many experts see those figures almost certainly to be an under-estimation.

With further spikes of infections and new variants of the virus emerging, resulting in fresh lockdowns in many countries, 2021 is going to begin very much as 2020 ended. But the arrival of vaccines offer hope to a struggling world, though we are still going to have to be very careful for a while yet.

In Pakistan, the first two cases were confirmed on February 26 in Karachi, and quickly spread to all provinces; on 1 April , the country was put on a nationwide lockdown and extended twice until May 9.

The lockdown caused much suffering especially to daily wage earners, who became unemployed overnight and many Christians fell into this category with various church groups and NGOs helping out with food rations, as well as an economic relief package form the government.

As lockdown was lifted, numbers did not grow as much as was feared and people became complacent about wearing face masks, SOPs etc. If it spread like in other countries, the consequences could have been disastrous, however it did not. The reasons can only be guessed – a different strain of virus? Immunity?

On 26 November, the government announced ‘smart’ lockdowns and closed all educational institutions until 11 January, as cases began to rise. The official figures for Pakistan are 469,482 infections and 9,816 deaths though the actual figure is likely to be much higher.

Once the lockdown started, so much of what is considered normal was put on hold with schools, churches and normal activities closed or postponed for later. The means of communication was now Zoom calls and it helped the Columban group here stay in touch and a number of meetings were held this way as we are scattered in four different cities around Sindh province.

We are nine in total in Pakistan– two lay missionaries and seven ordained – from four different countries: New Zealand, Fiji, Philippines and Ireland. Our priority areas of work are tribal ministry, justice and peace, ecological work and inter-faith relations.

I am based in an apartment in a Muslim community in Hyderabad city, population 1.73 million, the second biggest city in Sindh province after Karachi. I am working full-time in Justice, Peace and Integrity of Creation (JPIC) and Interreligious dialogue (IRD) issues in the diocese of Hyderabad with Columban co-worker, Danish Yakoob.

We are funded by the Irish government overseas aid programme through Misean Cara to run projects in communities and schools on environmental issues as the situation is so bad here. Pakistan is the fifth most vulnerable country in the world to climate change according to Germanwatch Climate Risk Index 2020, which has led directly to 10,000 deaths through extreme weather events in that period.

Our environmental project this year had to be cancelled and the unspent funding was diverted to our Covid-19 response efforts (with the funders agreement).

Politically, Pakistan is struggling once again. In July 2018, the general election took place which brought former cricket World cup winning captain, Imran Khan, and his PTI party to power. However, he failed to get an overall majority and had to enter into a fragile coalition.

As the government continues to struggle, there have been three cabinet reshuffles, two of them in 2020 (April and December). The Covid-19 pandemic is having a severe effect on the political situation as the government struggles to cope with the on-going crisis.

In September, a coalition of 11 opposition parties, the Pakistan Democratic Movement, was formed with the aim of replacing the Imran Khan regime. They held big gatherings in a number of cities in recent weeks and plan a ‘long march’ to Islamabad in January. The political climate of great uncertainty is sure to continue in the New Year.

Economically, the country is struggling very badly with a high level of indebtedness. According to the IMF, Government debt rose to 76.7% of GDP, Pakistan already owes the IMF $5.8 billion from past bailouts, and has only once completed its past programmes.

Due largely to the Covid-19 pandemic, economic growth is expected to slow to -1.5% in 2020 and pick up to 2% in 2021. A weaker rupee resulted in an inflation rate of 6.7% in 2019 and it is expected to peak at 11.1% in 2020 (according to the World Economic Outlook, IMF).

The Human Rights Watch 2020 report makes for sobering reading, Although Prime Minister Imran Khan pledged to make social justice a priority after taking office in July 2018, his administration has increased restrictions on media, the political opposition, and nongovernmental organisations (NGOs).

Women, religious minorities, and transgender people continued to face violence, discrimination, and persecution, with authorities often failing to provide adequate protection or hold perpetrators accountable. Pakistani law enforcement agencies were responsible for human rights violations, including detention without charge and extrajudicial killings.

There continues to be a high level of fear among religious minorities and the continued abuse of the so-called blasphemy laws leads to much of this fear.

The Pakistani government did not amend or repeal blasphemy law provisions that provide a pretext for violence against religious minorities, as well as arbitrary arrests and prosecution. Hundreds have been arrested over blasphemy allegations, most of them members of religious minorities. The death penalty is mandatory for blasphemy, and about 40 people remain on death row.

Over five million primary-school-age children are out of school, most of them girls, for reasons including lack of schools in their areas, child marriage, and gender discrimination.

School closures because of the lockdown and many people’s limited access to online facilities means that this school year will be severely affected for many children and may have to be repeated. Pakistan still has a lot to do according to the report to create a fairer society and there is not a lot to indicate it will happen any time soon.

I wish you all the blessings you and your loved ones need at this time and I especially pray that the new-born prince of peace will be a source of good news, love and peace for you throughout 2021.