The long shadow of Covid has hung over the world causing much suffering and death, as well as substantial economic loss. According to the WHO, as of 21 December 2021, worldwide over 275 million people have been infected with Covid and 5.36 million deaths reported, but experts see those figures almost certainly to be an under-estimation.
With different variants emerging regularly, the Omicron being the most recent to cause widespread disruption, it looks like this shadow is going to extend into a significant part of a third year at least.
The WHO reports that 8.38 billion vaccine doses have been administered, but with at least three doses per person needed for protection, this number is way short of where it needs to be. Furthermore, the unjust and unequal distribution of resources, which captures our world’s reality today, means that poorer countries are left further behind and are at greater risk of infection.
In Pakistan, there seems to be little concern or fear of Covid, with little or no precautions being taken, mask-wearing is minimal and social distancing non-existent; but it does seem, for whatever reasons – different immunity levels, different strain of virus? – that infections are much lower here.
Officially, the figures stand at 1.29 million Covid infections to date with 28,882 deaths; there is almost certainly major under reporting involved here, as well as possibly only mild symptoms experienced and leading to people to not knowing they have been infected.
In fact, more recently it is not Covid, but Dengue fever which is causing concern; this is a viral infection transmitted by mosquitoes. It is endemic in Pakistan and 2021 proved particularly bad, with 50,761 cases reported in 2021 resulting in 203 deaths. With the current Covid-19 pandemic affecting the national health system capacity, and competing communicable disease outbreaks, there is a high risk of serious health impacts from Dengue fever.
At the end of January 2021, I had the opportunity to take a sabbatical break in Ireland – some flights were available, my visa had just been renewed for a year and some of our projects here had been put on hold because of the Covid uncertainty. Though things were restricted substantially in Ireland in terms of courses etc, it was good to have the chance to have time with my mother especially and the rest of my family and well as friends that I had not been able to give time to for a long time.
I was able to have a number of weeks in An Tairseach Ecological Centre in Wicklow town, run by the Dominican Sisters; this included a 5-day Ecological Summer School run by John Feehan. After that, I spent my time between home and Dalgan Park, the Columban headquarters in Navan, where I was able to do some reading and study on areas of interest, which I normally do not have the opportunity for. I was amazed at how quickly the time passed and before I knew it, I was heading back to ‘the land of the pure’ after nine months sabbatical, which I am grateful for and refreshed for the on-going journey ahead.
Politically, Pakistan is struggling once again. The PTI government of Imran Khan, in power since August 2018, is coming under serious pressure which could see his chances of re-election in 2023 being severely damaged. Rampant inflation is causing increasing unrest among the people, from Jan 2020 – Sept 2021 food prices have increased by 18%; low economic growth and unemployment add to the problems. Added to the economic woes, the opposition parties are combining more effectively against the government; there is growing terrorism in the NW regions bordering Afghanistan; and a reported rift between the government and the military. All these developments together have the potential create the perfect storm to trip up the government.
Economically, the country is struggling very badly with high inflation (8.9% for 2021), economic set-back because of the Covid pandemic and rapid devaluing of the Rupee, to one of its weakest points ever. A major factor in the inflation hike is the May 2019 IMF $6 billion bailout package, which includes increases in electricity and gas prices as well as taxes. In June of 2021, the IMF withheld a $1 billion tranche because of non-compliance with conditions, and it is still being awaited. The economy is projected to grow by 3.9% in 2022 but it is hard to see where that will come from
The Human Rights Watch 2021 report makes for sobering reading. It says the government intensified its crackdown on critical voices from the media, civil society, NGOs and the political opposition, routinely using draconian counter-terrorism and sedition laws to intimidate peaceful critics.
Blasphemy-related violence against religious minorities, fostered in part by government persecution and discriminatory laws, has increased; one of the worst cases yet seen occurred on 3 December in Sialkot, Punjab when a Sri Lankan Christian, Priyantha Diyawadanage, who had worked here for 11 years as a factory manager, was attacked and beaten to death by a frenzied mob of factory workers, who then burned his body on the basis of a blasphemy accusation.
It drew widespread condemnation, but it remains to be seen what will really change. Law enforcement agencies carry out arbitrary detentions and extrajudicial killings with impunity. There is still not adequate protection or accountability for abuses for women and girls, including ‘honour killing’ and forced conversion.
We are nine Columbans in total in Pakistan – two lay missionaries and seven ordained – from four different countries, namely, New Zealand, Fiji, Philippines and Ireland. Our priority areas of work are tribal ministry, justice and peace, ecological work and inter-faith relations.
Columban co-worker, Danish Yakoob, and I will again be focusing on environmental projects this coming year where the needs are enormous here. Two significant UN meetings are crucial to pushing governments and all of us to action. COP26 on climate change took place in Glasgow last November and while the overall commitments from governments were disappointing, at least it showed a growing awareness of the issue and major grassroots activity across the globe.
The second meeting is due in April 2022, COP15 on stemming biodiversity loss, when all countries will commit themselves to protecting endangered species and ecosystems. The outcomes and implementation of these two meetings by governments, individuals, religions, groups etc will be crucial for the protection of the planet before it is too late.
I wish you all the blessings you and your loved ones need at this time and that the celebration of the birth of Emmanuel, God-with-us, will assure us all that God is with us in the ups and downs of daily life and I especially pray that the new-born prince of peace be a source of good news, love and peace for you throughout the New Year.
Fr Liam O’Callaghan