First CPEC and now China’s Covid-19: Gilgit-Baltistan’s growing problems | Opinion – analysis
Gilgit-Baltistan (G-B), in proportion to the population, has the highest number of Covid-19 cases in Pakistan. So far, 607 people have tested positive in a territory with less than half a million people. Heroes like Dr. Osama Riaz and paramedic Malik Ashtar, who sadly died while performing tasks without virus protection kits, have become a source for galvanizing society. Locals blame authorities for committing criminal negligence by failing to transport Dr. Osama to Islamabad to save his life. The sad economic situation and lack of preparation could lead to more deaths in the coming weeks.
G-B is not a constitutional part of Pakistan and therefore survives on financial donations from Islamabad. Locals, including Chief Minister Hafiz Rehman, blame Islamabad for denying sufficient funds to deal with the Covid-19 situation. Islamabad continues to reject protective equipment supplies under the guise of a shortage of funds. Medical professionals are still unsure of the exact scope of the positive cases, as many people remain undetected due to faulty test kits. Authorities warn that Islamic devotees returning from the Tablighi Jamaat congregation could stimulate local transmission of the virus.
Locals have not yet benefited from the medical aid that military helicopters collect from Chinese officials at Khunjerav Pass. There is only one test center for the entire territory with the capacity to evaluate 15 people per day. At this rate, existing patients in Nagar alone, which is one of G-B’s ten districts, would take eighty days to complete the process. Some hotels now function as quarantine centers but accommodate a small portion of patients. G-B currently has only 15 ventilators for more than 400 urgent care patients and most of these ventilators were purchased by local private donations. Transporting patients to Islamabad is cumbersome and financially impractical for most locals.
Naveed Murtaza, a local activist, claims that people in the Hunza District, which borders China, are protesting after failing to obtain a stimulus fund. He said videos have emerged of G-B students sleeping on the roads of Pakistan while waiting for government help. Local media report sick and hungry prisoners and political activists protesting in different G-B jails. “This is no way to thank G-B, which covers more than half of Pakistan’s water needs. Pakistan should take the lead from other countries and immediately release political activists in these trying times, “says Naveed.
Pakistan and China are using the pandemic to deepen control over G-B and squeeze more resources. Pakistani rulers call the country’s lifeline G-B as CPEC-related multi-million dollar projects would fail without Gilgit facilitating the Pakistan-China border link. In the name of helping the local administration during the pandemic, Pakistan is expanding its military presence and subjugating territory that legally belongs to India. Pakistan’s behavior is forcing a large majority of locals to demand the withdrawal of their troops and seek full independence. In the past, Pakistan has sought help from the Chinese army to quell such dissent. In 2010, the media reported the presence of eleven thousand Chinese soldiers in the region as part of the CPEC security apparatus.
Given the situation, people at G-B are apprehensive that Chinese staff resume their work on CPEC projects. Mohammad Lateef, a concerned Skardo activist, says locals fear the runner will carry the virus deeper into the valleys. “The locals see CPEC as an instrument of invasion that destroys the environment, culture and the social fabric without much benefit to the people. They fear that China will force concessions from Pakistan by using CPEC as a debt weapon, “says Lateef. The Macao-Hong Kong merger has taught China techniques to seek concessions from weaker nations to expand the Han empire. Hidden behind the testimonies of camaraderie, China plans to buy assets in G-B, threatening freedoms, democratic values and national identities.
Sajjad Raja, a political leader in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (POJK), accuses the Pakistani military of transferring patients from Covid-19 to Mirpur. Many locals think Pakistan is risking the lives of millions of POJK natives to divert money from Western aid agencies, Raja says. Another local leader, Amjad Ayub, testifies that many hotels in POJK were now full of Pakistani patients. “Authorities forced Mirpuris locals to leave buildings and hospitals to accommodate Pakistanis. Mohi-uddin Hospital staff and equipment were now available to Pakistani patients while they were local; wait for the medical facilities, POJK belongs to India and Pakistan has no right to abuse the territory to get international attention, “exclaims Amjad.
Ishaq Sharif, a leader of the Bagh District, reveals that Pakistan invaded and divided J&K through the use of religious terrorism and is now harming locals by changing demographics through Covid-19: “We are invaded by the Pakistani military, not for India. Everyone praises India for securing ration for cashmere during the Corona pandemic, while Pakistan abuses its own people to attract international funds, Pakistan, which does not miss the opportunity to abuse India, now begs Modi PM who use ventilators and hydroxychloroquine. Seventy years of deprivation under the Pakistani government is now forcing people in POJK and G-B to search India for the basics like food and medicine, ”exclaims Ishaq.
Jafar Ismail, a Muzaffarabad resident, says the Pakistani military is continually talking about the Kashmir valley and its Corona patients to distract Pakistanis from the sad situation in POJK and G-B. Pakistan betrays the people of G-B and POJK. It has neither the will nor the capacity to meet the demands of local Muslims, but it intends to care for Muslims in the Kashmir Valley. He warns that Pakistan was only interested in keeping Punjab safe and prosperous by filling the coffers with POJK and G-B earnings.
(Senator H Sering is a Washington DC-based researcher and human rights activist, born in Gilgit-Baltistan, occupied by Pakistan. He directs the Gilgit Baltistan Institute of Studies in Washington.)