November 23, 2010

Panel: Pakistan faces great threats in disease, Taliban

Infectious diseases and the Taliban are the greatest threats to Pakistan in the aftermath of the mass flooding that began there in July, said U of C Pakistan experts on Thursday.

The discussion in the International House’s Assembly Hall addressed the wide-ranging effects of the flood, from humanitarian and medical needs to economic and security-related impacts.

“Floods don’t always have immediate medical effects,” said Assistant Professor of Dermatology Aisha Sethi, who moderated the event. But medical problems have recently risen, mainly infectious waterborne diseases exacerbated by crowded shelters and overrun hospitals.

Sethi, who worked with Pakistan’s Dermatology Society to set up mobile skin clinics, said much of their work has only just begun. “More dangerous is stagnant water that becomes contaminated with bacteria and feces, and then rampant with insects.”

Another major safety concern is that the Taliban will see the nation’s poverty and desperation as an opportunity to extend their influence, according to Harris School for Public Policy guest lecturer Frank Schell.

“Emergency resource allocation will inhibit the development of the economy and institutions, and in affected areas the Taliban will become more appealing,” said Schell, who is also an independent consultant for Charles River Associates.

Following the flood, Schell worked with the National Strategy Forum to better understand the needs of the Pakistani people beyond the immediate flood repercussions. The group surveyed the Pakistani people about their views on the U.S., unmet social needs, and the Taliban’s presence.

Their research found that Pakistanis viewed Americans with “a great deal of understandable cynicism,” Schell said.

“Pakistan has been abandoned by the U.S. twice before. But they remain an important non-NATO ally, and there is a great deal we can do to improve relations,” he added.

The group concluded that Pakistanis need more foreign aid, more engaged religious leaders, and an equally negotiated trade accord with Afghanistan and India.

With damage costs estimated at almost $10 billion and foreign aid totals at $687 million, a stronger response from the Pakistani government is necessary, argued Asad Hayauddin, the Consul for Trade and Commerce at Chicago’s Consulate of Pakistan.

But Hayauddin acknowledged the challenge natural disasters pose to any government. “Like we have seen with Katrina or the BP oil spill, no government is ever completely prepared to deal with this.”