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Fifth column

February 7, 2020

The perfect antidote

Opinion

February 7, 2020

The positive thing about living in Pakistan is that people are wired with an uncanny spirit to snub any crisis – big or small.

This is done by simply ignoring the issue or just obfuscating it till any pondering over it sounds an unhealthy fixation of sorts. From ‘matti pao’ to ‘ghabrana nahin’, there is a powerful variety of platitudes readily available to soothe every petition or pressure. And it is not necessarily unscrupulous. After all, cultivated ignorance is a lot more useful than any realisation that may lead to strategic paralysis.

As this coronavirus issue started to spread through social media, antidotes in the shape of digital talismans and trinkets followed immediately. In the absence of any known cure, this felt quite reassuring. After all, the new contagion has left China in such distress that its all-powerful leadership had to submit to the otherworldly spirits that guided them to designate it as a devil.

In the spirit of pure camaraderie, this rightfully afforded some chance to the religiously-minded in Pakistan to advance some cures. Last Friday, as I entered the masjid for jummah prayers, maulvi sahib was winding up his sermon. He stressed that the ‘wuzu’, the obligatory ablution before each of the five daily prayers, was the best way to stay safe aside from one or two specific short prayers in Arabic that he’d already mentioned. He sounded pretty convincing.

And why not? Just two days earlier, while addressing a seminar, vice-chancellor of a Lahore-based medical university had announced that a daily five-time ritual could provide the needed protection. He even claimed that the ‘wuzu’ was now being taught in Wuhan, the epicentre of the epidemic. This was followed by a leading Urdu daily publishing a long op-ed titled, ‘The cure of the incurable coronavirus in China’. After several paragraphs of quotes from religious texts the author suggested that a Chinese translation of a specific verse from the Holy Quran should be supplied to the neighbours for them to listen to it. “God willing, they will get cured”, he anticipated.

A television host and writer, in his column, ‘Coronavirus: From China to Pakistan’, was smitten by similar sentiment. He produced an extended farrago inflected with religious references but without any remedy, specific or vague. However, he likened the virulent behaviour of the infection to Pakistan’s ongoing malaise that reinvents with new strains to remain untreatable. The commentary lamented, “Like the deadly coronavirus, our political system is also laden with a fatal virus. Despite 72 years, Pakistan is unable to free its politics, political system, political parties and the country’s system from it”.

Thankfully, all was not left to prayers or grumbles. In a quick action to mock at the usual bureaucratic sloth, the deputy commissioner of Rawalpindi ordered tests of all the Chinese working at the Karot Hydropower Project. The project is building a dam at Karot village under CPEC. The official told reporters that none of the workers were infected. Similarly in Karachi, Aga Khan Hospital tested dozens of Chinese expatriates for any signs of malignancy. Thankfully, they too were declared virus-free. In line with the corporate spirit of tailored customer care, the expats were additionally subjected to assurances and counselling sessions.

That is very positive news! But amidst the touted affirmative action, there is a glaring missing link. Newspapers reported that the first testing-kits donated by Japan were supposed to reach on Friday, January 31. Some reports suggested the kits from China were to arrive on Thursday, a day before the tests on the Chinese at Karot or Karachi were supposedly carried out. A health spokesman of the Sindh government quoted by the media had also indicated that they had no testing-kits as of January 29.

Around the same time, a professor of virology currently associated with a well-known health diagnostic company claimed that the only available kits at the time were for research and not the diagnosis. In the circumstances, this is anyone’s guess how the people were issued with all-clear guarantees.

But not many Pakistanis seemed to be bothered. According to Sirajul Haq, ameer of the Jamaat-e-Islami, corruption and high commodity prices were more lethal that the ongoing contagion. This was the most potent antidote launched in the public sphere that decimated the dread-generating power of the virus. After all, Siraj sahib is not only credible as a politician but also taken very seriously.

Another politician, Afzal Khokar, from the PML-N, described Prime Minister Imran Khan as more dangerous than the virus effectively subduing any alarm. Besides, the party is more preoccupied with stabilising heart patients from political shocks than to worry about viruses that seem to have only stricken commoners, at least for now.

The more scientifically-minded offered better prescriptions that would fall under the ambit of culinary engineering. The group editor of a multi-edition Urdu newspaper suggested that the WHO should try to alter the eating habits of the Chinese whom he thinly admonished by claiming their choice of food regularly produced new viruses, of course without sounding racist. Like an international relations expert, he termed the crisis “as serious as our relationship with China”.

An Islamist-leaning Urdu daily that has been running a concerted campaign to discredit Imran Khan’s government ran a series of scare stories and interviews with stranded students to demand their immediate repatriation regardless of the medical opinion or care facilities in the country. As a supplement it published a small news item, obliquely referring to the ongoing anti-Muslim crackdown in Xinjiang, and ranted that those who banned Muslim women from wearing niqab had to wear face masks all the time now.

While everyone was engrossed in the safety of humans, it was left to Punjab’s Forest and Wildlife Department to consider the less fortunate ones in the great chain of being. The department announced that it was installing safety mechanisms for the wild animals under its care which included a pledge to subject the Chinese visiting its zoos and wildlife parks to a “special checking” regime. With no trained personnel or testing-kits at hand, what this means remains an unguarded mystery!

Twitter: @murtaza_shibli