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March 29, 2020

Beyond the corona crisis


March 29, 2020

We’ll have to wait – and survive – to see what the coronavirus leaves for us in Pakistan in terms of changes that are enforced in our collective existence and the lessons that we learn. At another level, we all have to separately deal with the damage that this pandemic is doing to our personal lives.

What is certain, though, is that almost everything, everywhere, will change. We are living in a moment that will reverberate in the annals of world history. It will continue to be resurrected in novels, poetry, memoirs and cinematic productions. Far into the future, grandparents will tell its stories to their grandchildren with a memory that will surely play its tricks. This crisis will also provide a new dimension to conspiracy theories, mixing facts with fantasy.

Meanwhile, we have the challenge of dealing with its relentless spread against the backdrop of apocalyptic visions now sweeping across the First World, with the United States leading in the world this weekend in confirmed coronavirus cases. China, where it all began, seems so long ago. We continue to suffer the agony of Italy and are saddened by Spain’s high score.

We do not know how the situation in Pakistan will unfold. So far, there has been a sense of guarded relief that we have not seen a surge in the number of coronavirus cases. At the same time, it seems possible that all cases may not have been reported. And in this crisis, we have been conditioned to expect the unexpected.

Indeed, one of the early messages that this pandemic has delivered is that with all its scientific achievements, human capacity to forecast the future is very limited. We have suddenly been alerted to the bewildering nature of uncertainty in human and natural systems. For some, this calamity has underlined the validity of the occult. (Ah, didn’t the astrologers warn us about that ominous solar eclipse of December 26?)

Unfortunately, another forecast an astute political analyst of Pakistan would have made about the quality of Prime Minister Imran Khan’s relations with his adversaries in any given situation has also come true. The obvious imperative to build national solidarity in these dire circumstances was sacrificed on the altar of Imran Khan’s outsized ego.

This has been a sorry spectacle for us to watch, casting a shadow on Pakistan’s potential for recovering from its chronic ailments. What better opportunity could there be for all political elements to come together in enlightened national interest and make a joint effort to confront the challenge of the coronavirus?

On Friday, during his third encounter with a small group of television anchors, Imran Khan once again exposed his strong antagonism towards his main political opposition. This was not the occasion for such an outburst, particularly when the question posed by Nasim Zehra, an erudite observer of national affairs, was so polite and so carefully worded.

This means that Pakistan has an additional problem of political disunity, reflecting a failure of leadership. There is a lack of harmony in the initiatives taken by the provinces and the federal government. There is lack of clarity in the execution of the lockdown plan. In this respect, Sindh has maintained its lead in taking bold and prompt decisions. In his domain, Chief Minister Murad Ali Shah has played the role of a leader.

Another distraction in the fight against the coronavirus in Pakistan this week was the issue of banning congregations in mosques. It brought the ‘ulema’ into the game – and that is another baggage Pakistan has carried. Again, the government failed to firmly exercise its authority when the opportunity to do so was propitious. Instead, the usual suspects of the religious brigade pretended to be in the driving seat and were featured in multiple talk shows on Thursday and Friday.

Now, the pandemic has impacted not only the health systems of the gravely affected countries. It has also shattered their economic structures. Naturally, developing countries like Pakistan are so much more at risk. Imran Khan is right when he questions the impact of a severe lockdown on those who are below the poverty line.

With reference to the lockdown imposed in India, an economist teaching at JNU has expressed the fear that the kind of devastation that is going to be faced by the bottom 50 percent of the workers in the informal sector is “unimaginable”. So, can we imagine the social upheaval that seems imminent in the two major countries of South Asia that have frittered away their resources, throughout their independent existence, on raising armies and acquiring nuclear weapons?

Here is, then, one important lesson for Pakistan. Irrespective of how we brave through this emergency, the challenge of empowering the depressed classes and promoting meaningful social development will have to be met to ensure the survival of this country. After all, an enemy like the coronavirus cannot be vanquished with the power of fighter jets and nuclear missiles.

The allusion here is that something as incomprehensible and as devastating as Covid-19 is bound to change this world in a fundamental sense. It must change the ideologies and the narratives that different counties hold as sacrosanct. A new world order is lurking around the deserted streets of great cities that bubbled over with joy and excitement just a few weeks ago.

What will this new order bring to Pakistan? This is not the right time to seriously deliberate on this conundrum. We are too distressed to be able to think straight. But I am also worried about our capacity, in a collective sense, to reflect on questions of history and the dynamics of social change. Our intellectual infrastructure is as rickety as our public health system. There are reasons why a rational discourse is not always possible.

Add to this our penchant for not willing to change even when we are pushed by the elemental forces of history. We did not change after 1971. More recently, we did not change after the massacre of our schoolchildren in the Army Public School, Peshawar. And a minor example is that Imran Khan does not want to revise his political biases in the time of coronavirus.

The writer is a senior journalist.

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