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April 25, 2020

The politics of poverty


April 25, 2020

In physics, two worlds co-exist: the big and the small. The principles that a falling apple taught Newton apply to apples, but not to the atoms that make them. Time, too, now operates something like this: it ebs as it flows.

In one world, days trickle slowly into the next – wastefully dripping along the edges. In another, decades of decisions and discourse are compressed into days. Whiteboards are now pixels, hospitals have been nationalized, universal basic income is a little more universal.

As life is forced through the narrow neck of an hourglass, Arundhati Roy asks us to think of this as a portal. But if there’s anything worth remembering, it's how quickly we forget. The year 1720 had the bubonic plague; 1820 had cholera; 1920, the Spanish flu.

And 2020 isn’t special; we just live in it. We, too, will one day be someone’s history – MCQ. And despite our indignation, a whole bunch of digitally-distracted, detached kids will get the question wrong.

At the end of the day, epiphanies have short half-lives and avarice casts a long shadow. Even as carbon-emissions melt away the permafrost holding back generations of dormant disease, the coal-powered engines of global capitalism will probably roar back into action at the first opportunity. The Spanish Flu, too, was followed by the Roaring Twenties.

Of course, one can hope. After all, everyone seems to be learning something or the other – and not just the bored banana-bread-baking bourgeoisie. As customers outside pharmacies shuffle from one chalk-marked position to the next, in reverent stupor, Pakistan is finally learning how to form a queue.

This near-practised obedience is no coincidence. In a plummeting airplane, most turn to God, but everyone reaches for the arm-rest.

In these chalk lines is an unspoken trust: an assurance that there are, out there, people who have a grip on what is going on. These are the people we allow to break down hard truths into smaller bites – familiar concepts: shapes, letters. “This is a curve that must be flattened”.“The economy will be shaped like a U”. In times like these, some suspension of disbelief can go a long way: better these than the truths they entail.

But these lines balance a fragile equilibrium – a narrow tight-rope tethered to a sacred trust. A rope too taut looks like beat-up doctors, men squatting on the ground like chickens and senseless suo motus. A rope with too much slack is hundreds of thousands spending two days at Raiwind while the government shifts in its seat.

But, alright – a rope has two ends. We, too, must cut a little slack. The rope, itself, frays with the years; institutional inertia is unsympathetic to quick fixes; festering wounds cannot be healed with bandages etc – the fine print of the Naya Narrative. There was, still, the counterbalance – that other cornerstone of the PTI ethos: trickle down economics, but for good behaviour. Results may be muddy, but the intentions are pure.

“The rich”, Sergio Troncoso wrote, do not “have to have a life-and-death relationship with the truth and its questions”. We are a poor country, we were told. Ours was a battle not against one, but two.

It’s a powerful idea – potent enough to glaze over some cracks and contradictions: low-risk barbershops; tri-colour Tiger Force T-shirts while doctors begged for PPEs; a construction industry stimulus, while an entire basti in Islamabad was razed to the ground. For a while, we almost believed that the poor could only die of hunger, and that the virus only infected the rich.

But then came the Achilles heel – a heel that’s hard to hide with a shalwaar raised above the ankles. ‘Govt Accepts Most Demands of Clerics’, read the headline in the Sunday Dawn. It's a headline that, to borrow from Feisal Naqvi, never grows old: you could print it in just about any decade and get away with it. So why expect things to be any different this time?

Well, because this was supposed to be about the poor. The rich may not have a life-and-death relationship with the truth, but both have a life-and-death relationship with death. Or, maybe, because the Kaaba is empty. Or because of Al-Azhar’s fatwa. Or the bans on congregational prayer from Saudi Arabia to Sudan. Or 1500 Raiwind participants – 40 percent of all cases in Punjab: living proof (those who remain) that this is a terrible idea.

And yet, while two percent of the population was told to stay home for Easter, the other 98 percent was given SOPs.

Look no further than the president of Pakistan’s own tweets if you’re curious how this might pan out. Begin where he lauds a masjid in Dhoraji, Karachi – where the congregation violates at least a quarter of the 20 points (and the proposed floor-chart). Consider that this is an urban masjid, before the Ramazan-peak. The thousand words that the picture is supposedly worth will, likely, fall short of the number of obituaries it must write.

See, also, the retweeted video that violates a few more. “If they all wear masks, and not allow children, this can be termed as a great example to be followed”, reads the caption. Debatable; but they aren’t wearing masks... and there are children present.

To belabour whether masjids around the country were realistically going to map out equilateral triangles or cast circular perimeters with six-foot radii is to insult one’s intelligence and squander a tight word-limit.

A lockdown that was never owned, and never really began, is breathing its last. We waited patiently for weeks for the prime minister to utter “lockdown”. We waited for him to dispel ideas of immunity and prohibitive climate. We waited longer still for the dial-tone lady to go from “coronavirus jaan-leva naheen hai” to a sterile admission that the virus could, in fact, kill people. Now, we must wait for the government to accept that this is no lockdown.

It will take death – probably a lot of it – for them to see this. For now, whatever the reasons, the official count is low. But even as it rises, in increasing numbers, we are content in the knowledge that it is lower than other countries’ counts. Human life is, for now, a currency measured in relation to others. We may lose a few hundred, we may lose thousands. But the reason will not be poverty, it will be politics.

May God forgive us.

The writer is a lawyer.

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @brainmasalaar