Thursday July 07, 2022

Herding without shepherds

May 18, 2020

The state is not the only party to the idea of the social contract. The citizen lies at the other end of that sacred agreement.

We have rights, but also responsibilities. We have opportunities, but also obligations. Nowhere is this more relevant than the lunacy witnessed on the streets, markets and malls of Pakistan after the lockdown was lifted with initial aplomb, middling drama and eventual confusion between the center and the provinces.

The pandemic is a unique, unprecedented historic event. We will speak about it for decades to come, our children will discuss it, and it will inevitably impact every facet of life, even long after it is eradicated/subsumed. No government in the world, with the exception of maybe Wuhan, China, South Korea and New Zealand, has done well against it. These handful of places seem to serve as the outliers in an otherwise bleak global outlook where every state is struggling between sets of awful options. In that, perhaps some slack can be given to the states as they are not in an enviable position.

The choices exist somewhere on the spectrum between bad and catastrophic, and most have to walk the line. Striking the right balance between generating sufficient fear for people to exercise caution and also keeping it below the panic threshold is not an easy task. Weighing the pros and cons of prioritizing human life against a starving labour class and economic devastation is not an easy task. Every decision seems to be plagued by a string of fringe detriments.

However, once the decision has been made to (mostly) lift the lockdown, the public response has been nothing short of embarrassing. Eager shoppers throng crowded markets and stores, piling upon one another, ostensibly in preparation for Eid. While it may be understandable that people are feeling stir crazy, and cabin fever is beginning to gnaw at nerves worldwide, caution and a healthy dose of paranoia need to be the modus operandi. The current model only encourages the tenacious virus to spread at an exponential rate, infecting clusters of population and edging us closer to the brink.

Herd immunity is a phrase that was thrown around quite a bit at the start of this pandemic, given special consideration once UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson used it. The only country in the world that has pursued the herd immunity model is Sweden, and according to one calculation, they may achieve it by mid-June. This would not only make Sweden’s model the only realistic option, but also demand that we chart the path they took to get there, preferably safely.

As it stands, this is not the way to go about it. Even in Sweden, while the state eschewed the harsher lockdown mechanisms, it advised and enforced a range of guidelines to flatten the curve. The public followed suit, holding up their end of the social contract, and exercised restraint to play their part.

If the eventual goal is herd immunity in Pakistan, the madness witnessed on the streets is not the way to get there. We now see what happens when the lockdown is lifted, and the onus is placed on the public. Effectively, we are all herding without shepherds.

Things being as they are and the public acting the way that it is, we will see extraordinary growth in the number of cases, ballooning the curve to the breaking point, overwhelming medical facilities, and creating mass panic. This will force the state’s hand, which will clamp down with harsher lockdown procedures to curtail the curve, thus resulting in a vicious cycle.

Given the public response, the state needs to act now with stricter guidelines and mechanisms to enforce better cautionary measures adopted by the public. Hope, in the words of James Cameron, is not a strategy, especially at the state level.

As party to the social contract, citizens must also exercise extreme care, refrain from engaging in unnecessary activities that could expose them or others to the virus, and practice social distancing. We Pakistanis love the romantic notion of being labeled the most resilient nation, but this does not mean we need to actively seek trouble to grind our teeth against. The wise thing for us all is to stay safe, minimize contact, and protect one another.

The writer serves as a senior research fellow at the Center for Research and Security Studies, Islamabad, and is a freelance journalist.


Twitter: @zeesalahuddin