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Rethinking celebration during a pandemic


July 6, 2020

In an environment marked by limited information, pressing timelines, and changing global guidelines, our leadership has been pushed to take incredibly tough decisions since March.

We saw a surge in the number of cases following Eidul Fitr. The government had announced an ease in lockdown restrictions and we witnessed people flooding markets. While we do not have any concrete evidence of the positive economic impact this decision had, particularly the impact on daily wage earners, the country has witnessed a rise in the number of cases.

Part of the blame does in fact lie on the mixed messaging by the government and its stance of favouring economic activity over public health. While it is easier to criticize the decision of the leadership and lay the blame entirely on it, people’s behaviors and actions can also not be ignored. Despite mass awareness campaigns and provision of information on infection prevention and control, people were more mobile and did interact with other people once the restrictions eased. So, we all share the blame for where we are right now – leaders and citizens alike.

Eidul Azha is approaching and should serve as an opportunity for course correction. The peak of the virus keeps on shifting. If news channels are to be believed we are at peak every week. Imperial College London's algorithm creates the picture that Pakistan will reach the peak on August 10, 2020 on which day around 80,000 deaths will occur. Even if this prediction is an overestimation, we need to take it seriously and reconsider our course of action.

We celebrate Eidul Azha as a testament to the notion of sacrifice. It serves as a method of redistribution of resources and catalyzing charity, particularly in the form of distribution of meat. It also serves as a boost to certain segments of the economy, particularly the livestock sector. For most, it is simply a celebration where people spend time with their loved ones.

This year the advent of Eidul Azha is a cause of serious concern. The country would witness a surge in mobility. Religious schools, traditional traders and branded animal farm houses all mobilise a few months before Eidul Azha and money starts changing hands in both rural and urban areas. Most of the animals are reared in rural areas. The people who raise the animals travel to the bigger urban hubs closer to Eid to sell their animals. For these people, the animals have been a significant investment.

Other than the principal cost of the animal, efforts are made to ensure that they are well-fed and safe from disease. It is a risky investment where funds are tied up for a year and external factors like weather can impact the animal. Keeping the animal for another year would lead to higher costs for the rearer. The animal would also be valued at a lower price because younger animals can be sold at a higher price.

The spread of the virus is rapid in urban areas compared to rural areas. This is one of the few cases where the remoteness of certain rural pockets is a blessing because they are currently protected from the virus. If the virus does spread to rural areas rapidly, the results would be disastrous. Our rural health facilities face a shortage of doctors, medical supplies, equipment; they are under equipped and face capacity constraints even without having to deal with cases of the virus. For example, we have 14.5 physicians per 10 000 population in urban areas contrasted with 3.6 per 10 000 population in rural areas.

Our health system would simply be unable to deal with the bulk of cases. Now, if we witness a large number of people entering urban areas to sell their animals, it is likely that a lot of them would be carrying the virus back to their villages. The other people engaged in the economy during Eid are service providers like butchers and people who process the animals and their skins, all of whom would also be vulnerable to the virus in the quest for securing their income.

What we have learnt from our experience with the pandemic is that there is a very stark tradeoff between securing livelihoods and protecting public health. For a country within the Global South, this challenge is very serious and cannot be ignored. We have also learnt that, much like other disasters, the economic shock is likely to hit the poor first and the hardest. So, the choice between a lockdown and livelihoods is going to be a serious challenge and there will be no decision where everyone wins.

The poor will suffer either through loss of income or by facing a threat to their health. The leadership will need to take some tough decisions and work through the costs and benefits of different options available. The need of the time is to explore solutions that might minimize the risk of transmission and at the same time may contribute towards protecting people from economic shocks.

Charity organisations like Edhi and Khidmat Foundation do mobilise funds from urban areas and conduct qurbani closer to the recipients of the meat. We would need smarter tech-based solutions to deal with the mobility challenge. We would need to explore options of connecting animal owners in rural areas to buyers in urban areas remotely. Of course, this is easier said than done because such solutions require an atmosphere of trust which is lacking. This is one of the key barriers to digital markets as well. But the pandemic can also serve as an opportunity to test out such solutions.

We also need religious scholars to engage with the larger public and provide solutions that would restrict mobility and interaction of people. However, our mainstream religious clergy is unlikely to engage in this exercise.

Our actions like social distancing, hand washing and wearing masks should be treated as a public good. We are undertaking these actions to protect ourselves, as well as the people around us in the process. These actions will only be effective if we all undertake them. A few lapses – and the virus will be here to stay for longer.

The biggest challenge is for us, the people. It is purely a psychological challenge and challenge to our collective faith. We need to introspect and ask ourselves, ‘are we being asked to sacrifice something else this time?’ Maybe to secure us and the people around us, we would need to give up on the idea of having meat in the house. It is a tough call for a lot of people as this is not how things are typically done. But we would need to rethink how to celebrate Eidul Azha this time around. Maybe there is a different way to redistribute wealth.

A lot of the segments of the population are privileged enough to afford restrictions on mobility; their livelihoods are not directly threatened if they are not mobile, especially during Eid. The onus on this segment to exercise care is in fact higher.

It is a time of sacrifice and we are already sacrificing our mobility. Compared to the losses this country has suffered and could suffer, rethinking a celebration may be a smaller sacrifice in comparison. In the spirit of civic responsibility as well as compassion, we should make all the efforts to protect our fellow country men and women from pain and disease.

The writer is a freelance contributor.