The apathy of celebrities may cost human lives

Lack of social distancing and disregard for COVID-19 guidelines led to a massive surge in India. Will we learn from their mistakes?

Sarwat Gilani with Sheheryar Munawer at a qawalli night the former hosted for her husband’s fortieth birthday; there’s not a mask in sight.

With over 800,000 total cases and nearly 20,000 coronavirus related deaths on its hands, Pakistan should be on best behaviour right now. Health experts, government officials and journalists all seem to be warning of an ‘impending doom’ (actual headline in the BBC), taking cue from the horrifying outcome in a country not too far from us, India, where the sight of thousands of burning pyres has sent shivers down everyone’s spine.

Before you think this is a sensational opening to a story, take a look at what experts around the world are saying about the COVID-19 surge in India. Two major reasons for the sudden rise in cases, according to publications such as Al Jazeera and The Guardian, are that the vaccine rollout hasn’t been quick enough to tend to a population of 1.3 billion, and because crowded events continued to take place, where no SOPs were being followed. People simply stopped wearing masks and got together in crowded places without practicing social distancing. As a result of this, India is now struggling with a shortage of medical supplies and services and an increasing daily death toll.

Prime Minister Imran Khan has been reluctant to introduce strict lockdowns again, so to save the daily wage earners from financial hardship, but PTI Minister Asad Umer - also chief of The National Command and Operations (NCOC) - has announced that the total number of critical care patients has reached 5,360, which is 57% more than the peak in June last year.

So where do celebrities fit into all this? Well, pictures of Sarwat Gilani and Fahad Mirza’s qawwali evening have been circulating on social media and have perhaps sparked the need for this conversation. The qawwali, which was held to celebrate Mirza’s 40th birthday, saw a plethora of celebrities in attendance, and unfortunately too many of them were not observing COVID-19 guidelines; no masks, no social distancing, posting pictures brazenly for the world to see.

It would be unfair to single out Sarwat Gilani and Fahad Mirza as many other celebrities, over the past few critical months, have also been sharing pictures of well-attended celebrations of all nature. In this particular case, other than Sarwat and Fahad (who’s also a doctor), Frieha Altaf, Nida Yasir and many others were seen without their masks on. What’s worse is that other than Sheheryar Munawar, who offered a sincere apology for being seen without a mask at that infamous qawwali, nobody has considered taking responsibility; celebrities have either stayed silent or have tried to justify their actions. Altaf said, “The only time anyone took off the mask was to take a picture. I think when people see pictures and videos they end up assuming the worst,” according to Express Tribune. She also said that most guests were already vaccinated.

TV show host Nida Yasir getting her jab.

If I have your attention, celebrities, I’d like to offer some facts. Getting vaccinated does not ensure that you won’t be a carrier of the virus, which means that while you may be protected, you could still pass it on to someone who hasn’t been vaccinated and is at higher risk. And that number is quite large because in a population of over 200 million people, so far only two million doses have been administered, according to Dr. Faisal Sultan, Special Assistant to Prime Minister Khan for Health. That amounts to 0.95 doses per hundred people, a number too small to celebrate.

Also, there is the added problem of what these pictures mean. One, they add to the dangerous narrative that it’s okay to host crowded events (because let’s face it, we don’t know which celebrities have gotten vaccinated and which haven’t) but what’s worse is that celebrities are also being insensitive to the mood in the country. While many around the world are now questioning the culture of sharing photographs, with mental health experts urging people to stop sharing their vacation pictures, for instance, at a time when mental health conditions are deteriorating and rightfully so, our celebrities don’t seem to find anything wrong with social media announcements of their privilege. They can afford the vaccine, they are safe, they are happy. Apathy, all around.

There have been many other recurring moments where our celebrities have been tone deaf lately: on talk shows for bringing animals on set (Ahsan Khan’s show was served a notice by PEMRA), or on talk shows making misogynist and problematic remarks (Khalil Ur Rehman Qamar). While careless remarks are always dangerous, they’re not as risky as careless behaviour in the wake of a deadly pandemic.

There’s no debate in death. 18,000 people are dead. We are already using 90% of our oxygen supply. Lockdowns aren’t in place yet to protect the working class of the country but it’s unfortunate that the privileged, who can ironically afford to protect themselves with expensive vaccinations from private hospitals, are the ones taking advantage of this leniency. If there was ever a time celebrities had to use their influence and fame wisely, it is now.

The apathy of celebrities may cost human lives