As Pakistan fights the global surge of the pandemic on home turf, a challenge unique in many ways, it will test the nerves and capabilities of our leaders and the quality of response of our people as never before. No doubt the government and sensible persons are advising not to panic for it would only make matters worse. But certainly, at every level the nation has to prepare and gird itself for this nature’s vengeance.
This would not be easy as many amongst us are not used to a disciplined approach however serious the challenge is. A casual, nonchalant approach is the philosophy of our people leaving every thing to destiny. This is further reinforced by the belief that one would die anyway when his turn comes irrespective of the level and quality of preventive measures. A sort of fatalism has been the national creed as it is the easiest but most dangerous attitude toward ones own and other people’s lives. A demonstration of this attitude was apparent when the head of Jamaat-i-Islami (JI), Maulana Sirajul Haq, while giving reasons for calling off the annual congregation of their followers, took the cover of rains and made no mention regarding the spread of coronavirus. Whether these remarks reflect bravado or fatalism it is difficult to assess. Even more baffling is that a few supposedly educated people are attributing the spread of the virus to a deliberate conspiracy by the US to weaken China and its other rivals.
At the same time such extraordinary times throw up the best in people and society as well, and we are already witnessing it. Dr Zafar Mirza, the Prime Minister’s Special Assistant on Health, is a source of inspiration. His indefatigable energy is reflected by his presence in person on innumerable television channels educating the nation on preventive measures, identifying the epicentre or centres of infection in the country. Moreover, Dr Zafar has been travelling to remote places including Taftan in Balochistan, close to the Pakistan-Iran border, and elsewhere to strengthen preventive measures.
The people returning from Iran, a regular pilgrimage destination, seem to be the ones that are the worst affected. The worrisome aspect is that many may have slipped past the border check and could pose a major threat to their near and dear ones and to those they come in contact with.
It is somewhat strange that Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (K-P) reported very few cases giving rise to the suspicion that perhaps the provincial government has been lax in identifying the disease. Or that many are either hiding their illness or are perhaps unaware that it is no ordinary fever they are suffering from.
In all fairness, the coronavirus has taken every one by surprise. It has spread at a fast pace in many countries — especially Italy, Spain and Iran — that were initially finding it hard to cope with. Now it is spreading fast in Pakistan as people are returning from infected countries. We are also handicapped as we have few places to quarantine people in or for making them stay in their homes, isolated from others. Despite the government’s advice people were holding weddings and other functions until this week. Hopefully, henceforth there would be a stricter implementation of the government’s directive on functions and the assembly of people.
As a people we are more family and community-oriented and measures such as social distancing may not be that easy to implement.
The Sindh government appears to be the most proactive and taking the threat seriously. Murad Ali Shah, the Chief Minister, can be seen leading commendably and taking preventive measures and providing guidance to the public. Closing schools and advising people to work from home where feasible and breaking the normal routine was a good strategy. It would certainly help in controlling the spread of the virus. Companies involved in Information Technology (IT) or those working on certain projects that do not require too much of personal interaction should work from home. Those companies that have their employees work from desk computers must take other precautionary measures.
As mentioned earlier, it is somewhat surprising that initially Punjab and K-P barely reported any cases of coronavirus while Sindh and Islamabad lead the numbers. Was it lack of vigilance or indifference on the part of the provincial governments? For it seems odd that people returning from Iran or other countries are testing positive to coronavirus in large numbers in one province and not in the other. The virus testing facilities in Pakistan are limited and need to be expanded to all cities.
The government will have to be particularly careful about the spread of coronavirus in the recently established homes for the poor and amongst those living on the streets, including children. They are more vulnerable as they are coming in contact with innumerable people. Moreover, they live in cramped conditions where the hand-washing and sanitation facilities do not exist nor can they avoid contact with the public. As they have no home or means of livelihood, giving stereotypical advice has no value. This problem poses a great challenge and demands a solution from the government.
If the epidemic continues for a while the economic consequences of a lockdown on the poor and dispossessed are going to be unbearable. The government and civil society will have to find ways in giving them relief and ensuring at least their food security. When factories and workplaces are closed it is the worker on daily wages who is the worst affected.
In sharp contrast, some affluent families in Islamabad and other cities seem to be on a buying spree, hoarding their personal and household items so that life continues as normal.
The Saudi government has taken prudent measures by closing their borders and imposing a ban on Umrah and restricting the travel of foreigners. Several countries have done the same and declared a national emergency. Pakistan too should take similar preventive measures. It needs to take a decision regarding the Friday prayers and congregations at religious places including shrines.
We can afford no laxity from all those either in the government or private citizens that are fighting the battle against this pandemic.
Published in The Express Tribune, March 18th, 2020.