Years ago, in a diplomatic function in Islamabad, I chanced with some media leaders. These were the heady days of a newly freed media that is now, unfortunately, captive to uncontrolled personal ambition, the rating wars and money politics. I requested them to be productively critical about Pakistan, not to the point of lowering national morale, as we say in military parlance. That self-flogging is, sadly, pervasive to this day if you happen to watch the breaking news and evening talk shows; a risky proposition during these times of all things corona.
Without discarding the virtues of a free and independent media; its wayward and no-holds-barred freedom is in nobody’s interest including the media itself. Persistent viewership — particularly of the talk shows — develops a psychosis of inferiority complex about who we are and what we are. Shouting matches and low quality of debate berate the Eastern and Islamic ethos of tolerance, respect and conversational etiquette. Consequent to falsehood, crookery and competition to dig more dirt, we are nearing a point where nothing Pakistani evokes any pride. This self-deprecation affects the younger generation more than border wars or pandemics. It must stop.
Productive self-critique is virtue of a vibrant society but its pointed propagation that masks the reality, is bigoted, unpatriotic and motivated. While recounting our peculiar strengths as a nation during free time afforded by the lockdown, my list comprised: generosity and the spirit of giving especially during a crisis; mercy and reham (being kind-hearted); the love of Allah and His Prophet (peace be upon him); intelligence and resourcefulness; sense of humour; courage in the face of adversity, disregarding personal safety; strong faith despite not very overt religiosity; ingenuity and the beauty of jugaad (hacks) as they say locally; resilience to maintain an informal economy, our actual lifeline that sails us through any crisis; hard work; strong family values and respect for the elderly; protection of women, if they respect their jism — body — and society’s marzi. The list is endless. I did not include other tangibles like our nuclear capability, armed forces, younger demographics, etc.
I am mindful that critics would spitefully jump to recount innumerable cases painting a despicable picture. A human society is judged on the basis of individual and collective efforts to overcome imperfections. As they say, crises bring out the best and the worst in humans. There is no society and no nation without flaws and failings. Some examples include the superpower. Hoarding of toilet paper and selling it for a heartless profit online is just a recent one. Miles-long lines outside free food banks is another. Total chaos in New York hospitals is yet another. The loot, rape and violence during a massive power breakdown in 2003 and in the relief camps after Hurricane Katrina (2005) are other question marks.
Now compare the cited proclivities with an under-developed and poor Pakistan in a lockdown of sorts during the current pandemic. Our streets are largely calm barring an odd problem here and there. Thankfully, despite minor disruptions in goods and services, the informal economy continues to run the country (hence my strong reservations against its documentation and consequent captivity to the IMF and World Bank). Law and order has in fact improved despite the occasional profiteering and professional thuggery, which always occurs during such large-scale disruptions. There are no lines of hungry humans outside the TV screens, like in the US, given the large volunteer force that is reaching out to those in need in their mohallahs and other localities.
Although the military-advised early lockdown was a prudent measure effective in its purpose; it is only partially enforceable to contain the infection where it matters most, like in slums, narrow inner-city streets and in rural Pakistan. Most Pakistanis in the above locales can hardly practise effective social distancing. And mercifully, despite the fragility of our medicare system, the ravages of pandemic have lightly touched us perhaps because of our immune system, young demographics and/or herd immunity — the jury is still out. I, for one, think our number of infected are much higher than the officially reported and detected by the Chinese supplied kits (with improvable accuracy), the government’s capacity and public requirement felt for testing. But most of those infected remain either asymptomatic or have milder symptoms. Resilience backs up our statistics under Allah’s watch.
Fighting crises is nothing new for Pakistan. From the refugee crisis at the time of Partition to earthquakes to floods to the mother of all wars, the War on Terror, a reeling official economy and low rating on human development indices, etc, resilient Pakistanis have been through a lot. And that is our innate strength and may just be the harbinger of a great future. How many rich and famous countries have and can develop cutting-edge nuclear technology with civil and military applications? Who contributed to the rise of the Middle East in general and GCC countries in particular? From the farms of Jordan to the sugar industry of Sudan to the doctors in Brunei and Malaysia to the UN peace-keeping force worldwide to the construction workers and doctors of the US to the small businesses of UK to the cab-drivers of Copenhagen to the barbers of Italy to the professionals of Gulf financial institutions to the religious teachers of Saudi Arabia, the Pakistani footprint is everywhere. And it benefits the adopted countries. Pakistani drama is popular even in India and our cuisine especially biryani is now part of the local diet in the Middle East. Basmati rice, Swabi marble, salt from the Kohistan-e-Namak (salt range), Sanghar mangoes, Waziristan honey, granite from Nagar Parkar, etc will find no parallel. From the snow-capped mountains of the northern areas to the plains of Punjab to the contrasting landscape of Sindh to the stony deserts of Balochistan to the scenic Kashmir, the All Powerful has been kinder to us with His bounty. If only we just see and appreciate the obvious. Our young and restless need to know and consolidate their rightful national pride.
Each morning, tales from India, Kashmir, Burma, Italy and New York City fortify my belief in the goodness of this country and its people, who despite many imperfections, move along with a kind and pure human spirit. So dear media, what a blessing truly Pakistan is despite the bleakness of your breaking news. Stop brewing an unwanted storm in Pakistan’s political tea-cup at this time of a pandemic.
Published in The Express Tribune, April 23rd, 2020.
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