The pandemic and our divergent responses

No calamity could have exposed the strengths, weaknesses of a nation better than a mega crisis such as the coronavirus

Talat Masood April 29, 2020
No calamity could have exposed the strengths and weaknesses of a nation better than a mega crisis such as the coronavirus. It has unmasked the leadership bare by the quality of its responses and the handling of the crisis. No less, it has brought in full open the indiscipline and lax culture of our society. It has been a stark reminder how we have neglected the education and health sectors. Some politicians have not even matured to the extent that they can hold their instincts for petty politics and semi-illiterate verbose to remain in the news.

Interestingly, the TV channels, their comperes and participants on talk shows have never been that fully unmasked as before. The depth of their knowledge, critical faculties, leanings for the mega-rich or sympathies for the poor is there for everyone to judge. Some have emerged genuine and knowledgeable, few well-informed, intelligent but bend the way their institutional interests demand and some mediocre. Nothing unusual in a world we live in!

The clergy’s insistence to keep the mosques open with some preventive caveats was contrary to what other Muslim countries are practicing. It is bereft with risks, but not unsurprising, considering that Imran Khan personally was indecisive in the matter.

Fortunately, not all is lost. The pandemic has aroused the best instincts in our people, the unflinching commitment and professionalism of the doctors, nurses and medical staff is there for everyone to see. Many have laid their lives and those who live remain dedicated knowing fully well that they stay on the knife-edge between life and death.

Equally heartening is the fact that we have capable microbiologists, virologists and epidemiologist whose contribution is commendable.

No less laudable are the hundreds of young volunteers and social organisations that have mushroomed to help communities all over the country. These are the future and backbone of our society, giving hope that some from them will also emerge as future leaders with a solid background of service to the society and better understanding of national weaknesses and strengths.

The quality of response of political leadership in handling the current overall crisis is central. It is clearly a war-like situation and even more challenging, as the enemy is invisible and striking at humanity as a whole. In these circumstances there is no time for blame game or point scoring. Sindh Chief Minister Murad Ali Shah clearly stands out and PPP’s young leadership gives hope that not all is wrong with our political system. It also goes to the credit of the Punjab government that they have felt no qualms in following the good policy decisions taken by Sindh or advice rendered by our able doctors.

The momentum and spirit generated to manage the crisis and take decisions in the larger interest of the country ought to be maintained. What could be transformational so that the era of family or feudal dominance in politics and economic policies should come to an end? And as the economic squeeze gets tightened, the cry for more fair and equitable economic policies should get louder and given perpetuity. A clear emphasis on widespread education and healthcare should be the priority of the government. This can only happen if there is a change within the political party’s structure and transition from patronage to performance orientation.

Hopefully, PML-N too would take advantage of converting the current crisis and shed the heavy shadow of family dominance. PML, under the leadership of Nawaz Sharif and brother Shahbaz, did contribute in building the economy and holding firm after the nuclear detonation. The party has some very experienced and able leadership in its ranks. The punishing pandemic and the country’s multiple challenges offer a great opportunity for PML-N to recast itself.

What may have not been visible is the significant contribution of the armed forces, rangers and ISI in the crisis. Despite being operationally engaged on both the western and eastern borders and in CPEC, the army continues to be a major pillar in the fight against the coronavirus.

The role of the police has been very commendable, considering that they are on the frontline risking their lives to save ours.

Much that the coronavirus provides a genuine opportunity for regional cooperation but India’s blind hostility toward Pakistan and Indian Muslims prevents any regional collaboration.

At the personal level, isolation provides a rare opportunity for introspection, to discover oneself and give attention to several areas that remain neglected due to the busy daily routine.

It is also time to feel and contribute in whatever modest way for the poor and less fortunate. As the month of Ramzan has fallen during the crisis, its spirit and message should be reinforced to fight the pandemic and feel for its victims.

At the national level, we cannot remain economically dependent or a basket case. A nation loses its respect and independence when its economy is being perpetually kept afloat through foreign loans and assistance. After 72 years of independence we should have been responsible for our own budget and cannot indefinitely live at the mercy and goodwill of international assistance and loans. What has not fully registered on our leaders is that economic dependence makes a mockery of pursuing an independent foreign or even a domestic policy. To me, and I expect to many of us, what was surprising was that some of our leaders were boasting that Pakistan was the first in calling for international assistance. True, the world and especially the developing one was the worst hit and needed assistance on an urgent basis, but our desperation is aggravated due to intrinsic economic and financial mismanagement spread over the years.

In light of this extraordinary crisis we need to reassess the threat perceptions and priorities including the allocation of our national resources.

After months, and hopefully not years, of going through the pains and agony of the coronavirus, will we as a nation emerge stronger or weaker or continue in the same rhythm, would be the greatest challenge before us.

Published in The Express Tribune, April 29th, 2020.

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