Seeking bread and hope

Fear guides us to make our decisions.


Muhammad Ali Ehsan May 10, 2020
Prime Minister Imran Khan. PHOTO: PID/FILE

For over a month and a half now, for the poor it has been all about how to get their hands on food. For them all these days it has been a matter of survival and so when the National Coordination Committee (NCC) on Thursday decided to phase-wise end the coronavirus-induced lockdown across the country, it must have come down for them as a great relief. So far, with over 27,000 Covid-19 patients and more than 600 reported deaths due to the virus in the country it is geometry (rise and fall of the curve) and mathematics (number of sick and dead) that has been influencing government’s decision-making. Only on Thursday it seemed it was finally decided that regardless of the timing of the spike the government must provide hope to the poor and treat them not just as numbers but living and breathing people who must be provided with an opportunity for themselves and their families to earn the much elusive bread and butter.

Fear guides us to make our decisions. Panic-setters create obstacles in decision-making and loss of politics and power also figures out as a determining hurdle in making our decisions. The possible increase in the mortality rate frightens us so we prefer remaining locked down. While the deaths due to the virus may be drawing all the attention today, it is the slow-moving causes that deprive millions of people of not being able to put their lives together in the current corona-infested environment that many may lose hope in the future to live. Will we still have a graph or the right mathematics to count the deaths of despair.

Countries like Pakistan may never have data available to count deaths of despair but many people, mostly poor, will die of despair without us knowing about them. Even before the coronavirus hit the world, the US was the leading country where people were dying deaths of despair. Post-coronavirus wouldn’t these number in the US and elsewhere in the world increase?

In US the increasing mortality has been recorded between the age of 25 and 64. Three major causes of death of despair have been drug overdose, alcoholic liver disease and suicide. Over 70,000 Americans were killed due to drug overdose in 2017 and more than 700,000 have been killed since 2000. The 2017 deaths are more deaths than what Americans experienced in Vietnam War or what was caused by AIDS at its peak in 1995. The 700,000 deaths by despair caused in the US since 2000 are more than the US deaths in both world wars. So while we are counting the deaths by the coronavirus every day, are we really concerned about the psychological problems that the economic inactivity and the shutting down of the business is causing to the people? More people may die in future without us knowing about them not because of the virus but only because of our timid approach and delay in not to allow them to get back stage by stage to living a normal life.

Politicians want to make the right decisions but life is judged not by the decisions but their consequences. All decisions today must be made on the basis of what bottom 30% of the people may be able to take back home. They will only take back home if they get out of their homes and are allowed to work. The great tragedy of life is that these bottom 30% which are the most affected yet are not represented in the decision-making bodies as those that make the decisions are the top 5% the sugar, wheat and IPPs (independent power productions) aristocrats or their political representatives.

The abuse of privilege exercised by the top 5% of the society has ambushed the way life for the poor could have improved in this country. It was Rene Descartes (1596-1650), a French philosopher who spoke about the possibilities and impossibilities by saying that “the greatest minds are capable of the greatest vices as well as of greatest virtues”, that “it is not to have good mind, the main thing is to use it well”. The creators of the widening gap between the rich and the poor created not only numerous but concentrated working class — concentrated in the vast shanty towns and slums. We didn’t give them clean drinking water and living conditions, how do we expect them to adhere to SOPs (standing operating procedures)?

The Prime Minister says that to be able to fight back against the virus we have to adhere as a nation to the SOPs — the step by step instructions being dictated by the Centre and the provinces to regulate public life. Hoping to exercise influence on the people the government’s unlocking strategy proceeds in a mist. One of the first lessons given to a newly commissioned officer when he joins his unit is: “Never give an order that you know cannot be implemented.” Adherence to SOPs is a wishful thinking. Those that will act on them will be far fewer than the majority that will violate them. Adherence to them demands brutal discipline while we, as a nation, hardly even display the ordinary one.

In a country where privileges by birth are still paramount, there will be very few who will speak for the rights and privileges of the poor and underprivileged. Today, politics is divided between those that see disappointments and failures as a challenge to overcome and those that see them as warning signs to be heeded and entrench. Politics has embraced these two roles. Are we rightly questioning these roles and the expected consequences that they are likely to bring?

The Prime Minister has a view — a national view but what good is that view if he can’t convert it into policy? The meaningful difference in the life of the poor can only come from a wholesale replacement and not changes within impracticable and unworkable policies. A scandal-driven democracy with a Centre under the siege of provinces and a parliament under the siege of legislatures that hardly legislate will never be able to deliver.

The poor seek bread and hope not from the breeders of wealth and power. They seek it from the man who has promised them a welfare state. It is the support of the people that matters, it ordains better policymaking and better governance but for that the people must re-elect the elected with a thumping majority. Without it many would continue to seek bread and hope and all they will get in return is hunger and mismanagement.

Without mid-term elections, democracy is likely to retain a shackled Prime Minister with plenty of hopes but little workable plans.

Published in The Express Tribune, May 10th, 2020.

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