The surplus masks

Beyond the absurdity of not following public health practices, we are creating longer-term challenges for ourselves

Muhammad Hamid Zaman March 02, 2021
The writer is a Howard Hughes Medical Institute professor of Biomedical Engineering, International Health and Medicine at Boston University. He tweets @mhzaman

I have a business proposition. Pakistan should become a face-mask exporting country. If we are not there already, we should get there pretty soon. Early on in the pandemic, the local manufacturers produced masks for the people of the country, but because no one seems to be interested in wearing them, let us convert this into an export business. There is a global demand and we have a supply to meet it. There is a pandemic out there in the world, and people in most countries are sticking by the rules and wearing masks in public, during meetings, and in indoor and outdoor gatherings. Since we are neither interested in heeding to public health guidelines by international agencies or those of our own government, we should convert this rich resource into real foreign exchange.

If you feel that I am being sarcastic, you are only half right. Indeed there is sarcasm here, but there is little debate on how well we adhere to good public health practices. In the halls of the parliament, where there is active debate on some important issues (for example, child marriage and the ugliness of elderly men marrying young teenage girls) and plenty of point scoring (for example, everything else), we rarely see anyone wearing a mask. This includes cabinet members, opposition party leaders, the cameramen, the news media and other staff. The parliamentarians also sit next to each other with no real social distancing. In conferences and meetings, led by medical doctors (including those who are in the government, and those who are not), masks are a rare sight. Looking at videos and pictures, one gets the feeling that the odd person is not the one who is not wearing a mask, but the character who is wearing one. Who knows what kind of bullying do the mask-wearers get these days!

Beyond the absurdity of not following the proper public health practices, we are creating other longer-term challenges for ourselves as well. Our attitude creates a false sense of invincibility. Instead of humility, we create in ourselves a sense of hubris about ourselves. On a scientific level, our continued disregard is an opportunity for the virus to thrive and mutate. There is a South African variant and a UK variant and possibly a New York variant. If we continue on our path, there may be a Pakistani variant as well. With vaccine hesitancy and no masks, this will not turn out well.

But why do we refuse to wear masks?

There are three plausible explanations for our collective odd behaviour. First, we believe that everyone has been vaccinated or is immune. Two, there is no longer any local transmission in the country. Or three, people simply do not care. It is not very hard to know that neither the first nor the second hypotheses are true. So, the only logical explanation of our behaviour (including those who are supposedly well-informed, educated, etc) is that we simply do not care. For some, it takes the form of conspiracy and for others it is this notion that the virus is too weak to break us. So we simply do not care. We do not care despite the fact that most people I know in Pakistan have lost a loved one, a friend, a relative or a colleague in the last year to Covid. We do not care despite what the healthcare workers at the frontline are saying. We are not interested in changing the way we live. Our real bond is not with our family and friends, it is with our way of life. If we cannot change — even for a little bit — in the face of a global pandemic, I wonder if there can ever be any tabdeeli.

Published in The Express Tribune, March 2nd, 2021.

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