Post-truth in the time of coronavirus

Updated Mar 17 2020

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KARACHI: How quickly the post-truth era appears to be receding like the furious waves after a tsunami. The coronavirus spread has scared the living daylights out of the entire world. The danger is clear and present. Does that mean we switch from a post-truth time to a post-fact period? No. It’s time to sit back and be rational about the goings-on.

Take a deep breath, figuratively and literally. Creating panic, for no plausible reason, only compounds the problem. And that’s what seems to be happening ever since cases of the virus have begun to escalate in Pakistan in general and Karachi in particular.

Two strange (unofficial) announcements on Sunday on social media, more than anywhere else, made many in the Sindh capital fret over the situation. The first was attributed to Chief Minister Syed Murad Ali Shah, according to which, he had asked citizens to stock up on everyday items (food, toiletries, etc) for there was a possibility of a lockdown for two weeks. The second was a clip associated with Karachi Mayor Wasim Akhtar basically saying the same thing about a city shutdown. Both were false, obviously.

It would be futile to analyse who benefits from such an attempt to create chaotic, frenzied scenes. The answer is obvious, and it has economic ramifications. The people, on the other hand, need to be wary of such rumour-mongers because that’s how things have been in our country for a long, long time. In winter, prices of eggs skyrocket; in summer, yogurt becomes a precious commodity. Sadly, that’s who we are as a nation.

People should inquire about a false report before jumping into doing something rash

Right now, all we need to do is to stay calm and do the needful to prevent ourselves from contracting the virus. Thankfully, the authorities, at least in Sindh, so far, have taken steps in the right direction. Anyone who has even a semblance of disease is being screened. Or so we are told.

However, it is the citizens who need to shoulder the responsibility more than anyone else. All we have to do is to take the basic protective measures and follow the guidelines given by the World Health Organisation (WHO). We all know what they are: wash your hands frequently; maintain social distancing; avoid touching eyes, nose and mouth; practice respiratory hygiene; and if you have fever, cough and difficulty in breathing, seek medical care immediately.

That’s not too much to ask, is it? In fact, it will enable some of us, who are a bit lackadaisical about their day-to-day routines, to adopt cleanliness as an essential characteristic.

Now back to the mischief-makers. It’s not just those who want to take an economic advantage out of this health-sensitive scenario; of course, they are the ones who the government should confront with all its might. Call them mafias if you like. But there is another important aspect of it, which on surface doesn’t appear to be a worrisome one, which has deep psychological impacts: how social and mainstream media work. Both have played an extremely important part in creating awareness about the virus, make no mistake. And yet, inadvertently, and this happens more in the former’s case, they are also doing their bit in augmenting the fear. How?

Well, for example, suddenly people have now begun quoting from pieces of literature that have plagues and pandemics as their content core. Albert Camus’s novel The Plague is now being referred to and quoted from so frequently that had the author been alive today it would even have surprised him … unpleasantly. Not that it’s fundamentally wrong to do that. After all, that’s the relevance and importance of literature of high merit. It’s just that it makes the alarm bells sound louder.

Perhaps a bit of cheerfulness in difficult times — and times are difficult without an iota of doubt — can make the situation less frightening. Ironically, here one is reminded of a line from Shakespeare’s Othello when Othello has just killed his wife for wrongly doubting her fidelity. “She’s like a liar gone to burning hell. ‘Twas I that killed her.” To which Emilia, a compassionate character in the play, replies, “Oh the more angel she, and you the black devil.”

So let’s try and not be the ‘black devils’. Be calm and inquire about a false report before jumping into doing something rash. Things will look up, rest assured.

Published in Dawn, March 17th, 2020