Process of elimination

March 20, 2020


The writer is Dawn’s resident editor in Lahore.
The writer is Dawn’s resident editor in Lahore.

THIS is a process of elimination which would have taken Agatha Christie only a few minutes to explain. The suspects are all there, identified by experts, and endorsed by your leaders in their addresses to the nation. All you have to do is follow their clues to mark yourself as safe.

You are safe from the latest coronovirus strain if you happen to be one of the 98 per cent of people who the specialists believe are going to survive the onslaught. The well-intentioned and very active adviser to the government has been saying it all along. There is no need to panic, he has been asserting rightly, a sentiment that has been echoed nationally and internationally.

But this 98pc security is not good enough for everyone. There are always those who need additional assurances before the ‘we are safe’ theory can apply to them. This necessitates more groups — based on age, and based on those considered vulnerable by doctors because of their medical history.

Yet more factors are added by social agents. An element of religion is added. It is noted the pious who go to mosques and to holy places are more susceptible to the virus. Certain sects may be more resistant to not fighting the threat than others. And those who party late into the night must try and reduce their hours of exposure.

Why so much stress on the lack of resources where you needed to display your strongest side to the people?

There are boundaries galore that have to be reinforced. The quarantine. The origins. How it could have been best smothered at the point of origin by cutting off the town from the rest of the world. That is an old story now. It is between ‘our own’ provinces and cities and people now.

Pick your clues. For example, you are alright if you happen to be at a safe distance from the ghettos of Taftan or the disease-breeding dungeons of D.G. Khan, which from its appearance and grievances is more Balochistan than privileged Punjab. You could be safer in Punjab where the incidence is still low as compared to Sindh that has received more than 200 COVID-19 patients so far.

There are of course other modern ways this Agatha-like game of eliminating the suspects in the room, one by one, can be played. The spiritually blessed are first to be separated from the ordinary, followed by the physically uncompromised. The one who has mastered the skill of socially isolating himself or herself may come to that side. Next, the ones who have stocked up on hand sanitisers for a lifetime — stretching between a few weeks and a few decades — may step aside. Now let us see who among the prime list we are left with.

Let us not say that this is unnecessary. We all need assurances. And this precisely is the point here. All of us need assurances from those in authority; we need a pat on the back from those empowered, rather than being discriminated against in the name of strengthening the majority.

The officials are doing their bit, their best. They must be appreciated just as they are to be reminded, from time to time, of urgent work requiring their attention. But then it would not hurt the good doctor or the sincere and honest prime minister if they tried to make an effort to reassure everyone here without exception.

The majority rules. This is why we cannot have lockdowns. We have to care for the poor, we learn again on the good authority of the prime minister. We are a poor country of daily wagers who have lately drawn the attention of journalists towards their problems during an epidemic that forces large-scale closure. That is a very valid point, sir. But why so much despondency where you could have used the space at your disposal to express resolve? Why so much stress on the lack of resources where you needed to display your strongest side to the people? And why no buck-up signs to the people left outside the so-called safe circle?

There has been criticism of governments being reduced to performing the routine of television channels ever since the COVID-19 epidemic outbreak. Wash hands, keep social distance, stay hydrated, self-quarantine in case of suspicion, watch how other countries are coping with it, and do not panic — it seems that all these worthy officials and politicians are looking for careers as social commentators on television post-retirement. The government has been accused of delayed reaction, but one would like to believe that some effort is being put in.

The rulers and their teams could yet win people’s respect by ensuring some basics such as an uninterrupted supply of commodities in an atmosphere rife with fear about an impending catastrophe. Once again, the absence of an effective local government system in times of extreme need is most strongly felt.

Within the system that they have, we have no option but to believe that they are not looking to wash their hands of it in a hurry here. It is a global threat and everyone is following a global model. The model applied is pretty much the same as the one which the dream merchants in Milan and elsewhere have been using to catch the fancy of ‘those who matter’. Who matters? The so called 98pc. The people in that age group. The fit. The fittest. The prime minister of a poor resourceless country is seeking to assure and reassure those with no serious medical history, without obviously realising that he might end up scaring the already vulnerable.

It is the same pattern that your fashion designers follow. Designing for the fittest, the slim and able-bodied, beginning with size zero. The millions of plump, unkempt and shamed, their jacket pockets drooping under the weight of vitamin bottles and their attire reeking of hospital odour can find their own cloak to isolate themselves in.

The writer is Dawn’s resident editor in Lahore.

Published in Dawn, March 20th, 2020