KHUDA KI BASTI

Updated 22 Mar 2020

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A LARGE number of people, mainly labourers and daily-wage earners, are lined up at one of the free eateries set up by a welfare organisation.
—Fahim Siddiqi / White Star
A LARGE number of people, mainly labourers and daily-wage earners, are lined up at one of the free eateries set up by a welfare organisation. —Fahim Siddiqi / White Star

THERE is fear in the air. The roads are deserted. Once packed fast-food chains, bustling business districts and urban centres have now been taken over by an uneasy calm; a despondent stillness has replaced the hustle and bustle of Karachiites in major commercial centres. The coronavirus is striking every day.

In these testing times, some are cashing in at the expense of people’s lives. Hoarders of household goods, profiteers of health products, and tran­sporters, amidst fast-shrinking commuting services, are lining up for their turn to exploit the situation.

But here again, Karachi has a variety to offer. Amidst a storm of information, in less than 12 hours I encounter three people who make it clear the tradition of this city is thriving.

Among them is a young doctor exposing himself to the threat at the airport to scan suspected cases, a mother of three from Gulistan-i-Jauhar who is rolling up her sleeves to make a difference, and a man in a white uniform who is going the extra mile. Let’s meet these daily-life heroes — unsung and unnoticed — who are emerging as beacons of light in these uncertain times.

At the arrival lounge of the Karachi airport, I meet Dr Raza Baqar — a 27-year-old-graduate of the Dow University of Health Sciences, sleepless now for more than 17 hours and still steady with his group of colleagues. These are volunteers of the Sindh health department at the airport, exposing themselves to hundreds of travellers each day.

“The announcement from the government for volunteers came only last week,” says Dr Baqar. “Someone has to do all this. We don’t need to get scared. We need to stand firm and prove that we can do it. We take turns after every few hours but sometimes due to some other crucial engagements and emergencies; we need to perform without any break. Today, something like this happened and I am here without rest.”

In a five-room apartment in Gulistan-i-Jauhar’s block 17, Ayesha Nasar is sitting amongst bundles of paperbags outside her kitchen. The power supply is off due to unannounced loadshedding and her 12-year-old daughter is helping in the final counting of the bags before they are dispatched. I have come in touch with her through a social media appeal from a friend — her maternal cousin. This is our first meeting.

The announcement about the closure of shops, businesses and several other operations of daily life give Ms Nasar anxiety. “A TV channel showed how young daily-wage earners at Kapra Market were almost crying due to the closure of businesses,” she says with tears rolling down her cheeks.

“I couldn’t bear that. I asked myself, what could I do? Fortunately, having a circle of good friends and relatives, we could decide to contribute. My cousins and friends pooled in money and others contributed.”

Ms Nasar and her team have in two days spotted 27 families for ration delivery in Khuda ki Basti near Surjani Town, some 25 kilometres from the city centre. “What should I say? I am satisfied to some extent, rather than happy,” she says.

Receiving messages over my phone about the increase in the count of coronavirus patients in the country, with my city leading the trend, multiple thoughts strike. From the virus outbreak to generosity and from violent episodes to large heartedness, this city and its people always set the trend. As the sun sets, my thoughts remind me of how Karachi responded to calls of help and support after the 2005 earthquake and 2010 floods. Before I come to collect my thoughts, I meet another reality check.

At the intersection of Mazaar-i-Quaid, a traffic constable blows a whistle. As I pull the brakes, he comes close, brings his hands out of his pockets, and offers me a surgical mask. At my query, he says: “I saw you and another guy on a motorbike, the only two without masks. So I stopped you two. You stopped but he didn’t. Here it is. Cover your face.”

I’m surprised. I had only been expecting an argument, though I had committed no violation. Recovering from the shock and understanding what was really happening, I turn to the traffic constable, whose name I later come to know is Nabi Bux, and ask why he’s doing all this and not enjoying casual duty hours given that there are hardly any vehicles on the road.

“My boss has distributed packs of surgical masks amongst the constables or those who are performing duties in the field,” he replies. “There are some 80 masks. What would I do with all these? Better to bring them into someone’s use. I distribute them among people who I find riding or driving without masks.”

Published in Dawn, March 22nd, 2020