Numbering death

26 Mar 2020


The writer is an author.
The writer is an author.

IF Covid-19 has to be given a human name, it should be christened ‘George Soros 2’, for no epidemic in modern memory has ravaged national economies on the scale the coronavirus has done.

A month ago, in February, the world was a functioning demi-Eden, governed by an unseen divine order. Nature, politics, economics, societies, and religions — each had its place in the universal scheme of things. Suddenly, come March, this virus has turned our delusions inside out.

Our belief in the world as a global village has been given a perverse twist. Covid-19 has proved that it can cross borders quicker than the most ingenious refugee. It can attack our social systems faster than victim governments take to decide on countermeasures.

With every death it causes, it exposes the sterile security strategy of countries that have prioritised defence expenditure over social needs. Covid-19 has made it clear that wealth has been expended on the wrong weapons. Military hardware is of no use against this invisible, microscopic enemy.

How many Pakistanis are expected to die?

Television and social media carry minute by minute reports, available at the press of a button, of the spread of Covid-19 across the world. They tell us that now its sun appears to be setting in China, and rising inexorably in the West.

This pandemic has spawned a platoon of pan-paramedics, each suggesting a remedy. Some reek of ignorance. One local hirsute sage here postulates that the only remedy is to boil and then consume the inner lining removed from the gut of three pigeons. Why pigeons? Because they frequent holy shrines. Another — a provincial governor, no less — swears that hot water will redirect the virus from the lungs to the stomach where the gut will take care of it.

The more knowledgeable advise that the simplest precautions are the most effective. First, social distancing to minimise transmission. One carrier can infect thousands. One self-quarantiner can protect thousands. Second, frequent hand-washing destroys the virus. The need for the latter is not simply an obsessive cleaning disorder. Experts agree that the Covid-19 virus has a protective coating of fat. Dissolve that with an emulsifier like soap, and the virus cannot survive.

The present pandemic has divided dramatically our world into haves and have-nots. The haves have testing equipment, adequately trained medical staff, ICU wards, ventilators, and mortuaries. But not enough. The have-nots have nothing except their mistakes to console them.

One would have imagined that developed countries would have followed a common strategy on the best way to deal with the virus. Some like China, Italy, France, even the United Kingdom have announced boldly, bravely, a national lockdown. (Trump’s US still prevaricates.) They can afford to: they are economically resilient. Pakistan is not. We were insolvent before Covid-19.

At a time when national unity should be above argument, our country is riven with dissension. The federal government is at odds with the provinces; political parties are shooting blanks at each other. The leader of the opposition returns to the country after a four-month self-quarantine in London. A PTI opponent suggests that he should be quarantined for another 15 days here.

Prime Minister Imran Khan in Islamabad refuses to order a national lockdown. The chief minister Sindh — despite the criticality of Karachi port as an export conduit — nevertheless orders a complete lockdown. The chief minister KP admits he needs the army to enforce civilian obedience. The chief minister Punjab is convinced that a two-day closure of public places would cow the virus into submission. At the request of the government, the army has decided to step in, to cauterise ineptness.

Pakistan, being a backward country with over 220 million citizens, can be forgiven for lagging behind other countries. As a sovereign, responsible nation, Pakistan cannot be forgiven for exposing its citizens to the now predictable effects of official negligence and callous inertia. Those who are yet to fall ill have time to avoid contamination. Those who are yet to die can with justification scream at their elected representatives in parliament: “A plague o’ both your houses. You have made worms’ meat of me.”

How many Pakistanis are expected to die? No one knows. No one will know for sure until the shrouds are counted. However, one truth remains. Covid-19 has outwitted an ordered world, outwitted the pharmaceutical industry which had yet to find a cure, and outwitted every faith by emptying out prayer centres.

Within a month, it has achieved a global reach that religion over millennia could not. It is forcing man to acknowledge that this planet actually belongs to nature. Man is merely a tenant with the responsibility that all tenants have — to maintain the property. Instead, Man has vandalised it — ruthlessly, selfishly, irreversibly. Nature is now exacting its price.

The writer is an author.

Published in Dawn, March 26th, 2020