Warring the virus

March 28, 2020

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

THE swiftness of the attack was matched only by its ferocity. The defence against it is belatedly feeble. By all estimates, it is an uneven fight.

And yet, this is not the first time that wars have been waged against overwhelming odds. This is not the first time that battles have been fought against superior enemies. And this is not the first time that struggles have succeeded against existential threats. Today, the world faces an unprecedented challenge that may forever change how we live our lives.

Here at home, however, there is a problem. In fact, there are quite a few.

Let us start with us: the governed. At first, a majority of Pakistanis did not take the threat of the coronavirus seriously. Throughout January and February, most of us pretended the virus was somebody else’s problem, and that it originated far away and would fizzle out farther away.

This denial of a reality staring us in the face with cold, dead eyes is a trait that has manifested itself in us repeatedly via conspiracy theories, fact-challenged narratives and imaginary threats. These invariably funnel themselves into a larger groupthink that is — often times than not — starved of scientific and evidential curiosity while fed fat with wishful conclusions and fanciful bravado that has little relevance to reality. Our reaction to the threat of coronavirus followed a similar trajectory. No surprise then that the virus found it easier to penetrate our bodies than to penetrate our minds.

Citizens want their leaders to stop flaunting power and start exercising leadership.

When it hit home with the first Pakistani patient on Feb 26, it did not really hit home. As the new month rolled over, we still boasted of six patients, while other countries outside China were struggling with the onslaught of infected patients. Here, all of us were flying merrily on the Pakistani tangent that wears fatalism as a badge of honour. This was unfortunately not the only badge we were wearing. There was the other one, dripping with social bluster, which went: ‘oye khair hai, kuch nahi ho ga — chill kar’ ” (It is ok, nothing will happen, so chill). There was more. The mock: ‘darr giya kiya?” (Oh, so you are scared); or the naiveté: ‘hummain kuch nahi ho ga kyunkay hum tu waisay hee saaf rehtay hain’ (nothing will happen to us because we remain hygienic). Then of course there was the usual mish-mash of hearsay and WhatsApp wisdom: summer heat will kill the virus, drinking warm water with x, y or z herb will kill the virus, or eating some poppycock of a meal will kill the virus. We had every explanation to understand the virus, except the actual one.

As March marched along, some in Pakistan began to understand the gravity of the situation. And yet, most struggled to wrap their minds around the reality that the virus did not respect borders or beliefs. For many of us who have answers for everything (and even when we do not, we can pull some out of our hats), it was a weird feeling not being able to comprehend a threat that could not be explained away as a plot or conspiracy by someone somewhere who was out to get us. Deprived of this convenience, we were lost in the wilderness of our own ignorance.

Many still are.

If this was not trouble enough, consider the government. At the best of times, our system of governance struggles to justify its existence in the sorry shape that it exists. In the best of times, those who run this system run it through processes, skills and attitudes that were considered modern in the times of the last Mughal emperor. This system of governance and those who govern through it are usually ill-suited to deal with an issue which does not fall within the parameters of laid-down procedures, or gazetted by-laws, or jurisdictional guidelines. In this system, an issue is resolved through either a notification, or an SRO, or an FIR, or an ordinance, or a suo motu. If all fails, you can always beat a solution out of a problem.

When the virus came along, the system was flummoxed.

At the best of times, our system of governance reeks of incompetence and malice. Add the state of flummox-ness to it and you have what we are witnessing today: a disaster unfolding in slow motion.

Is that so, asks the politician with his raised eyebrow?

Let us ask UK’s Imperial College. This is the college that issued a report on the coronavirus earlier this month which dramatically altered the policies of the US and UK. The same Imperial College issued an updated report on March 26. Here is some of what it says:

“We estimate that in the absence of interventions, Covid-19 would have resulted in 7.0 billion infections and 40 million deaths globally this year. Mitigation strategies focusing on shielding the elderly (60 per cent reduction in social contacts) and slowing but not interrupting transmission (40pc reduction in social contacts for wider population) could reduce this burden by half, saving 20m lives, but we predict that even in this scenario, health systems in all countries will be quickly overwhelmed. This effect is likely to be most severe in lower income settings where capacity is lowest…”

Governments exist for times like these; times that demand clarity, conviction and control. It is times like these that citizens demand of their governments and their leaders to take charge; to set direction; to enforce order; to project confidence through clear comprehension and determined decisiveness. It is times like these that Pakistanis want their leaders to compensate for their conspiracy-mongering, evidence-starved approach by being knowledgeable, lucid and articulate. For once, citizens want their leaders to stop flaunting power and start exercising leadership

It is indeed times like these that make leaders — or break them. Yet today it seems all the governance sins of our past — woeful lack of investment in health, education and human resource — have returned to bite us where it hurts the most. The next few weeks will decide the magnitude of this pain, and of the success or failure of our leadership.

The writer is Dawn’s resident editor in Islamabad.

Twitter: @fahdhusain

Published in Dawn, March 28th, 2020