Binary choices

March 28, 2020

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LAST week, I wrote that I was so sick of the wretched coronavirus that I was going to hibernate until it was over. With everybody and his/her brother writing about it, I thought I would give my readers a break, and do a column about something else.

But after scratching my head long and hard for hours, I found that the world was so preoccupied with Covid-19 that it did not have another thought in its head. So here I am, with yet another piece on the pernicious coronavirus. I hope that my readers will forgive me.

Much of the ongoing discussion, both on social media and in the newspapers, has centred on the need to pray at mosques as tradition demands. It is obvious that many of our mullahs and religious parties are having none of this. Their response has been clear: believers will pray in congregation at mosques, come what may. This, of course, is contrary to what other Muslim countries have decreed. Even Saudi Arabia has temporarily suspended umrah, and there also appears to be uncertainty regarding the arrangements for Haj.

Poor countries like ours simply cannot absorb the long-term punishment handed out by the coronavirus.

The reason, of course, is the dreaded Covid-19 virus. By now, there is hardly a soul on the planet who is not aware of the danger that the disease poses, the speed of its transmission, and the potency of its virulence. So country after country has gone into lockdown.

Sri Lanka has imposed a rolling curfew. And although people are rendered jobless and cannot shop for days on end, they are disciplined enough to stay indoors. Even our beach is deserted.

With considerable reluctance and contrary to advice, we are heading towards England where a cold spring awaits us. But more than the cold, I fear the flight: I am told that the germs on the plane are lethal as they are easily transmitted. So I will be covered from head to toe, and will have to wear a mask and gloves. Luckily, I have organised a wheelchair that will spare me the endless corridors at Heathrow. Plus, I will be able to avoid the long immigration queues at the airport.

However, once home in Dorset, my wife intends to place me in serious lockdown, so we will not be able to go out at all. A young lady has volunteered to shop for us and leave the shopping at the doorstep. Thank goodness for Netflix.

Apparently, if you are of a certain age, cops stop you and insist that you go home. I do not know how the jobless are surviving. Small shops are equally facing closure while big businesses may soon go bust. And of course I will not be able to meet friends: who knows where they have been?

Back home, our prime minister continues to hold forth over the futility of lockdowns, telling his admirers that they should stay strong. In one TV broadcast, I heard him say that coronavirus was like the flu, and you just suffered from a cold and cough that soon disappears. Clearly, the large volume of medical literature on the subject has passed him by.

Perhaps, we should not expect a towering intellect from our leaders. But anyone can follow simple advice on social distancing. It is hard to make children understand the reason for this separation when those in charge appear to say that the coronavirus is no big deal.

Leaders lead by personal example, even though people like Imran Khan, Donald Trump and Boris Johnson often appear too confused to forge a consensus. They have floundered in their response to the pandemic, but the US and the UK have announced a hefty payout to individuals and small businesses that have been badly hit by the coronavirus. However, the amounts are peanuts when compared with the needs of the public.

It is apparent that this disease will wreak havoc on the health and wealth of millions of people around the world. And we do not know how long it will take to subside. Poor countries like ours simply cannot absorb the long-term punishment handed out by the coronavirus day after day. Something will have to give. Our budget, which is already skewed heavily in favour of defence, cannot be squeezed any further to buy military equipment. So the choice becomes binary: toys for the boys, or cash to keep the poor alive.

These are difficult options for the strongest elected leader, but almost impossible ones for politicians who many believe had the support of invisible aliens. I realise that massive cuts are impossible, but moderate reductions can surely be made.

And while the Indian threat is real and serious, we simply cannot match our neighbour dollar for dollar. Clearly, the government needs to negotiate these cuts with the military brass. But equally clearly, this can only happen if they listen.

irfan.husain@gmail.com

Published in Dawn, March 28th, 2020