Questions and answers

31 Mar 2020

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The writer is a journalist.
The writer is a journalist.

IT is the quietest of times and the noisiest of times. Life in some ways has slowed down considerably with the lockdown and social distancing. And yet, one is surrounded by a sense of urgency and uncertainty. How much can one do to avoid the virus? How much social distancing? How much hand-washing and disinfecting? How much of it all will keep the virus away? No one knows, however much one reads feverishly or listens to the experts.

Television, which is usually afflicted with breaking news, seems even more active than before — and rightly so. Social media works at an even faster pace — tweets, WhatsApp messages bring more information than one can absorb or sift through.

Numbers, statistics, statements, awareness messages — from prevention to philanthropy — are ubiquitous, and yet it is hard to make sense of the virus and how we are proceeding against it. The debate over what to do or not to do is difficult to absorb and comprehend.

‘The disaster at Taftan’

Take the mess in Taftan. A mess it was, no doubt, and the government has to take responsibility for its part in causing it, but the obsession over it even now is a wee bit incomprehensible. Undoubtedly, the manner in which the pilgrims from Iran were kept together at Taftan may have caused the virus to spread among all the pilgrims, but their quarantine in Taftan and beyond may have ensured that few of them caused the spread locally. And yet, commentators continue to see it as ‘the’ reason Pakistan is doomed.

To do or not to do is what the prime minister can’t stop debating.

A little unfair perhaps, as we are told that the ones who spread the infection locally were the travellers who flew back to Pakistan and went around unaware of the danger they posed? Take Mardan for example. It was a couple of air travellers who may have infected enough people for the government to seal an entire union council. A pilgrim who returned from Saudi Arabia was welcomed by the entire village on his return. And when he was the first death in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, testing of a group of those around him revealed that nearly 40 people were infected. The authorities had to seal the entire union council.

And yet, Taftan is what the government is beaten for when it should be asked why its efforts at the airports were so flawed. Is there a class bias to our view of what causes the real danger? Those who are speaking the loudest are air travellers themselves; it is hard to see ourselves as the problem?

These are questions I find hard to answer. Perhaps someone will be able to explain why Taftan was the ‘real’ danger.

‘Might of the right’

On the other hand, some aspects are so easy to understand because even pandemics cannot change a state in the habit of kowtowing to the religious right. So, while the poor pilgrims will be forcibly quarantined for the greater good, the religious right cannot be stopped from spreading the infection. A major cause of ‘clusters’ appears to the proselytisers; they caused a neighbourhood on the outskirts of Islamabad to be sealed. A member of the Tablighi Jamaat from Kyrgyzstan was unwell and continued to stay in a mosque in Bara Kahu till he visited the hospital and the authorities realised he had the coronavirus and sealed the neighbourhood. And in Kasur, nearly 50 people from the same organisation are now in quarantine.

But even these figures have not been able to push the federal government to ban congregations in mosques. It continues to negotiate with clerics, in the hope of convincing them to stop rather than do its job of making a tough decision. As always, our federal governments lose all will and authority when facing the clerics. There is no need to ask any questions here for the answer is obvious — and has been so for 70 years.

‘Food is not the only answer’

And sometimes, the questions and answers become so circular that it is hard to look at problems afresh. The noise in itself prevents solutions. This seems to have become the case in the lockdown debate. To do or not to do, is what the prime minister can’t stop debating either. Admittedly, not many choices are available and, so far, a lockdown is all that appears to work — short of testing, testing, testing which requires resources just not available — worldwide. Those in charge are worried, and rightly so, about the economic needs of the vulnerable and how to provide them food, but surely this concern should not prevent them from paying attention to other issues as well.

The more vulnerable need food but they also need to take preventive measures against the virus and this requires them to wash their hands often. Why can’t the debate over how to make the lockdown bearable also focus on how the more vulnerable citizens in informal settlements can be assisted to wash their hands? No public policy debate or the questions being asked are pushing the state to deliver water and soap to the poorer urban settlements. Urban planners say such efforts are being made in the African countries.

Can we not add hygiene of the more vulnerable to the debate? For right now, it seems that the vulnerable only need to eat to live (and they work to earn enough to eat), and that cleanliness is not really something important.

Postscript: Nationwide awareness campaigns can sometimes spread as much fear as awareness. Someone called to say a young female domestic worker was showing symptoms of the virus but was scared of the authorities finding out. As a result, she was visiting quacks and hakeems who wouldn’t report her case to anyone in charge. She can’t be the only one. Once again, the outreach at the community level cannot be limited to just supplying food. The government should just pay attention to what China did to realise this.

The writer is a journalist.

Published in Dawn, March 31st, 2020