Virtual communities

09 Apr 2020


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

A BOOK appeared in 2002. It contained this scenario: “The time 2020: … A so-called ‘dirty bomb’ [for dirty bomb, read Covid-19] has spread nuclear waste over a wide area centred on Manhattan. As many as 20 million people may be affected.”

“[In London, Paris, Munich and Rome,] the toll of casualties is expected to be in the thousands. Air travel is at a standstill[.] Government collapses in Africa have left that continent reeling from an outbreak of vicious local wars. Meanwhile, revolutions in Egypt, Jordan, Algeria and Saudi Arabia have created a Middle East dominated by fundamentalist regimes. The global economy is in a state of collapse and, in one country after another, unemployment is at a record high.

“Throughout the West, city centres and public spaces have become derelict and decaying no-go zones with vagabond populations of drug addicts, the homeless and the violent. The wealthy live in gated enclaves protected by massive, privately funded security systems. Hundreds of thousands die annually as a result of freak weather conditions — through droughts, floods and typhoons — brought about by global warming. Pollution has made it impossible to walk in city streets without a protective mask[.] The world is in the midst of a new dark age.”

This vision of doomsday appears in The Dignity of Difference by Dr Jonathan Sacks, former chief rabbi of the UK. It was his dark alternative to a halcyon age we enjoyed, before Covid-19, of global prosperity underwritten by advancements in education, science and technology.

The affluence we took for granted is as irrelevant as Versailles.

Yet, here we are in 2020, in a world, self-locked down, ambushed by one virus. The affluence, the comforts, the indispensable luxuries we took for granted are as irrelevant as Versailles. Civilisation has regressed to the 18th century. We live in “the mirage of virtual community”. Humans are holograms, communicating through screens with the spirits of the living.

By the end of this summer, medico-scientists assure us that, with precautions and containment, the coronavirus should have exhausted itself. Life will begin afresh. What will that new normal be? For sure, it will never be Robert Browning’s “glad confident morning again!” Probably closer to John Milton’s “dismal situation waste and wilde”.

Two recent official reports from Islama­bad attempt to assess the damage caused to Pakistan by Covid-19. They are leavened by the yeast of optimism. Optimism was once defined by the American wit Ambrose Bierce as “the doctrine or belief that everything is beautiful, including what is ugly”. And nothing can be uglier than our economic situation, despite Islamabad’s assiduous beauty treatment.

The first report, by the Nust Institute of Policy Studies, bears the misleading title Impact of the Coronavirus Outbreak on Pakistan’s Economy: Challenges and Way Forward. It shows no way forward except a path that leads back to platitudes. The second — another attempt at fiscal prescience — is the Ministry of Finance’s Medium Term Budget Strategy Paper, 2020-2023, compiled also after the Covid-19 attack. The ministry’s projections have to be read to be disbelieved. From 2019-20 to 2022-23, economic growth will double from 2.6 per cent to 5.1pc, inflation will halve from 11.7pc to 5.3pc. No estimates have been given of a predictable decline in exports or a foreseeable reduction in foreign remittances, or of tax revenues. The report is more comfortable with outflows. These will increase over the same period: Interest obligations, from Rs2,800 billion to Rs3,295bn; defence Rs1,250bn to 1,752bn; grants Rs768bn to Rs1,009bn; and the cost of governance from Rs470bn to Rs520bn. Pakistan, the report assures us, has a glorious future — behind it.

Covid-19 could not have come at a worse time for Pak­istan. The spring crop is to be harvested by migrant workers. Hot summer is anxious to evict a benign spring. The holy month of Ramazan nears, when traders increase commodity prices, particularly sugar. An inquiry committee constituted last month by the prime minister on speculation by sugar barons in 2018-19 has told the government to take swift action, if necessary, by importing sugar which it had allowed to be exported. Oddly, the inquiry committee recommends an “immediate crack down on the Satta players who are well known to the Provincial Special Branch and Intelligence Agencies”.

The report discloses that subsidies totalling Rs2.47bn were paid to sugar producers/exporters in 2018-19. This state largesse includes names linked to major political parties normally inimical to each other — the PPP, PML-N, PML-Q and PTI. Greed overcomes what Sigmund Freud called “the narcissism of small differences”.

The PTI government has responded. Heads have rolled. Unimaginably, Imran Khan’s confidante, staunchest ally and the party’s ATM — Jahangir Tareen — has been disowned.

Corruption and Covid-19 compete in claiming casualties.

The writer is an author.

Published in Dawn, April 9th, 2020