CORONA is here to stay.
Wrapping one’s mind around this reality is not easy. Neither is it pleasant. By all expert accounts, however, we shall have to learn to live with coronavirus forever and ever. What might that do to how we live our lives — or have lived so far — and how might we embrace the change; this debate is in its infancy in Pakistan. If that.
This is why every second person you speak to nowadays will say: ‘let’s meet when this is over’, or ‘we will get this done when this is over’. Well hey, newsflash: corona is not an event that will end at some point and we shall move on with our lives. These difficult times that we are all enduring — the lockdowns, social distancing, no handshakes, no crowds, no events jam-packed with people — they will persist in one form or shape for a very long time to come. Perhaps so long that they will weave changed lifestyles stitched together with changed habits and knitted together with changed routines. There is, in all likelihood, no going back to the way we lived before the virus rudely interrupted our lives.
This breeds uncertainty. It also breeds a fear for the future. This fear — a strangely new kind of fear akin to entering a dark tunnel and not knowing how long it is — spreads like the virus itself. An asymptomatic carrier of such fear can unknowingly, unwillingly, and unintentionally infect others.
Within the folds of this change lies a glimmer of opportunity.
Like the virus, fear lurks in clusters and feeds on knowledge. If you’re oblivious of the virility of the virus, you will probably be oblivious of the fear too. Perhaps that is not a bad thing as long as it does not make people infect other people; perhaps this obliviousness will mutate into a reluctant embrace of a changed life; a new social and cultural normal that will grow organically around us. Either way, fear here, now, today, is a force that is driving individuals, families and governments out of their chronic zones of comfort and into the dark tunnel of uncertainty that has no end in sight.
Except that it does. Welcome to Tomorrowland.
There is much that we — even in times as troubled as now — know about this land that lies beyond our fears. We know about the transition to online learning; about a change in social interactions and, to an extent, a change even in our personal hygiene. We also know our travels will be affected as will certain sectors of the economy linked to travel. In this land, we can see now, everyone will be more careful of everyone else and everything else that can impact our health and well-being. All this will happen regardless of how bad the situation gets in the coming weeks or months; or doesn’t. There is no escaping change.
And yet hidden within the folds of this change lies a glimmer of opportunity for a transformation at a scale that could — if someone harnessed this opportunity — take our collective breath away.
Imagine: health becomes our national obsession. We transform health security into as critical a national priority as national security, with similar budgets and resources invested in it. This money and this focus leads to an unbelievable revamp of the entire health infrastructure based on the lessons we learn while coping with the coronavirus.
In the last few weeks, we have discovered, to our surprise, that we can build our health capacity in a very short period of time. Who would have thought till a few months back that the Pakistani state could get so much health equipment, and build so many health facilities and formulate so many health policies in such a short time? Who would have thought our doctors and health workers could work so valiantly under so much pressure in such difficult circumstances with such high stakes and save so many lives? If the state wills, and the governments will, and the leaders who sit atop the official pyramids will, Pakistan too can build a health sector that can be the envy of most countries.
Imagine: cleanliness becomes our national obsession. Governments take it up as a challenge to obsessively clean their cities and towns of all garbage and filth and litter. All public places are swept clean, sprayed clean and disinfected clean as part of standard operating procedures. We have the manpower, as we see now; we have the resources and managerial skill, as we see now; and we have the focus within officialdom, as we see now, to get things done. Of all the things, corona is teaching us the necessity of getting things done.
The governments compete with each other to clean up every town, city and metropolis within their jurisdictions. Local bodies are revived, empowered and capacitated to get the work done with the same single-mindedness we are seeing now. If we can obsess now, we can obsess then. A spanking clean Pakistan sounds rather nice.
Imagine: education becomes our national obsession. The future is online and the future is here. Under the force of circumstances, Pakistan is leapfrogging many years into online education. With greater focus, greater resources, greater technology and greater obsession, online education can revolutionise the creaking education sector that has been consistently failing our children for seven decades. With the highest priority right from the top, and a maniacal urgency to get it done, we can fast-track our timelines to educate every single child in Pakistan.
Fear makes one act. Pakistan has a chance to shrug off the self-imposed rot of inertia that bedevils our governance structures. Corona is a shock. Let it shock us out of the old ways of doing things and catapult us across the other side of the crisis into a better place called Tomorrowland.
The writer is Dawn’s resident editor in Islamabad.
Published in Dawn, April 18th, 2020