ONE would have thought that with the war against Covid-19 being waged across the world, regional conflicts would have been suspended. A truce, however uneasy, might have prevailed wherever conflicts were simmering. The UN Secretary General António Guterres hoped so. On March 23 he issued an appeal to warring parties within his jurisdiction (but out of his control) to put aside mistrust and animosity, to “silence the guns; stop the artillery; end the airstrikes”. Ten days later, he repeated the appeal: “There should be only one fight in our world today,” he said, “our shared battle against Covid-19.”
The secretary general, if he wanted to catch the attention of President Trump, should have tweeted instead of issuing a secular encyclical. In any case, President Trump is oblivious to such advice, even if it is free. His instinctive belligerence remains undiminished. He attacks China for being the reckless epicentre of the coronavirus. He opposes US state governors who dare to contradict him. He has no time and even less money for the World Health Organisation. And in a visceral response to his predecessor’s oblique reproof, he made his trade adviser Peter Navarro disparage Barack Obama’s administration as a “kumbaya of incompetence”.
Insults come in various shades. This one had been chosen deliberately for its association with Afro-American spirituals. At its lowest level of meaning, ‘kumbaya’ is defined as no better than ‘naïve idealism’.
If Covid-19 had to pick on any country, it could not have found one more vulnerable than Afghanistan. There are 12,000 US troops there still, awaiting repatriation under a deal signed recently between Trump’s envoy and the Taliban. Soldiers due to leave are barrack-bound by the virus. Meanwhile in Kabul, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and his political nemesis Abdullah Abdullah, after months of haggling like two bald men fighting over a toothless comb, have agreed on a power-sharing formula. They can now administer jointly or severally what is left of their war-devastated country.
Covid-19 could not have found a country more vulnerable than Afghanistan.
A low priority to both of them is the barbaric attack on a maternity ward in Kabul, during which 24 Afghan mothers, their children and newborn infants were murdered by unknown, unfeeling assailants. It was a cold, cruel act of unspeakable brutality. For the families, it was a tragedy of inhuman proportions. For the bullet-riddled infants, it was a mercy killing. They will never have to live in a country in which their fathers and grandfathers have witnessed nothing but unending carnage since the 1980s.
The UN secretary general should know better than to expect Indians and Pakistanis to implement a ceasefire in the disputed territory of Jammu & Kashmir. They have avoided it for the past 73 years. The Indian government, meanwhile, has extended the lockdown imposed in the former state to the whole of India. Pakistan is lifting its lockdown. Covid-19 has not, however, prevented them from sniping at each other regularly across the Line of Control.
Within Pakistan, political parties battle against each other in a perversion of our wayang-puppet democracy. Who would have thought that, confronted by a common enemy as deadly as Covid-19, the federal and provincial governments would have found so many fresh reasons to disagree?
Pakistan and the United Kingdom are following a parallel policy of opening their economies, some say prematurely. It is as if both governments are daring the coronavirus to do its worst. Johnson faces opposition from Wales and Scotland. Imran Khan is opposed by Sindh and other provinces. Johnson, despite allocating £93 million to finance a new Vaccine Manufacturing and Innovation Centre, confesses that a vaccine “might not come to fruition”. Imran Khan tells us to learn to live with Covid-19, as if it is an Afghan refugee. Both share the grim opinion that Covid-19 is here to stay.
Someone suggested jocularly that after lockdown is lifted, the two busiest professions would be barbers and divorce lawyers. A third might well be psychiatrists. The United Kingdom, having being slow in anticipating the coronavirus, it is alert to its impact on the human mind: “We are already seeing the devastating impact of Covid-19 on mental health, with more people in crisis,” said Prof Wendy Burn, president of the Royal College of Psychiatrists. “Our fear is that the lockdown is storing up problems which could then lead to a tsunami of referrals.” Such talk is like a moon-walk for us Pakistanis. We are still coping with health primaries.
Why has Pakistan not been affected as badly as other countries? Could it be the tropical heat? Do Pakistanis have a higher level of immunity because they thrive in contamination? If Covid-19 had a voice, it would reply: “Pakistan deserves leniency. It is a country already at war with itself.”
The writer is an author.
Published in Dawn, May 21st, 2020