THE moment of debate on whether or not we should have a lockdown has long passed. A decision was taken that we are not going to have a lockdown — at least not in the classic sense. There’s little point in arguing with the bosses over this now. A more realistic approach would be to try and concentrate your attention, post-decision, on more relevant matters. For example, how officials have gone about implementing the rules of this relaxed lockdown that they have introduced the country to, and what new special dimensions Covid-19 might lend to the coming Eid.
It is quite perplexing how the order for relaxation of whatever regime we had there in the name of lockdown has been quickly followed by wise counsel in the old mould as we are used to receiving from the elderly. Or it’s more like the sermon of the religious leader who is moved enough by the utter materialism around him to sermonise and warn his wayward masses against worldly temptations.
The path of law is easily swapped here for the moral one even when everyone knows who has been most instrumental in getting the people their freedoms to shop till they drop — hopefully from exhaustion. A friend likely to not lose his voice in a most adversarial din insists that it is not the workers who have forced this relaxation in the lockdown.
The holiday season this time is governed by some grim realities that are not easy to ignore.
As I try to counter him, my friend leaves me with his questions — nay interrogation. I have seen no workers’ rallies calling for an end to the lockdown, except for the ever-running pro-labour demo held by the prime minister each evening ever since the onset of the coronavirus. This friend of mine is stating what is obvious when he says it’s the tajir biradari or the traders or businessmen who have led to this sudden opening of the floodgates of the market days before Eid.
The cleric has little chance with these merrymakers at the end of the holy month of abstinence. So too the official orders that seek to bind various professionals to a code in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic. Those trying to control the great collections of people at the market appeared to offer the most hilarious in this series of government directives until the officials minding the public transport came into action.
There’s been a steady stream of them, which shows that the officials take those running various private transport options either as saints out on a mission to see the strayed wayfarer home or as utter fools. One very imaginative directive asked the bus managers — as well as their counterparts at airports and railway stations — to keep seats vacant between two passengers to observe social-distancing rules. Economic sanity prevailed soon afterwards when further advice or suggestion or directive said that intercity buses were allowed to seat people from the same family or related to each other without following the earlier anti-social and expensive guideline.
Now to those who know just how quickly the dreamy-eyed passengers who set out on an expedition make uncles and aunts and sisters and brothers out of total strangers sitting next to them, this second suggestion solves all our travel problems created by Covid-19 in one ingenious stroke. Everyone may be related to everyone else in a happy Eid bus taking the pardesis or ‘domestic foreigners’ to their annual pilgrimage home.
A lot fail to make the journey. Each time during Ramazan there is a clamour by various groups about the need to have freed prisoners kept in jails for minor offences for the simple reason that they had been unable to pay the fines imposed on them. Added to the ranks of these captives this time are a large number of people quarantined after testing positive for the coronavirus. Some of the pictures they make up are very scary.
The footage showing these patients as some kind of caged species on the edge may depict only a partial picture. In Lahore alone, there have been many instances where ‘corona inmates’ have been seen trying to break away from the hold of their captors. They are sufficient to put the fear of the disease in anyone who cares to see things beyond simple reassuring numbers where the equation hugely favours the sick against the dead.
This was an area where the chief minister could have really made his presence felt. But struggling to maintain visibility, Sardar Usman Buzdar has been unable to project himself as a trustworthy guardian of these quarantined Pakistanis in his province. What this has done is that it has put extra pressure on Sardar Buzdar’s Punjab government to deliver on other corona-related fronts. The government says the numbers favour them. But still there are rumours that the relaxation may only be Eid-specific and some restrictions may return after festive intermingling has been allowed.
This is typical for this time even if the circumstances are drastically different from the past. As it often happens towards the end of Ramazan, everything appears to exist in a daze. It is difficult to tell if the government of the people is in some kind of permanent mode right now or just drifting along, planning to take stock and restart on altered or totally different lines after Eid. This is a remarkable quality for a people to have; needless to say the same people make up the government.
Unfortunately, not everyone has the spirit of the shirtless revellers dancing their worries away inside a quarantine centre of those whiling away their time playing cards. Relief is certainly called for. But remember the holiday season this time is governed by a set of grim realities that are not easy to ignore. A possible answer is provided by the quarantine centre in the beloved and forever subtle and quiet Multan. They decided to have a game of kabaddi down there. You get touched by an opponent and you are dead. It’s all about distancing.
The writer is Dawn’s resident editor in Lahore.
Published in Dawn, May 22nd, 2020