Red zone files: Mercury rising

Updated May 28 2020

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Health Adviser Dr Zafar Mirza has mentioned the unmentionable: another lockdown. Well, he has dangled the possibility of one if citizens of Pakistan do not behave themselves and follow the Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) announced by the government as their weapon of last resort against the attack of Covid-19.

Has the weapon misfired?

Dr Mirza should know. He has access to information pouring in from all corners of the country and it is this information that — when tallied — paints an overall picture of how bad things are. Till a week ago, things were not that bad. In fact they were so un-bad that the government decided to tell a confused and dazed public that commercial life was ready to make a comeback. It’s fine, the government said. Infection hasn’t gone away but hunger is as bad, if not worse, than corona. The people nodded. Obviously. They were forced indoors — kind of — all these weeks and were feeling the economic pinch. Plus corona wasn’t all that it was made out to be, they thought. And why wouldn’t they? From the highest level they were consistently relayed direct and subliminal messages that while corona was serious, it wasn’t that serious; that while it was deadly, it wasn’t that deadly. Why would citizens not believe their government? Right?

So as the holy month of Ramazan bowed out in favour of Eidul Fitr, citizens broke away their Covid-19 chains and rushed out to breathe in the air of infection-laden liberty. Be careful, said the government as it unbolted the gates and let the crowds out. The citizens were duly warned, of course. They are now responsible for what might happen.

But not much is supposed to happen other than the gradual increase in the number of infected, we are told. Things are under control and there isn’t a whole lot to worry, we are told. There is excess capacity in hospitals and the equipment is not under stress, we are told. We can deal with more patients — many more patients — without any reason to panic, we are told.

So why should we panic? Policymakers inside the Red Zone believe from the bottom of their hearts that what they have done is right. They genuinely believe that they have things under control; that the deaths of Covid-19 are far less than feared; that there is something that is keeping the mortality rate surprisingly low that has little to do with lockdowns; and that this provides the government an opportunity to experiment with normalcy.

So why is Dr Mirza issuing a warning anew? Is it a routine affair or did something happen over the last week or 10 days? The health ministry website and its dashboard figures do not tell a story. Tests went down over the Eid holidays so the statistics are off. What we know however is that the last few weeks have seen a tremendous decrease in social and physical distancing. First when Ramazan started and Taraveeh prayers ensued and then closer to Eid when almost all sectors opened up. The outcome of this social closeness or proximity should now start reflecting in numbers. If there is no significant spike in death rate by mid-June, officials say, we should be fine.

Perhaps the random reports of some hospitals overwhelmed with patients are just that — random; perhaps some doctors panicking over an overload of sick citizens is just that — panic; and perhaps Dr Mirza cautioning against another lockdown is just that — caution. We may leave it at that. For now.

Now begins the season of politics. The budget session is scheduled for the first week of June and the parliament will have a marathon run till August in order to complete its mandated calendar days. Through the next Eid and onwards there shall be many fireworks inside the Red Zone as Covid-19 competes with the fallout of the sugar report that competes with NAB arrests, which competes with PIA crash investigations. Unless Covid-19 spirals out of control, we are looking at some intense politicking raining down on the federal capital.

Thankfully, there is less politicking on the nuclear issue which will be in focus today as Pakistan observes the 22nd anniversary of the successful nuclear tests. It was at 3.15pm on May 28, 1998 that Pakistan successfully conducted five nuclear tests in the mountains of Chagai thereby officially making Pakistan a nuclear power. It was the then prime minister Nawaz Sharif who resisted tremendous international pressure and gave the go-ahead for Pakistan to formally cross the nuclear threshold and enter the elite club of nuclear-armed states. This marked the culmination of a long journey started by Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto and carried forward through the years by successive leaders. This nuclear capability has enabled Pakistan to withstand relentless threats from India and today more than ever it remains a guarantor of our security, as Narendra Modi’s India continues to project a clear and present danger to Pakistan.

Published in Dawn, May 28th, 2020