Living with the virus

May 28, 2020

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I.A. Rehman
I.A. Rehman

THE government had been warned in these columns of challenges to its campaign against Covid-19 during Ramazan from the religious lobby, profiteers and beneficiaries of Eid shopping and Eid-eve travellers. It chose to yield to all the pressure groups.

Under the fig leaf of SOPs, which were respected more in the breach than the observance, the ulema held congregations in mosques more or less as they pleased, took out processions in violation of an understanding with the authorities and invited condemnation for the latter for taking action against them. The traders demanded freedom to open their businesses and they got it not only from a sympathetic government but also from the Supreme Court.

Meanwhile, the government moved away from the regime of lockdown, which was never enforced anywhere due to the prime minister’s repudiation of the idea. Figures were fed to the media that more people were dying due to various causes, including road accidents than to the epidemic, and the virus deaths were too low to justify a lockdown. Besides, it was argued that normal economic activity could not be suspended forever. A decision to live with the virus was taken. The choice between living and dying was left to the people though nobody could vouch for their amenability to discipline.

Islamabad looked at worse examples than its own anti-virus experiments. For instance, the world marvelled at New Zealand’s success in controlling the virus at quite an early stage. This was attributed by New York Times, as early as April 27 to, “throwback democracy — in which partisanship recedes, experts lead and quiet coordination matters more than firming the base”.

The government will have to remain on its toes to stay ahead of the problems.

Pakistan chose to move in the opposite direction; it moved away from democracy and put a premium on partisanship, sidelined the experts, and quiet coordination was outside its experience.

The result is that coronavirus cases in the country quadrupled over the month of fasting, from 12,000 to more than 50,000. The number of children affected also rose by a similar margin in 20 days (between May 2 and May 24). There were up to 50 deaths and 2,500 fresh cases in a single day. The target of 40,000 tests per day was never achieved. However, the government carried out a massive drive to prevent millions of workers, who had lost their sources of livelihood, from dying of hunger. Civil society distributed foodstuff on a large scale. There have been no reports of casualties from hunger.

Where do we go from here? Complete lockdown stands discredited without being tested. It was never proposed as a cure for Covid-19; it was always suggested as a means of containing the spread of the disease by putting the masses in a sort of isolation. One doesn’t know whether the government will enforce what is described as a smart lockdown or try to keep the daily increase in infections as low as possible through the enforcement of SOPs, something that has not happened so far.

At the same time, notice must be taken of the lack of hospital beds to meet the demand as the number of virus cases peaks around the middle of June. The medical community has so far borne virus casualties in their ranks with admirable fortitude but it would be wrong to close one’s eyes to the signs of fatigue among them as well as their grievances against the lack of respect being shown towards their professional knowledge and skills.

The government will be under pressure to completely restore economic activity, withdraw restrictions on all modes of transport, and ensure full attendance at government offices and institutions. After the end of July, the question of allowing educational institutions to open will have to be addressed in a rational manner. Thus, living with the virus will not be as simple as leaving the people free to save themselves with their admittedly limited means; the government will have to remain on its toes to stay ahead of the problems that a substandard administration and an untrained citizenry will continue to create.

It will not be enough for the National Command and Operation Centre to give out statistical formation and analysis of the virus situation with which the informed citizens might already be familiar; it will have to help and guide the official functionaries and the public both to deal with the epidemic not only firmly but intelligently also.

During the holy month of Ramazan, quite a few elements advanced their agendas under the epidemic cover. The religious lobby increased its bargaining position vis-à-vis a religiosity-inclined government. As Eid drew closer, they warned the government of dire consequences if it tried to regulate the congregations.

The religious affairs minister succeeded in subverting the Supreme Court verdict of 2004 by creating his private commission on minorities after dropping an Ahmadi member he had earlier proposed. One of the prominent members, the chairman of the Council of Islamic Ideology, put the religious lobby’s anxieties at rest by saying the commission had little to do with the rights of the minorities; it was a forum for meeting and talking. The commission too was in a hurry to expose itself; at its inaugural session it did talk of the minorities but the Indian ones.

The government agreed to convene sessions of parliament ostensibly to discuss Covid-19 but in reality to have a rehearsal for a budget session and a joint session, the latter to sort out some constitutional problems perhaps.

The government created a new NFC of its liking and with an extra-constitutional agenda. Mufti Muneeb-ur-Rehman persisted with his habit of holding back the much-awaited announcement regarding the sighting of the Eid moon till the 21st para of his meandering monologue and Fawad Chaudhry was denied victory of science over the ulema by the impossibility of rejecting a general’s testimony and the desire not to add to Balochistan’s sense of deprivation. Thank God Pakistan’s reputation as a country where anything could happen remained unharmed.

Published in Dawn, May 28th, 2020