Very old normal

29 May 2020

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The writer teaches at Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad.
The writer teaches at Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad.

IT was a matter of when rather than if: Covid-19 was never going to remain breaking news forever, whatever its impact. Even aside from Pakistani officialdom’s tragi-comic handling of the pandemic, no news in the ratings-driven business that is corporate media remains top of the charts forever.

The plane crash on the eve of Eid certainly turned attention away from the pandemic; the usual suspects, both within the government and all-powerful establishment, scrambling to cover their tracks, even as the media engaged in sensationalism of the worst kind and then promptly moved on.

Indeed, it appears increasingly as if the fleeting window of opportunity that was generated by the biggest global crisis in a generation for old ‘normal’ to be displaced permanently is already shut. Much has been said about the need for things to change, but words can only take us so far.

The resurfacing of Malik Riaz in the public consciousness via a sordid episode in which allegedly a woman relative with her lackeys participated in an assault under the pretext of an affair with the former’s husband makes clear just how entrenched the ‘old normal’ is. Not only has the attack gone virtually unreported in the mainstream media perhaps on account of Malik Riaz’s unparalleled connections in our militarised structure of power, it also confirms that simply calling out what is wrong in Pakistan does not lead to the creation of a ‘new normal’.

Pakistan is amongst the world’s most unequal societies.

The said episode went viral on social media, with most users expressing widespread revulsion at both the complete impunity of rich and powerful individuals as well as decrepit patriarchal norms that subject millions of women and girls to suffering, violence, death, and, in this case, public shaming and harassment for the infidelities of a man.

Pakistan is amongst the world’s most unequal societies, mainstream politics largely at the service of class and gendered power, personal connections invoked wherever required. Yes ideologies are important to the system — a toxic mix of capitalism, militarism, religion and patriarchy — and the military is the one institution that maintains a remarkable degree of coherence to sustain its corporate interests above and beyond the din. But the ‘old normal’ is distinctive precisely because it is sustained by the everyday choices that most of us make, by the common sense that binds us into personalised networks so as to survive a ruthless social order.

Needless to say, these strategies of navigating everyday life reproduce privilege. Most of whom we otherwise patronisingly call the ‘poor’ are perennial losers because they do not have money and property, therefore relying on the patronage of the rich and powerful (whether liberal, religious, uniformed, or any combination of them) to save them from eternal damnation. In the event, the rich and powerful — the state included — often leave the poor high and dry anyways.

In peripheral Pakistan, particularly regions ravaged by war and other forms of political violence, ethnic identity is deeply politicised, resources, language and even basic political freedoms denied to proud peoples for so long that the state is seen only as something to be resisted, or, to whatever degree possible, captured to serve parochial interests. Alienation runs so deep that the feeling of a shared ‘us’ with mainstream Pakistan is conspicuous by its absence.

The kinds of ideas that were circulating widely in the immediate aftermath of the coronavirus outbreak certainly hinted at a ‘new normal’ to which many ordinary people across Pakistan’s many divides can aspire — ideas of a state that taxes the rich, holds its uniformed guardians to account, makes peace with its neighbours, makes policy so that the health, education, housing and other needs of the majority of people are met rather than sugar or wheat hoarding ‘mafias’. In which ethnic and religious minorities as well as women and girls are equal rather than second-class citizens. Indeed, ideas that harken to a world free from the dictates of capital and militarism.

But building such a world requires a vision of ‘development’ beyond Bhasha dams and Bahria Towns — concern about the locusts and other manifestations of climate change devastating the rural hinterlands, towards notions of economic prosperity transcending ‘FDI’ and ‘structural adjustment’. And it requires the bravery to say that accumulating atom bombs, tanks and drones, and the cultivation of hate against ‘enemies’ within the country and outside of it, are very much part of the ‘old normal’ that gives us patriarchal violence, dispossession and war for invisibilised masses.

Let alone the peripheries, even mainstream Pakistan has become weary with the pandemic. Of course those who can protect themselves will, and those that cannot will be left high and dry. More than ever, we need the political will to tackle Covid-19 now, and, for a long time to come, ‘old normal’ at large.

The writer teaches at Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad.

Published in Dawn, May 29th, 2020