Compensating the expendable

29 May 2020

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The writer is Dawn’s resident editor in Lahore.
The writer is Dawn’s resident editor in Lahore.

A TINY bit of news in a national daily on Thursday matter-of-factly reports on a group of 50 people who had been struck with Covid-19 during the Eid holidays. It could well have escaped the trained eye of many of us with so many issues competing for attention.

For instance, the readers can hardly be faulted if they found more juice in the equally small news item that recorded the theft of three suits from the Lahore residence of Nadeem Afzal Chann who must find the most awami ways of staying prominent in the media — presumably Western attire given the interest the instance seemed to generate. And it had absolutely no chance against another high drama on social media involving an actor and her powerful and violence-prone raiders.

This group of 50 stood little chance of drawing sympathy for their case amid all the happenings even if they are the most conspicuous of them all at all times, emergencies tending to greatly enhance their visibility. With the silent addition of this latest batch of 50, the total number of their ‘type’ having contracted Covid-19 in Punjab alone has surpassed 600. They happen to belong to the most easily spent among all the expendables at our disposal, ie the policemen we are otherwise so keen to deride and ridicule and vent our spleen at.

A look at the reports suggests that perhaps the first case of a Pakistani policeman struck with the virus was reported in Sindh in March this year. Since then, the number of these faceless people in uniform who have fallen as an essential small price for our dangerous flirting with the virus has risen steadily everywhere. Indeed, a few of them have lost their lives, the departure without fail treated by the press as something that was anticipated to be repeated.

No empathy exists for the policeman. No one wants to save a policeman’s life.

‘First cop dies of corona’ — like the first journalist dies of virus and the first doctor dies of Covid19 — carries the promise or fear of a series that was all but unavoidable. But even if these are headlines capturing something that had been written by fate, some of the martyrs were thrust into the thick of it with minimum fuss and purely out of a habit of providing ready targets for the attacker.

The memories of the war against terrorism are still fresh in the minds of people. Some of the most terrifying images from that war which may not be over as yet are the ones which have the police as central characters. The shaheed package any policeman unfortunately losing their life to Covid-19 has been promised is a gift from that conflict which left countless of those in this force dead. It has been hailed as a guarantee that must inspire confidence but what it does is that it acts as a hurdle in the way of a well-meaning debate about the security of the security provided.

The sop is proudly flaunted as some kind of ultimate compensation that combines spiritual satisfaction of the one who sacrifices with some kind of material assurance for those he/she leaves behind. The police posted at vulnerable points during this control-corona phase would rather their minders paid greater attention to steps that could offer them some sort of cover against Covid-19.

From day one, while much hue and cry has been raised about the lack of protective gear for the doctors and their paramedics at hospitals treating Covid-19 patients, police personnel have been drawn into the dangerous mix, mercilessly unprepared and exposed to the virus. No less than 50 of them catching Covid-19 during the four or five days of the Eid holidays is reflective of the sheer indifference everyone from the authorities — competent or not — down to the members of the public like you and me conventionally treat the police with.

They can die if they have to. One after the other. Rows upon rows of them. Shaheed all. Compensated here and, by official decree in this beloved land of ours, in the life hereafter. We will somehow cope with their departure so long as they can provide us with the life-saving impression that they were guarding us. This is how it has been for long and there is no alternative on the horizon now that the bell is tolling and some human sacrifice has to be made to meet the requirement of the estimated numbers.

An effort can perhaps be made. An effort that is more humane in nature, which is aimed primarily at saving lives and saving people from falling sick — whoever these people might be and whatever the worth of these lives could be in the employment registers or the impending martyr packages of a law-enforcement department.

Covid-19 has been freely preying on policemen all over Pakistan. Not least significantly, these figures about infected policemen in regular contact with the public at sporadic posts signify the dangerously expansive spread of the virus. We have had professionals and trade unions and sensitive observers call for strict curbs lest Covid-19 gobbles up the entire healthcare system in the country. We have had words of caution delivered to other front-line workers such as journalists notwithstanding the risks they continue to take to break into the news closet. There have been even words of advice, and unfortunately, wherever required, of condolence for politicians hit by the coronavirus. No such empathy exists for my friend the policeman. No one wants to save a policeman’s life.

The policeman happens by all evidence to be the most easily spent on the list of the expendable. He is like a bright toy the handler is eager to lose early in the play to raise the stakes and excitement levels and add a sinister element to the proceedings. There could be few other instances of utter disrespect for human life to compete with the deal these cheap foot soldiers are given here.

The writer is Dawn’s resident editor in Lahore.

Published in Dawn, May 29th, 2020