Corona comes knocking

May 30 2020

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

I KNOW someone with Covid. They know someone with Covid. We know someone with Covid. Do you know someone with Covid?

First Covid was in the headlines. Now it is on our timelines. First Covid had a name. Now it has a face. The infection has crossed the line of familiarity in Pakistan.

And this has happened suddenly in slow motion. Quietly and calmly, the infection has kept the health ministry dashboard scorecard moving upwards without triggering societal panic. The paranoid among us kept shouting that things would eventually spiral out of control, but their delusional voices were drowned under the avalanche of official and social disinterest.

The numbers don’t lie. That’s what we were told confidently. And they don’t. These numbers told a story of Covid-19 trajectories well under control; they spun a web of death rates far below the threshold of fear; they weaved a tale of hospitals handling the pressure with ease. The numbers did not lie.

Timelines have a strange way of telling their stories that are weighed down less by cases and more by faces.

Nor do they lie today when they proclaim that the number of infections and deaths in Pakistan have doubled in 18 days — going from 32,081 confirmed cases and 706 deaths on May 11 to 64,028 cases and 1,317 deaths on May 29.

These numbers, while still a matter of concern for some, are yet to reach a stage where they would get the government worried. Officials sitting atop the state apparatus have more information and expertise at their disposal than the average citizen so when they say corona is under control, we may as well believe them.

Here’s the thing though: while the officials have their statistics, citizens have their timelines. These timelines have a strange way of telling their stories that are weighed down less by cases and more by faces.

There’s the young doctor looking into the camera with smiling eyes. He was a friend of a friend, says the Facebook post, and he passed away after getting infected while treating patients. There’s the teacher grinning for the photograph full of life and cheer. She taught us in school, says the Twitter post, and she died after battling the virus for a few days. There’s the distinguished-looking gentleman sitting joyfully with his family for the snap. He was a cousin’s father, says the Instagram post, and he breathed his last due to Covid-19. Such posts are now growing exponentially across our phone and laptop screens and gradually creating a momentum that we hoped would never be created.

This momentum defies logic, data and statistics. It is fuelled by personalised proximity. You know someone who knows someone whose relative got infected. Then you know someone whose relative got infected. Soon, God forbid, your relative got infected. The distant infection — that was supposed to either not really be that serious or happen to other people that you do not know — has all of a sudden reached so close it can touch you and your loved ones. That’s how it is gaining momentum.

And yet, there may not be cause for worry. So says the government. And why should we doubt the government? We have enough hospitals with enough beds and enough ventilators to be handled by enough doctors and nurses so, therefore, the situation is under firm control. The infections are increasing — just as the government warned — but the death rate is below all projections and likely to stay that way. So all we have to do is to follow the SOPs, says the government, and go ahead with our shopping and travelling and restaurant-ing, and life should be all peachy.

But darn those timelines.

They have a life of their own when it comes to death. No official dashboard can ever compete with the impact of a corona victim’s photo and no ministerial press conference can dilute the effect of a patient’s life story. Our timelines are blinking with such photos and our WhatsApp groups are beeping with such stories. With each passing day, Covid is amplifying its presence and magnifying its impact on our lives. This should concern the government.

Here’s why: the gap between statistics on the dashboard and photos on the timeline will start creating a parallel reality if this gap is not bridged by a narrative that weaves these numbers into a convincing story about things being under control. They may well be under control, but just saying so repeatedly without much persuasion is insufficient. Numbers do tell a story, but sometimes numbers alone are not enough to tell a convincing story.

Till a month ago, there existed two narratives on Covid-19: PTI’s and PPP’s. Then at some point these narratives blended into one as the lockdown was all but lifted. Now a second narrative may be taking shape. On May 1, the number of infections stood at 18,114. If the current rate of spread continues, the figure will cross 100,000 before mid-June. The single narrative now is slowly converting back into two: the dashboard narrative and the timeline narrative. With PPP, PTI had a political score to settle. But with citizens and their timelines?

Perhaps the infection and death rate will start to slow down in the coming weeks; perhaps the number of those needing hospitalisation will begin to dwindle and health facilities will successfully cater to all those requiring critical care; and perhaps Covid-19 will peak in the near future and make its way out of our timelines. Perhaps all this will happen before there is any genuine cause for worry and we shall all thank Almighty Allah SWT for sparing us from the ravages that the infection has wreaked in Western countries.

But for now, corona is coming closer and closer to our lives and our homes.

The writer is Dawn’s resident editor in Islamabad.

Twitter: @fahdhusain

Published in Dawn, May 30th, 2020