Responsibility and norms

Jun 01 2020


The writer teaches politics and sociology at Lums.
The writer teaches politics and sociology at Lums.

OVER the past few weeks, healthcare professionals and establishments have come under severe pressure, and in a few cases, actual harm, from relatives and associates of deceased Covid-19 patients. Recently, a hospital in Karachi witnessed significant damage by a crowd of 70 enraged people. What stood out was their insistence that the virus is actually ‘nothing’, implicitly suggesting that the doctors and the hospital were to blame for the tragic outcome.

Reactions to such episodes of ‘lawlessness’ often end up blaming the public at large. Commonplace analysis, which in its entirety expects and ascribes full agency to every actor, will usually result in such conclusions. ‘Why is our public so emotional/uneducated/lacking in discipline’ becomes a commonly held sentiment, especially for those who prefer to distinguish themselves from the rest of the population on the basis of their credentials and common sense.

Unfortunately, this sentiment is quite misplaced; doubly so in the midst of uncertainty and tragedy.

To clarify before proceeding further, this is not to suggest that those rampaging in emergency wards are somehow free from any blame. To argue so would also be an analytical and moral disservice. People need to be held accountable for their actions and their reliance on conspiratorial crutches, especially if they have every opportunity to know better.

When observers posit that the Pakistani population is not equipped to follow SOPs, what are they alluding to?

Yet what we saw in these hospital wards is not particularly distinct from the general attitude of the public towards the pandemic as a whole. What we need to question is whether this attitude is somehow unique to Pakistan’s urban masses? When observers posit that the Pakistani population is not equipped to follow SOPs or is too ill-disciplined to maintain isolation and distancing requirements, what exactly are they alluding to? These questions need to be answered because they carry policy relevance for the fight against the pandemic in the long run.

The least valid premise (and yet unfortunately a very common refrain) is the one that echoes some essentialism, either biological, geographic, or cultural. In this line of argumentation, Pakistanis are somehow uniquely — sometimes said to be genetically — disposed to flouting laws and regulations. This is obviously not true, given how the same individuals behave very differently in a range of similar or different circumstances. There’s nothing unique to the climate or the genetics of this place that make SOP adherence less likely.

A more valid line of inquiry would be to look at patterns of mass socialisation and individual responses to existing incentive structures. People’s ingrained responses to particular settings — whether they adhere to rules, their risk assessments, what they consider valid or invalid in any given situation — is embedded through lifelong learning practices. People learn different ‘codes’ to engage with different situations, often from households, schools, extended kin networks, workplaces, and mass socialisation instruments like news and social media. This is true all over the world and it is as true in Pakistan.

Once ingrained dispositions are in place, they are reproduced or curtailed based on existing external incentive structures. For example, someone has the urge to cross a red light, but fear of reprisal limits their desire to act on that impulse. Or, conversely, socialisation induces mistrust of a particular act, but the offer of a pecuniary or non-material incentive lets someone move past their hesitation.

Socialisation and incentivisation rarely happens so neatly or automatically, but the broader model to explain variation in social action remains valid. There is thus no reason to think that it cannot help us understand why Pakistanis are reacting to the virus the way they are.

What is particularly deserving of our attention, especially from a policy perspective, is that both socialisation and the development of incentive structures that penalise or reward particular behaviour are at least partially shaped by one particular set of institutions — the state. The state is the only organisation or entity large and resourceful enough to reach most households in the country. It is also the only one that carries the moral-legal authority to do so. It can direct communication, it can shape messaging, it can coerce and cajole individuals. Not every state has an equal amount of capacity for such purposes, but if a state survives and reproduces itself, it surely has some capacity for each of these tasks.

What this framework throws light on is the Pakistani state’s unreasonable expectations from the public at large, without any adequate use of its resources to actualise those expectations. In a recent piece written for, public health technologist Saba Gul highlighted the government’s failure on the communication and demonstration front, which lies at the heart of the broader mess of social action that the country finds itself in. Senior bureaucrats and elected representatives from all parties have routinely flouted distancing rules, appeared in public wearing masks as chin straps, and made ludicrous claims about the trivial nature of the virus itself. These are not irrelevant acts in a country that consumes politics and current affairs as a visual and acoustic good.

In an assessment of ascribing responsibility for this flippancy, it is hard to move past the prime minister himself. The country was accorded sufficient time to direct an effective communication campaign that could both socialise and incentivise people to adhere to particular regulations. It was accorded a prime minister who enjoys significant public approval, is seen as a moral role model by sections of the public, and was quick to voice his concern for public welfare.

Yet it ended up with muddled messaging, fatalism and conspiracy, and a skewed conversation around the economic consequences of lockdowns, with actual public health measures and norms cast aside. With government indifference, cases, and deaths escalating in tandem, it is hard to apportion too much of the blame on the people themselves.

The writer teaches politics and sociology at Lums.

Twitter: @umairjav

Published in Dawn, June 1st, 2020