Grey in the picture

05 Jun 2020

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

THERE are six hundred and seventy thousand, eight hundred and one reasons for the government in Islamabad to scoff at those in charge of dealing with Lahore’s delicate health matters. Suspected Covid-19 patients account for 670,800 of these. This is the estimate of infected people in the city as projected by a recent Punjab health department summary based on ‘smart sampling’. The remaining solitary figure — which may appear to outweigh everything else at times — stands for a former prime minister whose picture from overseas has again drawn an emotional public outburst from some of those in power.

The smart sampling results had everyone stumped. There have been rumours that Covid-19 has been spreading fast in Lahore, not least because of the virus’s Eid embrace. There is the usual talk that the secret service is as active as ever, its present assignment requiring it to hoodwink innocent souls and keep them blissfully unaware of the killer disease. Nevertheless, there’s plenty of evidence to indicate a clear upsurge.

We know that people are mortified to see things in black and white here, but still, close to 700,000 cases? That too not reported by an independent source but tabulated by a responsible government department after an exercise titled ‘smart’? That should have really blown the lid off the proceedings and sent things unravelling but for our belief in our security.

These are frightening details in an official document, whose purpose and validity continue to be, by and large, defended by the people who prepared it. It is still not sufficient for the people in Lahore and elsewhere in Pakistan to fully come to terms with the horror that is Covid-19.

The coronavirus is not despised sufficiently to be subjected to any death-foretold exercise.

Public apathy does play a part in allowing a government policy seen as hypocritical. It is a policy that encourages opening of markets, but in the wake of a sudden surge in cases has officials ordering the closure of shopping malls under the pretext that SOPs were not being observed.

Calling for adherence to such an ordinary set of SOPs would be a luxury when the exalted figures who sit governing our lives tell us just how easy it is for a whole government to be let down by a team of over-smart lab technicians masquerading as good government.

To have been befooled by a rival politician who, as indicated by the latest images, has a lifestyle not fit for a convict, and most certainly not fit for a patient with a serious ailment, is an embarrassment of another kind. Concealed from commoners such as you and me, there’s apparently a protocol former leaders of the country must follow.

The protocol obviously requires presidents and former prime ministers and maybe other dignitaries to follow a code, which probably is subject to change and that is one area in which we are bent upon proving ourselves as the most advanced.

Everything has to be commensurate with the status and name of a former leader. For example, most recently you must have come across circulars that declared that a certain dignitary was to be proclaimed as having passed away on a certain holy day in an effort to rinse him of his worldly ills. The unfunny part was that there were many phone calls which suspected that there may be ‘something’ to these post-haste declarations of a life terminated. This was proof that there are ways in which Pakistanis can be made to believe things. It depends who is saying it and how. Unfortunately, the coronavirus is not despised sufficiently to be subjected to any death-foretold exercise.

But then, there’s just so much work a public relations team can do. In another country as gravely pitted against Covid-19 as us, the authorities would have had little time for a 69-year-old man wanted for questioning. But not only do they find the resources to engage him, they are also appalled at the sight of his better half, his elder brother and leader, who’s spotted sipping a beverage thousands of miles away in England.

What do you see? A leader who is waiting to take over the reins that had been unfairly snatched away from him? This is a view that will be popular with PML-N supporters. Or do you see a resourceful fugitive who escaped the law after faking his medical reports right under the nose of a hostile government? This may be what the PTI is suggesting without realising how badly it exposes its own lack of power.

The secret is in discovering the grey in the picture of Mian Nawaz Sharif that created so much excitement in our political arena a few days ago. Look closely. You may find signs of a man enjoying a few moments of relaxation with youngsters after a long day in the field. A man all set for retirement and for pursuits less tough than for power? You never know since staying in prime minister houses and presidencies are thought to be always slightly more comfortable than spending a term at Kot Lakhpat.

Thus when Mr Shahbaz Sharif constantly asserts his position that he is 69, he is not ruling himself out of the race for power. He is secure in the knowledge that his candidature is not in any way threatened by any younger options — except one or maybe two that exist within his party. What is going to catch the eye of the people in Lahore and beyond is his ability to thwart those chasing him in the name of accountability.

It’s a clash of two reputations. The PML-N would be hoping that NAB has not been able to win popular approval over and above the support it gets from diehard Imran Khan fans. NAB is banking on the anti-opposition maligning campaign of PTI politicians to back it in its action against Shahbaz Sharif.

The bureau must revisit any data it might have been given about the erosion of the Sharif reputation or clout or impression in Lahore. That deep Sharif influence can only be countered by good governance. The news of flawed smart medical data and easily befooled government systems is not efficient at dispelling old impressions about Shahbaz Sharif.

The writer is Dawn’s resident editor in Lahore.

Published in Dawn, June 5th, 2020