A state to trust

16 Jun 2020

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The writer is a journalist.
The writer is a journalist.

AS the number of Covid-19 cases in Pakistan grows, increasing attention is being focused on the lackadaisical approach of society in general. Rules such as social distancing and use of masks are not being followed and, if some television reports are to be believed, many roaming the bazaars do not believe that the pandemic is ‘real’.

The obvious answer to this — in our discussions so far — revolve around the government’s poor policymaking and its even poorer communication strategy and/or the inability of the people to understand and heed what is best for their own safety. In other words, it is due to the incompetence of the government and of the people.

But perhaps this is too simplistic an answer.

The debate over the past few days and weeks over the government’s confusion, mixed messaging and lack of seriousness was reminiscent of the early days of the war on militancy. There was a similar spate of criticism that the state, and not a particular government, was not serious about the threat; it hadn’t really recognised it; and neither was it tackling it seriously. Perhaps some of that criticism exists even today but the sheer drop in the number of attacks compared to 10 years ago or more is a testimony to the effort put in, and successfully too.

However, it is now hard to describe the scepticism that existed back then but it was so pervasive that even soldiers themselves didn’t believe that there was a real war being fought in the former Fata region, till they faced the fire there. For the rest of the populace, the scepticism lasted much longer.

This relationship of distrust has been in the making for years.

And then there was the entire debate over the failure to convince the people of the threat that was extremism because of the ambiguity present in the minds of policymakers. Politicians were blamed for being unclear about the threat and the military was accused of playing a double game. From Imran Khan to Shahbaz Sharif, the examples are numerous. Even those with a clearer stand on extremism thought signing a deal in Swat with right-wing elements would help bring peace.

The confusion in the minds of those at the helm never really cleared up and yet, with considerable effort, a violent movement threatening a state and a society was dismantled.

This example is not meant to suggest that policies can be successfully implemented without clarity of purpose but to argue that poor communication is not a new phenomenon. There is a pattern here that spans different governments and regimes.

Our inability to convince the people of the need for the polio vaccine is another example.

It is hard to say why this is so.

It is partly linked to the lack of trust between state and society. The citizen doesn’t believe that the state is a caring or a reliable presence, for good reason, hence, many find it easy to believe that the pandemic numbers are being inflated for the sake of aid or that the numbers are being fudged.

But more worrying is the fact that others just do not believe the virus exists — as they don’t that the polio vaccine is for their welfare.

(The health sector in particular is perhaps one where trust is completely absent; even those who can pay for the best healthcare money can buy in Pakistan have horror stories to tell of their experiences of uncaring doctors and extortionist hospitals, and this in itself should indicate what those dependent on the public sector go through and what they think of healthcare workers.)

Combine this with decades of event after event where the state, governments and politicians have been found to be lying to the people. We bemoan the lack of accountability but remain unaware of the toll it takes on the relationship between those governing and those who are governed.

This relationship of distrust has been in the making for years. And this is one reason we should be wary of giving examples of Western states where the relationship of the citizens and the government is very different.

And perhaps this difficult relationship is also responsible — to an extent — for the poor communication that we are witnessing today. A state that has never cared about convincing people or shaping opinion does not know how to do so. And those who are clamouring for a mass awareness campaign should also be aware that it requires far more than the prime minister wearing a mask or ads on radio and television. It seems as if we have never been able to convince society of a greater good — or is it that we have never really tried so we do not know how to do it?

This was brought home recently when Faheem Younus, an infectious disease doctor based in the US, commented that in Pakistan everyone was busy discussing and criticising policy instead of the virus and how to prevent its spread. Even healthcare professionals spend more time trying to change or influence government policy than people’s behaviour on television. Many of them — when they do talk of preventive measures — do so in a tone and form which is counterproductive. Talking down to people usually is. But in Pakistan, this is what passes for communication and it’s not just the healthcare professionals who are guilty of it. This tone would be prevalent if the assumption is that the ‘unwashed masses’ just do not understand what is good for them.

Perhaps this virus will force us to give some thought to these larger issues of the crisis of credibility; the lack of trust between the people and state; and how to communicate effectively. But for this we need to see beyond individuals and specific moments in time.

The writer is a journalist.

Published in Dawn, June 16th, 2020