Newspapers and news websites in Pakistan continue to carry reports and lament about how large sections of society are being careless in their attitude towards the Covid-19 pandemic. Such reports have also lambasted the federal government for bungling the crisis by being misinformed about the dynamics of the Covid-19 virus and its spread.
Many have also criticised the regime for allowing its political biases to impact its contingency policies, which have so far been chaotic, ad hoc and almost entirely unable to stall the rapid spread of Covid-19.
Prime Minister Imran Khan and many of his ministers have been censured for ‘misinforming’ the people about the true nature of the disease while, at the same time, vetoing the idea of strict lockdowns. So, as the outbreak ravages the country and overwhelms the country’s already fragile health system with frightening speed, PM Khan does not have much to say or show other than claim that he knew things are going to get bad.
With examples like China, Italy, Spain, Iran and the US before us, or other countries where Covid-19 had begun to peak before it spiked in Pakistan, it didn’t require a genius to ‘already know’ that things would get bad here as well. Even though PM Khan was hailed by his sycophantic circle of ministers for being oracular for this insightful prediction, he had also earlier described the disease as, merely, a ‘flu.’
The government then continued to add unsubstantiated claptrap to its largely convoluted narrative in this regard, until intense media criticism triggered a sudden about-turn and saw the government resort to accusing the general populace for letting things get out of hand.
Denial, panic, scapegoating and ultimate sense are the usual way societies have dealt with new diseases throughout history. But interestingly, all the countries currently with botched responses to Covid-19 are ruled by populists
What’s more, the government also continued to sideline and ignore some rational and sound advice from provincial governments and health experts. One such advice was for imposing stricter lockdowns. But the PM disagreed. Instead, he began to rationalise his disapproval of lockdowns as an egalitarian act, undertaken for the benefit of the poor.
This rationale was almost immediately debunked by some writers on the economy. In a March 27, 2020 article in Dawn, business and economics journalist Khurram Hussain pointed out that lockdowns were, in fact, opposed by the business community, and that it were members of this community who were influencing PM Khan’s anti-lockdown sentiments. In his show on Channel 24, veteran journalist and political pundit Najam Sethi shared similar views.
Martin Gak in a piece for the German news site DW explains the idea of opening up businesses (and thus, allowing the deaths of thousands from Covid-19) as the 21st century equivalent of an ancient past, in which human sacrifice was practised in some cultures, supposedly for the well-being of the larger community.
The Covid-19 problem in Pakistan was further compounded by a controversial Supreme Court order in which the court asked provincial governments to open the malls and markets just before Eid. Not surprisingly, two weeks after this order was carried out, Covid-19 cases in Pakistan witnessed an unprecedented spike.
But Pakistan is not the only country where the government has badly botched the response to the pandemic and where the denial of Covid-19’s dangers or even its existence can be found in large sections of the society. Similar scenarios are being played out in countries such as the US, Brazil, Mexico and India. Interestingly, each one of these, like Pakistan, have governments headed by populists.
The Brazilian PM actually took part in an anti-lockdown rally and then issued an order that the number of Covid-19 cases in Brazil should not be reported. US President Donald Trump claimed that the virus threat was insignificant. But when it began to spread like wildfire, he more-than-alluded that China was behind the spread.
In India, it became apparent that the Modi regime only had the muscle to impose its Hindutva ideology but had no idea how to control the virus. In Pakistan, PM Khan with nothing to show in this respect, ended up somewhat absurdly gloating that Pakistan was the only Muslim country where mosques were not closed for prayers. As if this were some colossal achievement in a time of a raging pandemic.
In a March 5, 2020 article for The Atlantic, journalist and novelist Karl Taro Greenfeld writes that historically, societies often go through ‘four stages of grief’ during pandemics and plagues.
Mount Saint Vincent University’s Professor Jonathan Roberts, an expert on the history of plagues, agrees. Roberts told CTV News Atlantic, also in March, that the historical pattern in which societies behave during outbreaks of pandemics has remained intact, and that he is seeing the same pattern being repeated during the current Covid-19 pandemic.
Roberts has been investigating the ancient and modern histories of social and political responses to pandemics and plagues. The pattern he was talking about starts with the outright denial of an outbreak, followed by ‘a panic reaction.’ This is then followed by scapegoating, which is tied to the emergence of conspiracy theories. On a more hopeful note, Robert suggests that during the fourth stage, those in power finally allow the proliferation of correct information to get out.
But by then, thousands of lives have been lost and economies devastated. What’s more, a community of people who are blamed for the outbreaks during the scapegoating stage, would have suffered severe ostracism and harassment. This is related to what the World Health Organisation (WHO) calls an ‘infodemic’, when madcap theories once relegated to the lunatic fringes of society, suddenly emerge on the mainstream during the fear and chaos triggered by an outbreak of disease.
In the February 2020 issue of Psychology Today, author and medical sociologist Dr Robert Bartholomew writes that Jews were blamed for the 14th Century Bubonic Plague in Europe, and the 1918 flu pandemic — which killed millions — was dubbed the Spanish Flu, not because Spain was the outbreak’s epicentre, but because the Spanish government was the first to identify the problem. During the same pandemic, many in Britain believed that the virus was a germ created by the German military, even though an equal number of Germans were dying from the same virus.
With the proliferation of social media sites, unsubstantiated claims, denials and scapegoating has increased at an alarming rate, with even the governments of the US, Brazil and India alluding that the Covid-19 was created in a secret Chinese lab and unleashed across the world.
But to historians like Robertson and authors such as Greenfeld, there is light at the end of this frightening tunnel. Both claim that, historically, the last stage of the aforementioned historical pattern is when societies and rulers usually come to their senses and do some actual work to address and contain the problem.
Indeed, vaccines remain the ultimate goal for eliminating the virus. But rational contingency plans and their implementation, scientifically sound advice and instructions to the public, and the debunking of crackpot theories, are vital to buy time before a vaccine is made available. Unfortunately, even though millions have lost their lives due to the pandemic, many countries, including Pakistan, still seem to be stuck in the earlier stages of reaction: denial, confusion and scapegoating. Only a handful of nations have moved into the more hopeful fourth stage.
Published in Dawn, EOS, June 28th, 2020