The virus in our lives

Published November 28, 2020
The writer is Dawn’s resident editor in Islamabad.
The writer is Dawn’s resident editor in Islamabad.

IT is deadlier than you think.

The second wave of Covid-19 is upon us with a vengeance. It is getting closer and closer. Today a relative infected, tomorrow a friend down. Death has crept back into our social media timelines even as the government, belatedly, is crying itself hoarse about the need for SOPs.

It may be too late. The infection has travelled faster than the government, and for that matter, the opposition. In fact, it is playing havoc not just with the citizenry but also with all the best-laid official plans. Apathy can be a dangerous thing to harbour during a pandemic.

You know what is equally dangerous? Politics of the pandemic. In this politics, the PTI government is trying desperately to be clever. Some smart alec within Islamabad’s officialdom concluded the surge of the infection provided a great ruse against the Pakistan Democratic Alliance’s second wave of protests. This smart alec argued they could turn this bad situation into a win-win for the government. If the second wave of Covid-19 got worse, the government would find a handy scapegoat in the PDM. If the PDM, sensing the danger of continuing with the campaign, took a break it would halt their momentum and help the government tide over this threat.

The veritable army of PTI spokespeople — who are summoned to the hill for regular strategy sessions — were then trucked out to hammer away on the theme: PDM is playing with the lives of the people. PTI strategists concluded that the PDM would resist and this resistance could then be used by the government as a fuel to fire up its narrative even further.

The politicisation of coronavirus is probably one of the most dangerous misadventures we are indulging in.

Then there were some bonus benefits. For instance, this strategy also covered for the lack of government’s decision-making on difficult issues. The PDM jalsas could very well turn into super-spreader events, but they are clearly not the only such events. If the government really wants to break the spread of the infection it would need to shut down public places likes restaurants, gyms, shopping malls and perhaps even offices. If this does not have the desired effect, it may have to consider a general lockdown.

But why should it do all this and earn the ire of the people when it can very easily blame the opposition? Clever. Right?

Ask the opposition. Their leaders see the government’s sleight of hand. They know there is more to the official Covid-19 rhetoric than meets the eye. They also know if they postpone their jalsas and the long march that may follow, they will have a real hard time getting back into motion some months down the line. By then, the Senate elections would have happened, and the government may have had time to stabilise the economic situation and bring inflation under some control. And yet, they also know that the infection is spreading fast and may soon reach the peaks of June that saw nearly a hundred and fifty citizens dying daily.

Could we cope with such a situation now that the government has braved through the first wave? Do we have enough hospital facilities to cater to the rising number of patients? Do we have enough beds with oxygen and ventilators? At a briefing at the National Command and Operations Centre on Thursday, Planning Minister Asad Umar said yes indeed we have built up our health infrastructure capacity to a significant degree during the summer. We still have excess capacity (though media reports are increasingly mentioning unavailability of critical facilities) but for how long can they sustain the pressure?

Asad Umar’s point was this: we may handle the pressure on facilities, and could procure more if needed, but the real danger is health workers — doctors, nurses, paramedics — falling victim to the infection. There’s not much we can do with the equipment if we do not have enough people to use them. The situation is getting grim and the vaccine is still many months away.

The politicisation of coronavirus therefore is probably one of the most dangerous misadventures we are indulging in. The United States did something similar. Look where it got the Americans. But here at home there is nothing to stop the virus from wreaking havoc once again. Only two things can help: bold decisions by the federal and provincial governments in terms of closures, and behavioural change among the citizens.

Pandemic politics is disallowing both.

The prime minister is locked into his rejection of the lockdown. He believes — as do many of his advisers — that a general lockdown is counterproductive and therefore not an option. So is any other measure like closing of markets, factories and offices because this entails a crushing economic cost. The most effective measure to combat the virus without suffering major economic consequences is to change people’s behaviour and get them to follow Covid-19 SOPs.

There are many ways to do this but the most politically convenient one is to demand that the opposition shut down its jalsa activity. So far, there are no indications the opposition is ready and willing to do this. So here we are, hurtling down a similar path that takes us away from rational decision-making and prudent politicking and nearer to a winner-takes-all approach.

The system as it exists today — with all the trappings of democracy and representative institutions — has no solution to this problem of dysfunctionality. For what else would you call the system when it cannot enable key stakeholders to sit across a table and resolve a problem whose existence is measured in lives lost? Beyond well-rehearsed retorts and well-timed insults, there is nothing that the present discourse has to offer at this point. Is this sustainable? The answer is obvious. What is not obvious is if anyone cares.

There is a virus in our lives. It is deadlier than you think.

The writer is Dawn’s resident editor in Islamabad.


Published in Dawn, November 28th, 2020


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