I HAVE just buried my nephew Shaharyaruddin. He fell victim to Covid-19. It no longer matters to which strain that virus belongs or to which wave. He is dead.
Years ago, I felt his movements in my sister’s womb as he — still an embryo — adjusted himself for greater comfort. I baby-sat for him and his three sisters in their teens. I supported him when he went to propose for his wife-to-be. I attended his subsequent wedding and in time shared his joy at the birth of his son and then his daughter. I mourned with him when he buried his wife after a long battle he fought jointly with her against cancer.
I asked him one day to be there for me when my time came, to lower me into the grave and to play host to my mourners. Instead, I found myself performing that duty for him. Death has usurped the cradle.
He was 64 years old, young enough to be a nephew, old enough to be a friend. He retired from the civil service after a career that took him to the top of his department. To reach that eminence, he had to pass through a six-month-long qualifying course at the National Management College, Lahore. Ironically, I found myself as a member of the Directing Staff (international relations) acting as his teacher. He found himself the recipient of entreaties from his batchmates to put in a good word for them with his uncle. He knew me well enough not to pass on their appeals.
We are again dependent on ‘the kindness of strangers’.
He seemed in good health, slightly overweight and careless about exercise. A fortnight ago, he suddenly came down with an attack of breathlessness. He was driven to CMH Rawalpindi and admitted there. He could not have received better medical care. After a week of treatment, on the morning of April 23, the prognosis seemed positive. His test levels had significantly decreased and his vital organs were stable. The supervising specialist messaged that “after seeing test-levels, am optimistic of improvement over the next few days”. At 12.30, he suffered a pulmonary embolism. By 1.00 p.m., despite assiduous attempts at resuscitation, he had gone.
He was returned to Lahore in a wooden box. It contained his remains and what remained of the virus that had put him there. For us mourners, collective mourning had to be tempered by defensive isolation. We sat double-masked, isolated from each other, each an individual island of private grief.
Whatever our family suffered that Thursday, a week ago, has been replicated many hundreds, many thousands, many millions of times across the world, as this 21st-century scourge continues to disfigure our lives.
Different countries have responded to the Covid-19 threat with varied actions. The United States, after then president Donald Trump’s criminal insouciance, has been rescued by President Joe Biden’s accelerated vaccination programme. The United Kingdom oscillates between medical imperatives and societal self-indulgence. India has been caught on the wrong sandal. Its BJP-led government after years of fighting against unwanted religionists, political rivals, and its nuclear neighbour is weaponless against an enemy that views all religions with the same eyeless gaze.
At home, we are again dependent, as we have always been during times of crisis — whether natural disasters such as earthquakes or man-made ones like economic insolvency — on ‘the kindness of strangers’. It is puerile now to expect our government to exercise the maturity or pragmatism the Israeli government did as soon as the epidemic clouded its horizon.
According to one report, the Israeli leadership did a quick calculation to determine how much it would cost for the state to undergo a lockdown. It then decided that it would be more economical to pay Pfizer twice its asking price of $15 per dose and booked eight million doses for its citizens. Israel’s total population is 9.2m. That act of pre-emption has enabled about 60 per cent of those eligible to be vaccinated.
To governments like ours which regard its citizenry as provisional statistics in an outdated census, the health of our compatriots has a priority lower than interprovincial feuds, political infighting, an assisted reconciliation between the prime minister and his erstwhile benefactor, and schemes of cosmetic largesse.
India’s infected are dying in hospitals, outside hospitals, on ambulances, on footpaths. It is running out of crematoria and wood with which to burn its infected bodies. Has anyone in Islamabad done a calculation to determine how many vaccines we can afford to buy in a ruthlessly competitive market, when can delivery be expected, who can it be administered to, and how? It should not be an insurmountable exercise. Nadra has the database to determine age-wise eligibility.
Has anyone outside Bahria and DHA calculated how much land we need for conversion into graveyards?
The writer is an author.
Published in Dawn, April 29th, 2021