EARLIER this year, it appeared that the death grip of Covid-19 on the world was loosening. Vaccines were becoming available, cases were dropping and it appeared that sooner rather than later, the world would be open for business and the pandemic would be an old image in our collective rear view mirror. As we all know now, all of that was an illusion. We can see from the cataclysm across the border that Covid-19 remains as deadly a threat as ever, cruel in its ability to kill the hale and healthy and the weak and vulnerable alike.
Given the continuing shadow of the pandemic, the celebration of Eidul Fitr, like so much else in our lives since March 2020, is expected to be muted. This is the third Eid under Covid-19 and one hopes that people have had the time to adjust expectations and interactions to a degree that will prevent celebration-related spread yet again. If we choose not to do so, we will only be guaranteeing a fourth Eid also spent dealing with the contagion and avoiding all the interaction that Eid festivities once meant.
The worst fate is of those who cannot see their loved ones at all and this may be the situation confronted by many Pakistanis whose relatives work abroad. A few days ago, the UAE government issued a new travel ban. According to the new ban, no flights originating in Pakistan will be permitted to land in the UAE. The ban includes transit flights which means that Pakistanis wanting to use any of the UAE countries as transit points to travel to the US, Europe and other countries are also likely to be stuck in Pakistan until they can find a different transit airport without a travel ban through which they can book travel. The UAE ban goes into effect from today.
To add to the sense of besiegement, bans have also been imposed to the east of Pakistan. Thailand also took the unusual step of banning travellers from Pakistan. The authorities there said that a Thai woman and her four-year-old son who had been in state quarantine in Bangkok had been tested and found to be infected with the Indian variant. Both had been in Pakistan prior to coming back to Thailand, though NCOC head Asad Umar denied that they contracted the virus in the country. Finally, let us not forget the UK, whose airline British Airways was operating direct flights from and to Pakistan until those too were reduced earlier on in the month. In fact, as per reports, Pakistan itself has slashed the number of incoming foreign flights to 120 per week from 590 because of Covid concerns.
On this Eid, amid this mess, many chairs at muted celebratory meals will remain empty.
In terms of travel then, there are considerable restrictions both in the east and the west. Given that Pakistan is a labour-exporting country and that many Pakistanis arrive in Pakistan passing through major ports has enormous significance. Pakistani workers from all over the Middle East who come home for Eid will not be able to do so. If they are already in Pakistan they are stuck until the travel ban is removed. Travel could be attempted through some ports that still operate direct flights from Pakistan (though their numbers have been reduced significantly) and have not imposed travel bans. These few direct flights out of Pakistan are likely to have hugely inflated prices.
Considering all these circumstances, Pakistani workers abroad who have not yet travelled to Pakistan should stay put and not travel to the country. Coming home for Eid now bears the added risk of not simply contracting Covid-19 at airports or during the flight but also of getting stuck in Pakistan while their jobs remain abroad. Leaving Pakistan in the next few weeks is likely to be fraught with problems. Until the Indian wave of Covid-19 subsides, it appears unlikely that many of these travel bans will be lifted.
Celebration then is hampered not only because of the glum reminder that death is everywhere lurking in the breaths of others all around, but also by travel bans that bear within them the unpleasant taste of being treated like a pariah state. Given the vast difference in vaccine access between the world’s rich and poor it appears that these Covid-19 travel restrictions are here to stay. This is terrible when a country relies on global labour mobility to fill its coffers.
On this Eid, amid this mess, many chairs at muted celebratory meals will remain empty. The divided world where the wealthy can still manage to travel while the poor remain trapped poses a unique and particular challenge to Pakistan.
The country’s Foreign Office needs to take heed of this emerging paradigm and initiate conversations with states where Pakistan exports labour so that the rights of Pakistani workers are better protected and that countries to which we export labour can use specifically tailored measures rather than blanket bans that punish everyone.
Some would say that celebrating Eid in the midst of such a moment of historic terror, where people are dying while gasping for air, is inconsiderate in itself. I am not of that camp: those who have fasted, spent time in spiritual introspection and in giving charity deserve a celebration and should indeed celebrate. At the same time, the very spiritual equanimity that is supposed to be the end result of fasting in the month of Ramazan means that one should be empathetic and responsive to the suffering of others. One does not and should not dance merrily in the house of the mourning, and it appears the entire world this Eidul Fitr is a house of mourning. As this Ramazan ends, one can only hope that the collective prayer of those fasting will ease the pain of what we have lived through and what is still to come.
The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.
Published in Dawn, May 12th, 2021