Crises bring out the best and the worst among us. The ongoing double whammy does nothing less. On one side it has exposed the poverty of our healthcare system. Who would have known that a country of over 200 million had only 2,200 ventilators, half of which could not be put to use during a serious healthcare crisis? As someone who saw a loved one die because of the absence of a ventilator, I find it unforgivable on any given day, doubly so during a debilitating pandemic. On the other side we also witnessed the widespread concern for the poor and the needy.
It will probably remain a mystery to me that in a country where there is no dearth of charity and benevolence, why is it that critical, lifesaving items disappear during national emergencies. First, masks started disappearing. One day when I requested an old acquaintance at a medical store for a few masks so that I could function in congested spaces, he disappeared behind the counter for a long time and emerged with a heavily taped thick brown envelope. Within this envelope were three ordinary masks. The reason for this precaution? The fear that other customers would demand a few also. The ones given to me came from the shopkeeper’s own ration. In any case, that is the story of disappearing masks.
Then came the moment when we learned that sanitisers could be useful in protecting us from the virus. Next thing you know they had disappeared from the shelves. Mercifully by that time the government had taken cognisance of the matter and hence sanitisers started returning to the market. But that also meant you had to be circumspect. Fake sanitisers were proliferating the market and the local administration had to carry out raids to discourage their use.
Then came the moment when the United States President mentioned the possible advantages of using chloroquine in combating the coronavirus. That acted as a dog whistle for our hoarders and profiteers. The next day the cheap anti-malaria drug had disappeared from the market. One day when I consulted an owner of a pharmaceutical manufacturing company to check the availability of various medicines and equipment, I was told that one strip of chloroquine which usually sells for less than Rs100 could now be obtained in the federal capital as a special favour for Rs11,000. I do not exaggerate. The infrared temperature gun was now available at the price of Rs22,000. The more you asked the more perplexing the prices became. And this is the story of the federal capital where the writ of the government is supposed to be the strongest. You can imagine what went on elsewhere. I am sure the prices have stabilised since then as the government has doubled down on price control. But not before exposing the greed in the society which did not hesitate to play with lives for a little extra profit.
If that was one aspect exposed, here is another piece of the puzzle. Piety. I have never seen governments urging people this vociferously to stay away from Friday congregations for their own good. The President of Pakistan even sat down with clerics to convince them that this was need of the hour. An edict came out which fell short of the pledge to momentarily shut down mosques to stop the spread of the coronavirus. The mosques would stay open but only a few people would participate in the prayers. But the next Friday I noticed that the mosque next to my home was packed with worshippers. Consider this. There are no holier mosques for a Muslim than those in Makkah and Medina. The congregations had been stopped there to stop the spread of the virus. But in Pakistan this was unconceivable. The Sindh government took a tougher stand. Consequently, two policemen were roughed up in Karachi when they went to remind a local community that Friday congregations were banned during the lockdown.
Now let us talk about the poor. Like the 2010 floods, the ongoing crisis has exposed the mind-numbing levels of poverty in the society. People who go hungry if they do not earn a daily wage were bound to suffer. That is one reason why there was reluctance in imposing a stricter lockdown. To be honest, you cannot call it a lockdown if the roads are open for a common man’s movement. But that was the reason behind the reluctance. And the government has done a good job in handing out cash to the most vulnerable in the society. But the other day a video was circulated on social media by the son of a former president and a landlord. This gentleman, a politician himself, was almost crying about suffering humanity, grinding poverty and the possibility of a popular uprising. And this reminded me of the day when I had visited his village during his father’s life and was agonised by the widespread poverty and subhuman treatment of the poor there. Irony is lost in this republic.
As the crisis grows nobody knows where it will take us. This is not an average, everyday shock to the system. Since the lockdown could not be enforced as rigidly as was needed and the window of opportunity to contain the spread has all but passed the governments will have to gradually ease the restrictions and normal life will resume. How could you not when the entire world resumes its business? Consequently, the workforce which returns to jobs will be at a high risk of catching the infection. Even if the weather-related conjecture about the spread of the disease proves correct the virus will not truly go away. The economy which was already struggling to survive before the pandemic will find it even harder to do so in the time of a global recession.
In these troubling times we need three things: unity of purpose, decisiveness and moral courage. Sadly, all three elude us to this day. There cannot be a bigger motivation than survival. If a direct threat to this has not been able to unite us, I do not know what else will.
Since the current crisis has exposed so many fault lines in our society the only way to survive is to seek a reset. That will happen when we all can overcome our differences. Without unity and strategy we are only sleep walking towards an existential disaster.