By Ali Hasnain Sayed
LAHORE: As I write these lines people have already started talking about Armageddon. The COVID-19 pandemic has almost hit the whole world with the exception of Antarctica. 199+ countries have been hit and have left us all in a state of shock. The prime reason for our anguish (coupled with surprise) revolves around the spread of the virus without paying any heed to how developed a country is or how effective is its health care system.
In turn, the media throughout the world is covering the events and as we still don’t see how it will end, hence there is a lot of anxiety. The circumstances coupled with uncertainty is surely giving us all an opportunity to be the best conspiracy theorist in the town.
Being an avid social media follower (do I have any other option these days?), I am so tempted to share a conspiracy theory on my own. For instance, is the purpose of the media propagation of COVID-19 related to settling a trade war between China and the US? Is it a financial scenario created by big business to force others for acquisitions and mergers? Or is it the panic financed by the pharma industry to sell their products? Or is the world coming to an end?
Let’s take a pause here. I will change my course and will come towards the Antithesis Side of COVID-19 while keeping a safe distance from the conspiracy theorists.
Honestly, I am not a microbiologist or a medical expert who can comment on how it will come to an end. That said, I believe that there are some things which are quite certain in the lockdown uncertainty period. At times when our electronic gadgets are not responding to us, we resort to the restart/ reset button. I believe coronavirus is sort of a reset button for the world to start afresh. How?
Firstly coming from the Economic perspective, Simon Kuznet, the guy who coined the term GDP in clear terms warned that it should not be confused with the well being of society but with the general performance of the overall economy at a state level. The crazy pursuit of GDP has led to so much tension in the post-Bretton wood period (World Bank and IMF).
Trillions of dollars were spent unaudited to take poor out of “ poverty” but we still are in a mess. I do not doubt the overall effort but our approach in general towards solving the conundrum of poverty. I am not the first one to point towards this, a lot of parallel literature is available but probably it never makes it to the mainstream media and we all know why? The result is that regardless that we are poor or have a GDP above 7% + the coronavirus is making no distinction and nations are equally vulnerable to the Pandemic throughout the world.
Hence, can we say bit cruelly that in terms of public health we have not progressed amid so much money has been spent on the well being of global “poor”? The rich and the poor nations both stand at crossroads where the medical practitioners are crying for the lack of necessary protective equipment in both parts of the world.
Second is the family front. The crazy routine of nine to none has come to a halt. You can just lock your door and be your self in your house. The kids are not hysterically rushing out of beds to go dreadfully to washrooms and get ready for another day. No husband is yelling about his lost pair of socks or ties not being at its proper place.
No housewife has to withstand the tantrums of the workers, as there are so many hands available at home to help her out.
For the first time, we are getting time to spend with our loved ones or with our own selves. Thank god for the in-laws, outlaws or friends who just come to compare to your place to check “how we are doing in life” are also confined to where they belong. I am sure this will bring the families together, will provide the time to listen to each other’s grievances and reset their relationships.
Third is the unnecessary dependence on convenience foods. I would say in a society like ours, it is grossly misused. The societal pressure about eating out (pizza, burgers etc.) drives most of the parents nuts as kids refuse home cooked food. Pakistani Society still has the dynamics where food is cooked at home but it is a double economic burden on the household due to the kids’ pressure.
I am sure the corona closure has made it a point that most of our kids can survive on home cooked food and we can limit the convenience foods once we get back to normal. Moreover mostly the cafe’s and restaurants are open till late aimlessly where people (mostly youngsters) keep on sitting with their handheld devices with them and not even bothering to look at each other. The lockdown has shown another hope that if they have to converse through gadgets it is far better to stay home and not to add burden on their already economically stressed parents.
Last but not least is our ailing atmospheric environment. The air quality of the whole country is degrading and it is posing a direct challenge to the respiratory tracks of most of the citizens. The Particulate matter 2.5 is an emission residual that gets deposited on the lungs and creates problems in breathing. All the vehicular pollution coupled with the industrial emissions is responsible for that.
For instance, Lahore was placed as the second most polluted city in the world according to the US Air Quality Index (US AQI). Lahore’s average US AQI was above 200, which is considered damaging for health, whereas an AQI of less then 50 is considered good or healthy (for reference Lahore’s US AQI has touched 400+ in the smog days which is suicidal).
On April 2, at 2:51 pm I checked the AQI of Lahore and it was a surprising 16 (US AQI) whereas at the same time the Paris index was 60 (US AQI). Hence the Air of Lahore was more desirable then Paris at that point in time.
Furthermore Lahore has dropped many places in the overall world ranking. This has only been possible due to the Corona lockdown in the city. I bet all the Lahori’s like me are feeling a far fresher environment and I am sure it will help a lot of people in combating the pollen Asthma season, which is just down the road.
Moreover, let’s not forget that COVID-19 also weakens the respiratory system to the extent that the patient has to resort to a ventilator.
As I said earlier, I am not an expert in Corona or economic (Although we can see so many on our TV shows nowadays), I have seen the menace of Corona as a reset/ rethink phenomena. I do not doubt the intentions of the trillion dollars spent in the aftermath of World War 2 to take people out of poverty. My humble opinion is to rethink the strategy of economic development.
Instead of giving plain aid to the needy, I believe providing skills will better place the marginalized to fight poverty or disease. At a personal level, the corona lockdown will surely help us reset our relationships. It will surely help us to get close to our loved ones and separate them from the crowd. It will further be a great time for our kids to reset their habits and be more economically sustainable.
The less economic burden we have on our shoulders the more informed and less selfish decisions we will make and this will in turn bring in a culture of helping people. It is just a realization that our one time expense at a fast food restaurant can be food for a whole month for a family.
To sum it, we need to keep breathing to be alive. Trust me a lot of people in Pakistan especially in a metropolis like Karachi Lahore, Faisalabad etc. are already finding it difficult to breathe. Let us assume and according to the so far scientific deliberation, if COVID-19 has to stay with us we have to be better equipped not only economically but environmentally as well. Low pollution levels directly or indirectly will bolster our respiratory systems and will help towards increasing our immunity towards the virus.
The government of Pakistan believes in arresting the menace of climate change through sustainable development. What could be an ideal time than this to observe and reset the button for our developmental priorities that are dependent on our industry and vehicular pollution. It will surely give us an insight that which sectors can be managed with less ecological footprints (for e.g. Skype meetings, work from Home, having a four day week etc.).
The world today is standing at crossroads while being faced up with the challenge of COVID-19. The reset button in our own ways could be our response.
According to Arnold Toynbee
“ All the history can be written in a simple formula – challenge and response. The environment creates a challenge and the individual, institution or the society comes up with a response. Those who respond to the challenges effectively make history. Those who do not rise up to the challenge become history”.
(Ali is a Development Practitioner who is associated with Academia in National and International universities. He is also working as a freelance advisor with International organizations in helping them incorporate Sustainable development in their strategic management. His prime interest is connecting research with practice in Pakistani context with a focus on Society-Economy-Environment Nexus. He can be reached at [email protected])