- Keeping fear out with good sense
By: Mohib Asad
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times……it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness,…it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair…..”
Charles Dickens, — A Tale of Two Cities. (1859)
These are the opening lines of the best-selling novel in history. It is a historical story about the French Revolution from 1789 to 1799. The revolution was later referred to the ‘Great Terror’ because of the blood and gore which overthrew a corrupt elite order, and established a republic, considered to date as one of the fairest dispensations of the Social Contract to this day.
I have used this rather chilling title for this article because we, along with another 191 nations are living under the shadow of a possibly dreadful catastrophe. The covid-19 virus has infected over 5.6 million worldwideworld-wide, and galloping along merrily. Routine life has been hit for a six, and we look at each sneeze as a knell. What could be stupider?
A lot of the fear surrounding this flu is because there is no known silver bullet to kill it. That a vast majority of infections heal themselves, by some process that has not been adequately explained by medics, is another concern. Who are the minority? And am I, or one of my dear ones, part of the category that falls seriously ill? This is the genesis of the great terror around in societies all over the planet, especially in countries with the high numbers of those affected.
So far, Pakistan, although tense and stressed, has been spared the worst. Although we are well into the second month of our first known infection, the numbers of patients and casualties is low compared to many countries including some with much better education and healthcare systems. To begin with most patients had a history of recent travel abroad. Our known cases, then, were mainly imported. But it seems that the virus is now firmly stationed here; having found Pakistani hosts.
However, as a food for thought consider this:
For the last 12 generations Pakistanis have been ruled by governments formed by the elite. From the 18th century till 1947, it was the Brits and after that local brown elites whom Winston Churchill cynically termed “rascals, rogues, and freebooters” (sic). Be that as it may, the fact is that this country has one of the weakest healthcare systems in the world. According to a UNICEF report of 2018, Pakistan has the world’s worst infant mortality rate. The elite which captured Pakistan through the 1973 Constitution have given the people poverty, disease, spurious medicines, adulterated food, polluted cities, bad law-and-order, energy outages, disenfranchised women, restive minorities, porous borders, and general hopelessness in the future.
The clarion call of the French Revolution was for “Liberty, Fraternity, Equality”. How many of these lofty ideals in the social contract do we have in this country? The feudal classes, who own this country in more ways than one, are unlikely to loosen their centuries-old draconian grip on institutions, merely because a few thousand fellow-citizens died in a plague
But the sorry state in which Pakistanis have had to make do over at least 12 generations has tested Darwin’s theory that only the fittest survive. Those not designed to cope with the surrounding smut die very quickly. Those who survive develop antibodies against viruses and other pathogens floating around in squalid surroundings. I tend to agree with a large body of popular opinion, that the Pakistani herd will brush aside the Covid19 in a few weeks after the last imported case is quarantined. There are recently developed computer-based and AI-driven algorithms which predict the spread of the virus, and according to these models the actual rate of infection is far lower than that predicted. This lends credence to the theory that populations exposed to many pathogens develop more effective antibodies. The jury is out on this issue; we will know in a couple of months how hardy we are.
This is not to suggest that we disregard the commonsensical preventive measures of this, or indeed, any other virus of the Corona family. Wash your hands and face, stay clear of strangers, and never ever touch your face except with a tissue paper. If internalized for all time, we will be healthier in the future.
To return to Dickens:
Firstly the losers:
It is the worst of times for those who have lost a family member to the disease; for those who are sick with it; for those who are in quarantine; for those whose incomes have suddenly dried up; for all others who go around in constant dread of getting infected without knowing whence. It is the worst of times for all mothers who have family settled abroad; for patients of other long-standing diseases who can’t get regular medical attention as most hospitals are only half-functional; for the expatriate Pakistanis worrying about aging relatives back home.
And the winners are:
This is the best time for the electronic media outlets. With millions a captive audience their advertising rates must have tripled. So they broadcast the same gloom and doom hourly. Clinical psychologists unanimously agree that constant reiteration of bad things reinforces feelings of angst, creating serious depressions. What our TV channels do is exactly that. Where there is no bad news locally they import it from abroad. But money is money, and is most needed in bad times.
Another sector having it great is the mobile networks.
A third is the aarthi. He is the middleman between the farmer and the consumer of edibles. The aarthi is making windfall profits, stockpiling, and driving up prices by creating scarcity. This class of businessmen is a classical study in opportunism. First, they had the old ration card scheme trashed in cahoots with the elite of the 1970s, then got the government sold on the Utility Stores junket, and finally they have the whole food chain in their pocket. If government is really interested in ensuring food security, and not leaving the citizen at the mercy of vultures who fleece both the farmer and the public, it should bring back the old dog-eared ration card which used to ensure supply of standard items at affordable prices. This mafia must be praying for the long life of covid-19.
The Utility Stores Corporation loses almost Rs 4 billion rupees annually, every year since 1974. As with the hundreds of other State Owned Enterprises, I, a taxpayer, am paying for its upkeep, and nobody tells me why? The beneficiaries are the USC’s 14,500 employees, and the aarthi who supplies sub-standard stuff to the outlets. Government persists in this inexplicable experiment at my expense.
The beggary mafia is another group benefitting from the knee-jerk reaction of the government to pour billions into charity. Governments are not supposed to be in the charity business. That’s for the people of Pakistan with their enormous wealth. There is more gold in private coffers in this country than Fort Knox: There are Rs 15 trillion lying in commercial banks: There are more than Rs 3 trillion in currency notes; plus, unknown trillions in prize bonds; plus, all-cash-paid real estate of millions of trillions; plus billions of dollars in gunny bags hoarded in basements.
So leave charity for the public. Just give them better governance. We all have highly developed social consciences, poor and rich alike. Starvation is never a scenario in this country, for which Allah SWT be praised. Government may, if it has loose cash, which we doubt, subsidize well-established local charities which are in the hundreds all over this country.
The present dole-out is cosmetic and probably quasi-political, for which the government is already getting a lot of flak. Just reopen business and commerce so that the private social net does not dry up. This disease is a long-haul. How much money is being wasted will be known only when the Auditor-General of Pakistan looks at the books, accounting the $8 billion outlay in the last few weeks. Amnesty International has warned that transparent procurement and disbursement procedures are not being followed in many countries where governments are doling out emergency funds.
Another thing which amazes a lot of thinking people is how Pakistan, with its cutting-edge arsenal of nuclear weapons, has such a weak engineering base. One of the major scares going around these days is the lack of ventilators in hospitals. Pakistan is a major supplier of surgical instruments internationally. I hope some bright young technician in Sialkot is at it now. Basically it is a low-tech cheap-to-produce machine but a lifesaver. Local production would be a major boost to the presently weak hospital system.
Among a lot of other failures of the bureaucracy, a major default is the inadequate health and education sectors. If you look at the sanctioned budgets of these two departments, and the savings at the end of the fiscal year over our history, you will find billions unused and lapsed back to the Treasury. Bad planning and worse implementation of policy is the only explanation. The other day, a superior court ordered the recruitment of 800 doctors for the prisons. These posts were sanctioned years ago, but lie vacant. Blame the politicians?
There are many takeaways from this horrendous present experience. Some say many fundamental beliefs and practices will evolve into a more ethical lifestyle post-covid-19. Maybe, maybe not. Time-tested wisdom is that the more things change, the more they remain the same. The clarion call of the French Revolution was for “Liberty, Fraternity, Equality”. How many of these lofty ideals in the social contract do we have in this country? The feudal classes, who own this country in more ways than one, are unlikely to loosen their centuries-old draconian grip on institutions, merely because a few thousand fellow-citizens died in a plague.
Former Member, Federal Public Service Commission