Wake up!

Wake up!
The UN has declared the infectious coronavirus crisis a pandemic – a disease that is spreading simultaneously in many countries at the same time. It is also spreading exponentially everywhere – almost doubling every ten days or so. At last count, over 150,000 cases had been tested globally, with over 4000 deaths reported at the mortality rate of over 3-8 percent, rising steeply with old age when the immune system is progressively weak. It is learnt that the virus can be contracted not only by physical contact with persons but also though the air and various types of surfaces. At this rate, scientists calculate that millions could be infected globally in a month or so. Unfortunately, there is no vaccine in the market to counter this threat and medics are not holding out any promise of a breakthrough in the near future.

Consequently, several countries have imposed various types of “lockdowns”: travel restrictions, ban on big gatherings, large scale quarantines, etc., to contain the disease. Italy, which is the worst affected after China, has quarantined all big cities in the north. The US has stopped entries from some EU and other countries and called out the National Guard in New York. Various airlines in the Middle East have curtailed flights to and from some destinations. Across the globe, stadium events hosting football, cricket, baseball matches, music extravaganzas, conferences, etc., where chances of infections are the greatest, are being cancelled. Saudi Arabia has stopped the Umrah pilgrimage of millions and there is serious consideration to deal with the Hajj event in July in a similar vein. Elsewhere, national emergencies have been declared or put on the anvil. Hospital and health services are shifting to red alert. Overnight, breathing masks, hand sanitizers, soaps, disinfectants, frozen food, etc., are disappearing off the shelves in supermarkets as citizens scramble to hoard up for impending hard times. Apart from China – the source of the virus and the most adversely affected country – Pakistan’s contiguous neighbours Iran and India are also moving swiftly to take serious large scale preventive measures to deal with the emergency at hand. But what is the PTI government in Pakistan doing to protect our citizens who are most vulnerable for a host of reasons?

It seems to be least bothered. The government claims there are less than a couple of dozen cases and only one or two patients have died so far. It says that borders and entry-exit are being monitored but admits that its facilities are fairly rudimentary and haphazard. Almost all the cases reported are of Pakistani citizens returning to Pakistan who “somehow” managed to escape detection on arrival and are likely to have infected many others in contact with them subsequently. Our lack of concern for our own citizens is evidenced by the fact that the government has allowed all our domestic supply of breathing masks to be exported gratis to China and imported supplies have dried up because of a global shortage in the face of steeply rising panic-demand.

Two big threat-events are continuing apace. The first is the annual moot at Raiwind near Lahore of the Tablighi Jamaat which attracts nearly a million of the Faithful from all over the country, including from virus-vulnerable areas on Pakistan’s borders with China and Iran. For three days these Believers will breathe and live in a collective embrace, thereby exposing themselves freely to the lurking infections in their midst. They will then carry the virus to their homes and boost it exponentially in weeks. The government sat back and did nothing to persuade them to postpone their moot. Much the same sort of cavalier mindset is manifest in the approach to the matches of the PSL5 attended by tens of thousands every week, the four national stadiums becoming veritable hotspots of corona incubation. The government cannot be unaware of the dangers inherent in such big gatherings but seems to lack the will and ability to do anything about it. What would happen if, ironically, star foreign players from core countries were to be recalled by their cricket boards midway through the tournament, leaving PSL5 high and dry?

The situation can be summed up as follows. Willful ignorance, denial, even dereliction of duty and callousness are evident in PTI corridors in Islamabad. Prime Minister Imran Khan is more concerned about imposing a “uniform” education system in the country next year – “so that the sort of culturally diverse opinions expressed during the Aurat March are stifled” — while propagating the virtues of passion over education and professionalism. He is expending all his energies in grinding the media and political opposition to the ground instead coming to grips with a health emergency that is staring him in the face. Indeed,  this is the very moment that a charismatic leader like him can wake up and rouse the administration and masses to gird their loins to combat the most deadly disease to ever attack the country.

What was Nero doing while Rome was burning?

Najam Aziz Sethi is a Pakistani journalist, businessman who is also the founder of The Friday Times and Vanguard Books. Previously, as an administrator, he served as Chairman of Pakistan Cricket Board, caretaker Federal Minister of Pakistan and Chief Minister of Punjab, Pakistan.