How to Survive Covid-19 - Together

Hanniah Tariq is appalled by the destructive individualism and lack of concern, seen from the beginning of the crisis in Pakistan

How to Survive Covid-19 - Together
An old saying goes: “He who dies with the most toys wins.” I am reminded of it as I stand in the local supermarket on what would have been a typical Sunday a little more than a week ago. Today it is like a scene from season one of The Walking Dead. The curve has indeed flattened, but not the one that the medical profession is referring to.

It’s not terrorism or civil unrest, as some would expect here. It was generally understood as something similar to the common flu and would decline with time – “Inshallah” - or so thought half the country. The World Health Organization declared it an international public health emergency on the 28th of January 2020. We continued to go about our daily routines. Then it began to spiral out of control across the globe. People paid little heed, continuing to travel internationally and domestically with little regard for the word ‘pandemic.’

The nail in the coffin of the “It will all be fine” mentality for me was when ISIS issued a travel advisory cautioning members to “stay away from the land of the epidemic” (Europe). When one of the world’s most dangerous organizations advises you a place is unsafe, the world literally stops making sense. Sure enough, it reached our shores – as was inevitable. International flights had continued to arrive in the first few weeks with little protocol on risk and prevention involved. At the time of writing, the total count of coronavirus cases had risen to 236 in Pakistan. Then people finally started to panic. It seems we can only oscillate between dead ostriches or run around screaming like our hair is on fire.

Accordingly, we began to act like the Americans and descended on the shops and supermarkets like cattle. All classes as worried as each other. However, whereas the Americans can’t get enough toilet paper, it seems people here are more worried about normal things like food and medication. The needs, of course, are different here socially too. Next to a young woman asking for more powdered milk for her kids were two clearly upper-class social mavens and me, all looking for pasta. I was standing and staring at the aisle for an eternity while looking for whole wheat pasta, obliviously determined not to change my basic needs in a time of national crisis. Then I overheard that the ladies were upset because there was no spaghetti manufactured by Barilla (imported!) left on the shelves. As I gave up looking for whole-wheat pasta, I reached for a local brand of white pasta and turned to leave. “But Beta, that is local garbage,” said one helpfully, “We are going to another shop to look for better quality food. I would never eat that!” I asked if her stance would be the same if that was all she could get and heard the astounding reply, “I would rather starve...”

“Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that lady,” I thought, quickly grabbing my “garbage” Kolson spaghetti and making a run for the hills. A perspective so individualistic is hard to hear in times like this. Starving to death for lack of good pasta might not be her eventual reality (though there is a moment when one hopes it is), but it could be for countless marginalized people who can’t get essential nutrition by the time this is over.

For a country of 212 million, we have a sizable vulnerable population. 5.38 percent of our society is above the age of 60. That is 1.14 million people who are exposed to healthy younger, more economically stable people freely moving in public spaces. They seem more concerned with their makeup than masks and gloves (some say masks are only effective up to 20 minutes, but evidence from Hong Kong suggests that they can nevertheless play a role in prevention) and are proudly hoarding essentials they don’t need. Children initially thought to be particularly vulnerable have thankfully proven to be quite resilient to the virus. Still, the Wall Street Journal warns that scientists believe children may be a factor in transmission. The publication claims that ”reports have shown children have the virus in their secretions for up to 22 days”. Flouting the guidelines on public interaction, we are still not understanding the gravity of the situation. I would like to add here that the two aunties had three kids in tow on the shopping trip—an entirely unnecessary trip for them. If they go home and infect the grandparents, who is to blame?

The Overseas Development Institute (ODI) has developed a vulnerability index to assess which “low- and middle-income countries are most vulnerable based on three main impact channels.” Resilience, described as “countries with constrained fiscal resources and weak health systems are less resilient and more vulnerable,” seems to refer to our situation. Fiscally I’m not sure what can reasonably be expected in the diminutive time frame available to mitigate the situation. Out of the federal budget for 2019-20 of PKR 4,780,358 million (the total of the current expenditure given in the budget), only PKR 13,897 million was allocated for the development of the health sector. That is an unreservedly shameful amount of 0.28 %. I try not to lose my mind by pondering on the fact that this is the same country where the military expenditure was PKR 1,100,334 (23%) in the budget for 2018-19. (Incidentally, “vulnerable” also refers to 24% of Pakistan’s population living below the poverty line).

Infrastructure also leaves much to be desired. For a country of roughly 212 million citizens, we have a mere 8 laboratories in possession of coronavirus kits, and a paltry 25 hospitals that can treat infected patients (Special Assistant to the Prime Minister on Health, 14th of March). As a saving grace, it was announced that the kits were made available for free at one government lab with no fees charged for testing. Prayers have been allocated for the rest.

Misinformation is making things much worse. It can range from the harmless but inaccurate (like drinking water every 20 minutes prevents it) to just plain preposterous and harmful. There are also the usual conspiracy theorists right on schedule banging out tweet after tweet about how this is all a hoax. Can someone please send a memo to the loved ones of the 7,513 people dead worldwide? (I’m a little busy buying my weight in hand sanitizer at the moment).

In some of the hardest-hit countries, traditional and social media are attempting to have a positive impact on this situation. In Italy, public figures like singers, Oscar-winning actors, rappers, and artists are endorsing the #IoRestoACasa (I Stay Home) hashtag and urging their social media followers to support the lockdown. In Codogno, referred to as the “Wuhan of Italy,” a radio channel Radio Red Zone has provided timely information as well as kept the sense of community alive in the small town reveal residents. The government is also taking a hardline with people who fail to respect the new rules of keeping a one-metre distance. There is a closure of public spaces and violators are facing up to three months in jail. In India, a 32-year-old man was arrested for spreading false information on social media. In Pakistan, the nation waits with bated breath for an official statement of hope, comfort, advice - anything from those at the helm of affairs.

Eventually, the much anticipated public address did come from the Prime Minister. What did the average person take away from it?

a) how to wash your hands, b) it will spread, and c) other countries are in the same position, and d) more than 40 people gathering is a risk. Sorry, number 41, you can’t sit with us. Oh wait also: don’t panic (ghabrana nahin hai).

Thanks, I won’t!

Now is the time to rally the country together, and it is now that our leadership’s neurons are notably missing at the table.

We cannot afford to have our hospitals overrun (in no one’s world can Pakistan build new hospitals overnight to face this as in China). Medical staff is already protesting the lack of proper equipment to keep themselves healthy. And we can’t afford to be selfish. We can’t afford to have most of our people running out of necessities when they cannot reasonably all be taken care of by overstretched and underfunded public services. The government and the media need to take the driver’s seat and implement mass campaigns for better protocols on managing the infection and spreading the correct information for prevention.

So our system, broken along many fault lines, needs to get its act together and fast in the post-Covid-19 world. We need to overhaul what we think of as important. It is a collective effort on a national, regional, as well as a community level that will be our only line of defense. There must be a coordinated effort to divert resources to where they are needed most, in the vulnerable and marginalized sectors of our society. We need to collectively appreciate the fact that physical isolation is not a punishment or a capricious curtailing of freedom. Nor is it merely an ‘option’ to ignore. We must understand that hoarding affects the economically vulnerable who are unable to stockpile the locally made noodles (and other food) that the aunties are reluctantly buying in bulk despite them being “garbage.”

Please donate food and supplies to those in need, stay at home with your loved ones, do like your mom said and wash your hands and please, for God’s sake, stop hoarding. We just need to agree as a nation that “the one with the most hand sanitizer or imported pasta may win, but will die alone.”