Coping with Covid perils – Abbas Nasir


COVID-19 has changed the world in no uncertain terms and, despite a voracious reading of all the scientific information that is in the public domain, it is pretty much impossible to say when and if we can revert to what was normal till Christmas Eve 2019.

That was around the time accounts of what was happening in Yuhan were surfacing in, or being leaked to, the outside world. Before the full realisation of events in China hit the rest of the globe, the pandemic was upon us, savaging humanity in the most nightmarish of ways.

Death count tolls were mounting at an unimaginable rate and within months Covid-19 claimed hundreds of thousands of lives around the world, slicing mercilessly through the elderly population in particular. Even the countries with the most advanced healthcare infrastructure appeared helpless.

Newspapers, websites, TV channels and all other avenues of dissemination of information including social media platforms ran scoreboards of the infected, the hospitalised and the dead. For once the distinction between the First and the Third Worlds ceased to exist.

Little accountability in countries such as India and Pakistan has meant whimsical decision-making.

In fact, because of extensive testing and constantly updated hospital records, the First World appeared far worse hit than the Third World. The latter’s story, by my reckoning, still seems untold. Nobody can say how many died in tightly packed urban shantytowns undiagnosed.

Some nations took measures to slow down the spread of the virus early and some waited far too long. The denial and putting the economy first by the Trump administration created a catastrophic situation in the US where the strain on the healthcare system was telling, as was the death toll.

Nobody ever suggested that lockdowns and other similar measures were going to sound the death knell for the virus; steps were merely taken to slow down its spread so that the overburdened healthcare system would cope and not collapse.

Government responses betrayed the competence or the lack of it in leadership across the world. Where New Zealand’s Jacinda Ardern won kudos for her deft and sure-footed handling of the pandemic, the reaction of UK’s Boris Johnson was reprehensible.

As the pandemic was beginning to take a hold in UK, which had ample warning of several weeks — unlike Italy and Spain which were largely caught unawares, and hit hard before springing into action — Johnson, like Trump, trivialised the Covid-19 threat.

After a hospital visit, he rather proudly claimed the virus was nothing serious and that he had shaken hands with many Covid-19 positive patients — this as his horrified scientific advisers stood dumbfounded behind him. He later contracted the virus and survived a near-death experience.

As we speak, the only consensus about checking the pandemic tide is to push ahead with mass vaccination, social distancing and the extensive use of masks — the last measure, more than others, being in the control of each individual.

While the developed world is proceeding apace with mass vaccination, humble resources and infrastructure have translated into very low vaccination rates in the Third World. This will further translate into a long-drawn-out fight with the virus as wave after wave hits the latter and exacts a toll.

On top of that, little accountability in countries such as India and Pakistan has also meant whimsical decision-making. The Modi government has come in for considerable stick in the international media for its poor decision-making which created a huge healthcare crisis. It was too slow to move, given the country has more than a billion citizens.

Pakistan has been quick to pat itself on the back and cite ‘international endorsements’ of its Covid-19 strategy. I, for one, have struggled to find much evidence of these ‘well done’ messages online. Could it be that Pakistan’s testing and sketchy hospital records may have shrouded the actual state of affairs?

It is an earnest hope and prayer that all the claims of deft handling, of smart lockdowns, are not exposed as the Delta virus, which appears to spread like wildfire, establishes its vice-like grip over large swathes of the densely populated urban conurbations.

Against the backdrop of its 200 million-plus population, Islamabad also did not appear to move quickly enough, for example, to bulk buy vaccines and the public awareness campaign has been inadequate.

One keen observer compared the Covid-19 campaign to the dam fundraising drive and pointed out how expansive the latter was. Another media expert said innovation was lacking. Given the penetration of smartphones, short and effective videos should have been delivered to each handset.

The government alone is not at fault. There is also evidence of hesitancy among some people to get vaccinated. But have those at the helm done enough to address this? Probably not.

As I write this, a journalist friend tells me of long queues at Karachi’s Expo Centre. Whether it is news of the city running out of ICU beds driving this vaccination enthusiasm or the Sindh government’s warning to block the Sims of unvaccinated mobile phone users or its threat not to pay salaries of such employees or a mix of these factors, it is a positive development.

A concerted countrywide campaign on multiple platforms is needed to both push for vaccination and also to convince people to wear masks, despite it being a challenging task given the hot, humid weather, and give huge shaadis and valimas a miss. The alternative needs to be spelt out brutally.

Our vaccination rate and the rollout pace tells us a return to normality seems a long way off. While we are on a journey to get there, it is incumbent on each one of us to display a sense of community, empathy, compassion for our friends and family, and do our utmost to keep them safe.

Even in the First World there is that much a government can do.

The writer is a former editor of Dawn.

Published in Dawn, August 1st, 2021