STATUS QUO has gone viral.
Pakistan is slowly and grudgingly waking up to a pandemic. Soon we shall be told by the governments to do this that and the other, or not do it. The state and its minions will make an attempt to explain away their criminal lethargy and then follow it up with some unimaginative strategy that essentially copy-pastes what the world has been doing over the last few weeks. Random spokespeople will be trucked into studios to spill inanities dressed up as a lame defence of the official neglect we have all witnessed since the first coronavirus patient was diagnosed in Pakistan on Feb 26, 2020.
But hidden within the layers of this habitual incompetence is something deeply worrisome for us all.
Pakistan stands on the edge. The number of people infected by the virus so far is fewer than most countries. If rising temperatures do indeed kill the virus, we may escape the horrors that threaten the globe. If not, and if the virus continues to spread with lethal speed, we may enter unchartered territory. So far the growth of the virus has been exponential. This means once it starts spreading, the graph just skyrockets. No one knows what will happen if this happens here.
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But we do know what has happened so far. And that is scary.
Hidden within the layers of habitual incompetence is something deeply worrisome for us.
Since the coronavirus issue became a real concern, we have displayed weaknesses that we pretend we do not have. One can never underestimate the power that a collective sense of denial holds. This denial first manifested itself within the ruling structure of our republic. At the best of times, governments tend to be myopic because of the unrelenting pressure of traditional problems: economic ailments, political hatreds, governance headaches, national security threats etc. States, governments and their systems are attuned to lock on to such issues both in terms of institutional reflexes and official muscle memories. Greater political focus, better people and a bigger slice of the funds, all these three then flow towards such prioritised areas.
Decades pile upon decades and compress state vision into what we call ‘status quo’. Inward-looking and completely dependent on laid-down procedures, this system is ill-suited to grasp an emerging challenge in an area that is starved of — yes you guessed it — political focus, better people and a bigger slice of the funds.
Upon this organically incompetent system, we foisted an inexperienced political leadership whose walk has never matched its talk. This weakness combined with a visceral hatred of the opposition, which in turn combined with an intense polarisation of society to produce a lethal cocktail of obliviousness and apathy towards the global crises unfolding around us.
It started from the top because what we have here in this republic of ours is a top-heavy system. In some matters, this top-heaviness works. For instance, when it comes to national security issues, decision-making is heavily influenced by the military establishment which has, over the decades, built up an institutional system that processes decisions quickly and decisively. In the existing diarchy, policymaking and implementation of national security and foreign policy issues have worked well because there is a greater level of synergy — laced with appropriate deference — between Islamabad and Rawalpindi. The scorecard has been good.
But on matters that are traditionally less important, the civilian governance structure waits for prioritisation from the top man. This problem is even more acute in the present government because of the outsize role, profile, influence and stature of Prime Minister Imran Khan. He towers above the second or third line of leadership and few can prevail on him to change his mind. Some smart people in government had sensed the urgency of taking up the coronavirus issue and advised the prime minister to take a more decisive public position about 10 days ago. Nothing was done.
The indifference then percolated down to the rank and file of the ruling party (and its trolls on social media). If it wasn’t a priority for the top leadership, it wasn’t a priority for the minions. A strange thing began to happen. Every time anyone raised the issue of coronavirus, it was perceived as a criticism of the government. The narrative machinery would then go into overdrive to needlessly underplay the issue. When you polarise a society to such an extent, everything — including human life — begins to be seen in partisan binaries.
The administrative machinery, starved of political jet fuel, sputtered ahead in its own inefficient manner. Disorganised, uncoordinated and unplanned, it attempted to do stuff that it couldn’t do well even in routine times. These steps were enough to make a pretence of action — border posts, airport monitoring, and quarantine places — but nowhere near achieving anything substantive. The substantive stuff was left too late for the National Security Committee, and that too after loud and repeated calls by people for the government to wake up!
Status quo, however, is not the sole domain of the state. In the last few weeks, we have seen our society display weird resistance to this looming catastrophe. It was almost like a majority of people saying, ‘this can’t happen to us’. Some called coronavirus a conspiracy of the West against China and not really an issue we should be overly concerned about. Why such a lack of awareness?
Here we may enter an uncomfortable zone. Is it because of a severe inability to think critically that we cannot process information independently and verify it through an ability to sift fact from fiction? Is it because we are addicted to being spoon-fed information by the state and its communication machinery and are incapable of acquiring and absorbing information that requires personal outreach? Or is it because collectively we have lost the ability to adapt to new situations that require fresh understanding and altered habits? Can we believe in data and charts and evidential proof? Or would we rather stay within the comforts of our ingrained worldview and see everything from within its prism?
There is a reason status quo has gone viral in Pakistan.
The writer is Dawn’s resident editor in Islamabad.
Published in Dawn, March 14th, 2020