Lost in living By Ghazi Salahuddin

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Where is the life we have lost in living? Eliot had, of course, posed this question in a philosophical vein. That is how the poet had also speculated about the wisdom that is lost in knowledge and the knowledge that is lost in information. Anyhow, I am reminded of this verse while trying to sort out the meaning of this life that I am living at this time, stuck in the web of the coronavirus pandemic.

Essentially, the pandemic has touched all lives and has caused upheavals across the globe. Besides, there is so much else to worry about. We know that Covid-19 has changed the world and there is endless analysis of what is happening. But I have alluded to the life I am living and am specifically concerned with my present experiences.

At the beginning of this month of May, our elder daughter ‘airlifted’ her parents to Southern California in the United States to boost up our defences against the virus with Pfizer. It was an operation planned and executed in a hurry, after she discovered our antibodies count. Otherwise, we were struggling with the difficult project of visiting our younger daughter in Italy.

This had to be a journey of adventure, entirely welcome, though it was prompted by a sense of urgency. It felt strange to be transported to a place that can arguably be called a haven in the present sway of the plague. But we could not leave the world behind, as we discovered two weeks after arriving in Los Angeles. There were some stirrings in faraway Dubai that, out of the blue, pushed us into the pandemic’s whirlwind of pain and uncertainty.

A part of my family was gathered in Dubai, at the house of a nephew. Somehow, the virus slithered inside that happy abode and everyone was eventually affected. It seemed reassuring that most of them had been vaccinated, including the aged ones who had flown from Karachi, beating the emerging disruption in flights.

We should assume that the fact of being vaccinated would be a defence against the severity of the attack. It did not work in all cases. Three of my siblings and one nephew are in hospital at the time of this writing. Two of them, a brother and a sister, are in ICU. They are in a stable condition and we seek comfort in the fact that they are receiving excellent medical care.

It would be an understatement to say that this is a very difficult time for us. Like most middle-class families in Pakistan, we are scattered in different continents and countries and there is a limit to what virtual connections and frequent video conferences can do to calm our distraught nerves in a time of crisis such as this. And the overall situation dictated by the virus has left us in an emotional wilderness. International travel continues to be hazardous.

For instance, my wife and I had been booked to return to Karachi from LA this weekend, after our daughter had succeeded in her rather defiant venture of having us Pfizer vaccinated. But our Turkish Airlines’ flight from Istanbul to Karachi was cancelled and the next booking was on hold until the middle of June.

Our two daughters, living in the US and in Italy, were not able to fly to the other country because of prescribed restrictions. Slowly, though, Europe is opening up and things are expected to greatly improve in the coming months and weeks of summer. Italy has now allowed visitors from the US. There are some Covid-free flights, with proper control. Otherwise, a ten-day quarantine is necessary.

This sense of being helpless and bound by incomprehensible limitations is shared by innumerable families in so many countries. We are living through a strange period in world history that has ordained its own kind of dispensation of disruption and bereavement. There is a new bond of suffering among individuals and communities.

However, like in many other respects, a glaring disparity is emerging in the ability of specific countries and regions to deal with the pandemic. It is the vaccine that makes the difference. The US may have done very poorly in its initial management of the Covid crisis, with a disastrous tally of fatalities, but the impact of extensive vaccination has confirmed the power of affluence and technological supremacy.

I have been a witness to how life is quickly returning to the normal in this part of the world. Almost all of them wear a mask in public and those fully vaccinated are being allowed to not wear a mask. In any case, life in general is increasingly picking its pace. Where is this relief in countries like Pakistan?

This new manifestation of inequity at the global level is being recognised by perceptive observers. It has been said that a few rich countries that can make and buy vaccines control, to a considerable extent, the fate of the world.

In his New York Times column, Nicholas Kristof has made an interesting point, arguing that the West can greatly profit from investing in vaccination of developing countries. Quoting the IMF, he said that an investment of $50 billion to vaccinate people in developing countries worldwide will generate $9 trillion in economic terms.

So, at the same time that we are trying to assess the damage that the pandemic has inflicted on mankind, including in the context of mental health, there is this opening for creating a new world. Kristof has said: “I hope Biden reads my column”.

Well, though President Biden would be expected to be reading The New York Times, rulers do not seem to be reading the analyses that are meant for them. They do not read the writing on the wall – or hear the bell that tolls.

After all, if there are lessons to be learnt from Covid-19, there are some specifically applicable to us in South Asia. It was India that shocked the world with the spectacle of what can happen when the fundamental needs and welfare of the people are neglected.