Cricket, in its purest form, is in so many ways a wondrous game. This is a reason it has been written about with such zeal and magic by great men such as award-winning historian CLR James who used it to discuss race, colonialism and bias as well as modern writers such as American Mike Marquesee whose sociologically-inclined books on cricket tell us what the sport means for so many and why, as a game, it stands a little above others in terms of its social impact, historical influence as well as the tactics and thinking it demands.
Every ball bowled has to be considered, the field placing mulled over, the slightest weakness in a batsman’s technique detected and the right stroke chosen for every delivery bowled down the 22-yard pitch. Leadership is important on the cricketing field. But the kind of leadership which can win matches on grounds filled with exuberant spectators is not the same as the more mature, thoughtful abilities demanded when it is a nation that is to be led.
This is where our prime minister’s primary problem may stem from. Undoubtedly, a captain with immense courage and skill in the art of guiding other men, the same traits can become a handicap when it comes to deciding on matters which affect the future of a nation. We should remember that Imran, for all his strengths and all his philanthropy has extremely limited experience in realms beyond sport. He has no experience of governance and as prime minister, he sadly lacks a team which can offer the correct advice without resorting to sycophancy that we are increasingly seeing. It is sad to see Imran succumb to such flattery and such poor advice.
His handling of the Covid-19 crisis could well have plunged the nation into terrible peril had there not been intervention. Imran had insisted that he opposes a lockdown which he rather bizarrely still equates with a curfew and said in his speech of March 22 that he expected all people to observe self-discipline and quarantine themselves for the sake of their prime minister. This is a rather self-centred approach.
The fact is that a lockdown was essential to save people from a situation where hospitals are crowded beyond capacity and according to some predictions bodies begin to lie out on streets. The PM has said our situation is not the same as that of Italy or France or other countries. This is absolutely true. It is far worse. Mathematical calculations show that at the present rate of increase, there could be nearly 200,000 deaths by the end of June this year. This would be a catastrophe. Italy and even Iran have far better health facilities than us. As a nation, we spend less than two percent of the GDP on healthcare. Even now, we have not been able to provide medical staff with protective equipment and as a result one young doctor in Gilgit-Baltistan, who refused to stop treating desperate patients, has already died. There will be others like him if we do not adopt a more logical policy.
Fortunately the lockdown has happened. Sindh, from the start of the crisis, took the lead in setting up quarantine centres and providing people with required information. It took the bold step of imposing an early lockdown which came into effect on Pakistan Day. There have been problems with enforcing it, notably at railway stations, as people attempt to leave the city. But at least the approach of the CM has been on target and he has been backed by PPP Chairperson Bilawal Bhutto. Fortunately for the people of the country, other CMs chose to follow advice from other quarters rather than wait for the PM to act. A lockdown has begun everywhere. Buzdar insists this lockdown is not a lockdown. But it is to be enforced across the country where the toll of infections continues to rise steadily and alarmingly.
The federal government had said that imposing a lockdown would make life impossible for people who live below the poverty line or who depend on daily wages. The fact is that a full-fledged coronavirus epidemic which we are unable to control since we lack the disciplined, sometimes draconian measures that China is able to put in place would be an even bigger disaster for these people. Imagine a wage-earner dying in almost every household. Imagine older people falling sick and being unable to obtain respirator support. There are too few ventilators in Pakistan. Those which exist will almost inevitably go to the rich.
Even now, with the country under lockdown, there are many challenges ahead for the federal government. The prime minister needs to remember that people, unlike the members of a cricket team, will not follow orders simply because they are issued by their captain. They need to be persuaded, motivated, educated. To do so, we need a team. In the absence of such a team and with information believed to be sometimes inaccurate, there will simply be a rise in panic. The prime minister continues to urge us not to panic. This is perhaps almost impossible as we watch on our television screens scenes from Italy, where Cuban doctors have flown in to help deal with a corona problem that the Italian leadership concedes is out of control.
Panic can in some ways do good. It can prevent people taking the matter too lightly or accepting the myth that Covid-19 is little more than a common cold and cough. The rate of spread of cases is already at a higher trajectory than in other countries. The only way to prevent this is to convince people that they must self-quarantine and regard the virus as an enemy which stalks them.
We hope the handling of the crisis will improve. The military leadership has already met, sensibly enough over Skype, to discuss the situation and offer all its facilities to the civilian population. This offer must be accepted, more quarantine centres must be set up, hospital management organized and preparations taken for the long fight that lies ahead against a disease that threatens to take millions of victims around the world.
The writer is a freelance columnist and former newspaper editor.