Coronavirus, Pakistan and Punjab

Time seems to have frozen into one moment. In that moment is the world hurdled in collective stupefaction. In the last one month, there appeared on the global consciousness a coronavirus shaped reality in its deadly enormity that with the calm assurance of inevitability slunk into countries that prided themselves on their strategic, political, economic, and social power. The devastation continues unabated. Traditional rules of the game are inapplicable.

The world with its billionaires and scientists and nuclear powers and medical geniuses and spaceships is at its wits’ end as the number of coronavirus cases multiply every day. Coronavirus will end someday, there is no debate about that. When that will happen; human beings are unable to give a deadline. That day, humankind would be sitting in a corner, stunned to its tenuous core, at the unquantifiable loss in ways that defies all known codes of reckoning.

In the last one hundred years, in the life of almost all inhabitants, even the oldest living ones, the world has not seen anything like this pandemic. One coronavirus is a concern for all of humankind. A deadly virus has united a world that is uneven, increasingly divided, rigid in its paranoias and xenophobia. One virus has moved across the world flouting every known protocol of cross-continental travel.

April 1. The number of countries with coronavirus cases is 178. The number of confirmed cases is 846,000. The number of dead is 41,000. The number of undetected cases, I fear, has the capability to unleash more destruction. Healthcare systems of the most advanced countries in every way, are overwhelmed. The USA, with its 181,099 cases, has a predictable lead even in a global pandemic. China, Italy, the UK, France and Spain stagger under the huge number of their dead. The pain of all these countries is shared in global virtual solidarity.

In the hospitals of the world’s biggest powers, patients line every part of the emergency rooms, with new portions turned into coronavirus centres. The dead, on some days, lie with the living, covered in white cloth, shrouded in black body bags.

The medical staff, the biggest heroes of humanity today, work more than the capability of their bodies, minds and hearts. Sometimes, they cry; sometimes, they break down; sometimes they seem to have an emotional breakdown. But they don’t give up. They go on helping the sick; they do their best to provide the best treatment.

In Pakistan, there is a belated but growing realisation of the deadliness of a pandemic that, devoid of any discriminatory pathogen, attacks everyone. From prime ministers to princes, celebrities to the very rich, COVID-19’s victims are varied and everywhere. Pakistan, in a lockdown, is aware of that. A resource-scarce country with an emaciated healthcare system is doing its best to combat a virus that has harmed with speed unimaginable in the world of 2020.

Pakistan’s coronavirus system is not without flaws. Much more needs to be done. Many more tests are required to get the real number of cases. The lockdown must be stricter. More masks, PPE and ventilators are an immediate requirement. Quarantine centres and specialised hospitals have been established; enhanced medical and other vigilance would improve the process of treatment. Addition to medical staff would be a great help in the management of an increasing number of cases. Every effort is being made to streamline the system.

The number of confirmed cases in Pakistan on April 1 is 1,717. The number of dead is 21.

The strength of the leadership of an economically weak country is best tested in the time of a crisis, this one underscored with unprecedented global devastation. Prime Minister Imran Khan of Pakistan, fully aware of the financial and infrastructural limitations of his country, is doing his best to do multiple things. The most important of that is his constant communication with the terrified nation through his addresses and media interactions.

In an unprecedented situation, new strategies replace standard protocols; what matters is the strength of intention and will. Khan is unambiguous about one aspect: his unflinching empathy and concern for the wellbeing of the underprivileged. All the steps taken by his government in the time of coronavirus are reflective of his concern for the common Pakistani, the aam aadmi. Pakistan’s prime minister wishes all Pakistanis to be safe and healthy, but those whose lives are turned upside down in a government-enforced lockdown are Khan’s constant worry, his top priority.

In a televised address, Khan said: “25 percent of Pakistanis cannot afford to eat two times a day … If we shut down the cities… we save them from corona[virus] at one end, but they will die from hunger on the other side … Pakistan does not have the conditions that are in the United States or Europe. Our country has grave poverty.”

Pakistan does not have first world conditions, but Pakistan has a prime minister whose signature characteristic is his empathy for the poor, the invisible of Pakistan. On March 24, Khan announced Rs 1.2 trillion relief package “to support the poor and help local industry to offset negative impact of the coronavirus outbreak” in Pakistan. On March 31, Prime Minister Khan announced the formation of the Corona Relief Tiger Force, stating, “If we cannot provide food to the people of the country, then this lockdown will not be successful.” The youth of Pakistan, passionate and empathetic, compassionate and focused, will help Khan in his fight against coronavirus, ensuring that no one sleeps hungry in a locked down Pakistan.

Khan’s reluctance, despite scathing criticism from the opposition parties and media, to impose a full lockdown was validated when Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s 21-day full lockdown “triggered a massive exodus of migrant labourers and wage workers,” leaving “many fearful for what comes next.” On March 29, Modi said in his monthly radio address, “I apologise to the people of the country because of inconvenience caused to them. I especially apologise to the poor and financially weaker sections who would be probably thinking that what kind of a Prime Minister is Modi.” Pakistan’s prime minister is aware of the unsustainability and impracticality of a full lockdown. He is assuring maximum relief in the present lockdown. His advice is prevention through social distancing, self-isolation, and recovery through a timely treatment.

Following in Khan’s footsteps is the government of Chief Minister Usman Buzdar who recently announced a relief package of Rs 10 billion stating, “The Government of Punjab will make sure that the poor and the daily wage earners are not left alone in their time of need.” On March 31, Buzdar announced one-month additional salary for medical staff engaged in treatment of coronavirus. The information on the number of cases in Punjab is regularly updated on Chief Minister Buzdar’s Twitter account.

Under Chief Minister Buzdar’s supervision, Lahore Expo Centre, in the record time of nine days has been converted into a 1000-bed coronavirus field hospital.

The work of the government of Punjab is not rhetoric, empty claims. It is tangible. In the month of March, as Pakistan, much beyond its limited resources, took a frontline position against coronavirus, the governments of Punjab and all provinces of Pakistan made it their single-point agenda. A simple index of the steps of the Punjab government, chronologically listed on and, in March is an encapsulation of the moral and professional commitment of a chief minister on whom ad hominin attacks of the combined forces of the opposition parties and media are a daily staple. His government’s response is poised, succinct: work, work and work.

Punjab Minister of Information Fayaz-ul-Hassan Chohan, in his articulate dissemination of the message and work of Prime Minister Khan and Chief Minister Buzdar, has adopted a policy that would be beneficial even in a post-coronavirus Punjab, even the entire Pakistan: no politicisation of an issue of global significance, no politicisation of Pakistan’s fight against coronavirus. If only Pakistan’s opposition parties and media had the moral realisation that a global pandemic unites a country, not divides it.

Dr Anthony Fauci, US’ top infectious disease expert, and the leader of the White House coronavirus task force said, “You don’t make the timeline, the virus makes the timeline. So you’ve got to respond, in what you see happen. And if you keep seeing this acceleration, it doesn’t matter what you say. One week, two weeks, three weeks – you’ve got to go with what the situation on the ground is.”

Prime Minister Khan and his central and provincial cabinets are aware of that reality. Pakistan is terrified, but there is one silver lining: Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan is with the people of Pakistan every step of the very long, very painful, life-altering coronavirus pandemic.

It tiptoes in my mind, many times in a day: the world as we knew it has changed. Inexorably. I wish every country of the world all the best. We are together in the fight against the coronavirus pandemic.

May you all be safe.

May you all remain strong in a world redefined in its core fragility.

May your self-isolation be productive.

May the financial hardships be temporary.

May your separation from your loved ones end soon.

May Allah watch over His world.


(This article was first published in
Gulf News on April 03, 2020)

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