Khan’s dilemma: to full lockdown or not?

In our home, we are family of five, presently. There is also a couple, our domestic staff, and their two children, 7 and 6, also part of our family. Last week, our driver moved into his own place. My two dogs are my babies. All of us have practised social distancing since March 22.

Despite initial grumbling, soon there was harmony in our acceptance of the quarantine. Our part-time cleaning lady stopped working. Unavailability of public transport forced her into quarantine despite her utter reluctance to do so. In her tiny house, she felt claustrophobic, her entire family clustered together.

The microcosm of the effect of the COVID-19 driven lockdown in my world in Lahore is a sombre reflection of the reality of the same global phenomenon affecting different people in different ways. The assumption that the lockdown has been a success or a failure is not to be made lightly. All educational institutions, public transportation, shopping malls, stadiums, non-essential shops and offices, gyms, salons, and hotels were in a full shutdown. Sports events, conferences, personal events, PSL, and the Pakistan Day parade were cancelled. Pakistan went into a pause mode. And that Pakistan remained patient and silent until it couldn’t. The restless agony became audible in the wheezing silence of COVID-19.

The upper class, the affluent, are probably the only segment of Lahore’s population that is in a real quarantine. Banned from working, travelling abroad, eating out, and hosting soirees, there is not much to do. Bored, restless, the rich are indoors. Their businesses are affected, but they shall survive and make more once the pandemic is over. Their privilege makes social distancing a simple choice.

What the rich are also doing: silent philanthropy.

The poor have lost their source of income and their dignity. Living on day-to-day largesse of the rich and government welfare initiatives–which despite their absolute sincerity and intention never reach everyone in need–the underprivileged of Lahore and the rest of Pakistan watch their tiny lives turned to smithereens. Before the coronavirus, they did not have much, but what they had was steady, earned through their hard work. Suddenly, many of them are income-less, jobless, even homeless. All over Lahore there are respectable looking people ringing the gate bells of the rich, the upper middle class, even the middle class, looking for “rashan”, the Pakistan-isation of the word “ration.”

Of those who never had much to begin with, three-time basic food for themselves and their families is and will be the fundamental priority for as long as the world is coronavirus-affected, and long after it vanishes. That is the main concern for Prime Minister Imran Khan since his first speech about the possibility of a full lockdown of Pakistan.

What will happen to those who, in the cruel darkness of COVID-19 reality, abruptly lost their incomes and ergo their three-time basic food? Who will help the poor in their time of nothing? How much will and can government, despite its historic Ehsaas relief programme, do to ensure that millions of people do not sleep hungry, their little ones do not cry for milk, their elderly get their medicines? Who will take care of the poor of Pakistan in the time of a full lockdown?

As I added the last question mark, I YouTube-ed Prime Minister Khan’s May 7 speech. I didn’t know what he had said other than the announcement of easing of lockdown on May 9. Khan’s speeches to the nation have been a regular feature since the world has had a sudden realisation that invisible microbes are mightier than the strangest missiles. The one sentence of his speech was replication of my thoughts on Pakistan in its fight against the coronavirus: “…lekin, aage yeh hum kitni daer kar sakte hain?” (But, how much longer can we do this?) A 220-million-Pakistanis’ lives question, and there is not a single satisfactory answer.

On May 7, Pakistan’s confirmed cases were 24,954, with 6,464 recovered patients. 593 COVID-19 patients have died. On May 7, there were 1,523 new cases and 38 deaths in 24 hours. Ideally, Pakistan should be in a full lockdown. Realistically, can Pakistan afford to have a full, indefinite lockdown for long?

Prime Minister said: “We are ending this lockdown now. We know that we are doing it at a time when our curve is going up ... but it is not edging up as we were expecting… the shutdown would be lifted in phases.”

Prime Minister has warned Pakistanis: “The disease could get out of control if you don't take precautions. I’m saying this to all of you: you’d have to take responsibility. If the nation wishes to get out of this difficult time, government can’t make that happen with the force of danda (baton). All of you must work with government. Safety SOPs must be followed.”

It is a mess. The poor can’t afford private tutors for their children. They can’t visit their ailing, elderly parents living in a village in Dera Ghazi Khan, Azad Kashmir, Mardan, Mianwali. Their movement is restricted because of suspension of public transportation. Their daily and monthly wages have dried up. All they do now is survive, one day at a time.

It is not just the poor of Pakistan that are affected. Middle class folks, salaried folks, those who work on commission, those who survive on foreign remittances, are without income. Countless people have lost their jobs. Salaries have been drastically reduced even where they are paid.

It is not just Pakistan that is easing its lockdown. The US, the UK, France, Denmark, Germany, Switzerland, and Austria are also planning relaxed lockdowns. All of them are developed countries. Most of them have an excruciatingly high number of COVID-19 cases and deaths.

Pakistan is a developing country. Resources and cash-strapped, Pakistan is doing its best to handle the pandemic that has wreaked havoc, in myriad ways, in some of the world’s mightiest nations. The only way Pakistan can survive the pandemic is if people decide to cooperate with the government instead of leaving it all to fate. Deep faith in Allah keeps people strong even when they are at their lowest. Even in the time of the coronavirus, millions believe their Creator will watch over them.

As someone who deeply believes in the power of prayer, I’m also acutely aware of the impossibility of the proper gauging of the trajectory of the coronavirus. I fear much damage. The only thing that will help us is if we, literally, help ourselves and others. COVID-19 is treatable, but in its worst form it is hell. And COVID-19 death is agonising, terrifying, long, lonely.

Pakistanis need to be aware of that before they think that easing of lockdown is a licence to revert to their old ways. Prayers may give them respite. It is safety measures that would keep them alive.

On that I’ll continue to write.

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