Life in the time of coronavirus

Lahore is silent these days. Almost. The familiar sounds of ambulance and police sirens seem to have faded into the hum of breeze that is as temperamental as a miffed lover. Life has hit a pause button. The uncertainty is waltzing with the fear of the unknown. As most people go about their new routine of not doing much while fretting about everything, a sense of resigned acceptance permeates the almost-silence of Lahore. Coronavirus, COVID-19, invisibly, has upended the world as we knew it. What is next is what no one knows. And that is scary as hell.

Pakistan’s lockdown is on. Almost. In a nation that prides itself on its many peculiarities, sticking to a disciplined existence is not one of them. Reliance on fate is the lifelong conditioning of millions of those who do not have the luxury of multiple choices. Acceptance of predestination is not exclusive to the underprivileged. It is the way to deal with life’s uncontrollable for most Pakistanis. Cognisant of the world’s mightiest countries collapsing to their knees, Pakistan, with its 7,476 cases and 143 dead on April 18, is still trying to come to terms with the deadliness of an infection about which there is new or false information every second day.

As my life continues in the self-isolation that has been my norm for years, and I watch my son and family adapt to the new rules of life with online classes, absence of physical interaction with friends, and doing normal stuff outside home, I notice a certain rhythm in the monotonous. The value of the mundane has increased, familial bonds are finding new dimensions, conversations have deepened, specialness is found in the ordinary. Life on pause is still life, and it is to be lived to the fullest.

What I think about more than is good for my mental health is the millions whose lives are turned upside down with the lockdown. My gratitude for all I have is a constant reminder of all that has been taken away, albeit temporarily, from countless people of my city, my country.

Social distancing is the fundamental prevention against the coronavirus. All across the world, in many countries, some form of a lockdown is in implementation. Human beings on their own do not have the emotional or physical control to maintain distance from one another, even if it is to keep themselves or others safe. Social distancing in Pakistan did not happen because it was the best thing to do. It happened because it was made mandatory through a prime ministerial order.

Millions of people have locked themselves in their homes, palatial or derelict, because they are forced to, and not because they have the full awareness that the best defence against an invisible virus is distancing from one another. All across Pakistan, there is violation, in one form or the other, of the governmental lockdown. The violations increase as the number of confirmed cases of the coronavirus increase. Warped, it is.

Pakistan, with its 25 percent of people living below the poverty line, lacks financial and infrastructural resources to practise social distancing in its strictest form. Even those who do not come into the category of the very poor live in conditions completely unconducive to make social distancing a tangible reality. Tiny houses of two-and-a-half rooms, big families made up of various generations caged together, fearful of the next day, suffocating in their enforced closeness. That is the stark reality of social distancing of millions of Pakistanis for whom self-isolation is not the time to introspect and work on realignment of the mind and body, read good books, and binge on Netflix. Continuation of enforced closeness in coop-like structures is neither a viable idea that has longevity nor is it good for the emotional and physical health of those who are in hide-and-seek with the coronavirus.

The other aspect, the terrifying one, for countless Pakistanis is that of losing their source of income. Not merely the daily wage earner, it is almost everyone who survives on a minuscule salary every month. The underprivileged aren’t the only victims. Even the lower middle class faces the same trauma in the time of lockdown. Basic survival has become a bigger issue than that of hiding from the coronavirus. How long is the question that has no real answer today.

As Pakistan’s millions suffer a wage-less existence in the time of coronavirus, and government’s Ehsaas Emergency Cash payments reach 12 million families; there are many, many people who are not in the data of Ehsaas but are in need of instant help. I often wonder about the silence of Pakistan’s billionaires in the time of a global pandemic that has affected the healthcare system and economy of some of the wealthiest nations of the world. Central and provincial governments, despite their best intentions, in developing Pakistan, will not be able to help all of its disadvantaged. The affluent must step in to help the poor. Most of them must be doing something worthwhile on a small level, but that is not enough.

Joining hands with the government, central and provincial, the private sector can make a world of difference today. There is so much that the wealthy Pakistani is capable of doing to register their solidarity with the underprivileged in their time of acute need: providing regular food for the poor, giving money to the daily wage-earner who is suddenly without any income, supporting families who have lost their loved ones to the coronavirus, and continuation of payments for a few months to the employees of their temporarily closed businesses.

Coronavirus, with 2,250,432 confirmed global cases and 154,247 dead in more than 200 countries on April 18, is the macabre reality of the world in 2020. The numbers increase every day. There is no vaccine. There is no real plan. Until there is, the fight is collective.

In Pakistan, maintaining social distance, self-isolated, do not forget: we are all in this together. Coronavirus does not discriminate. Divided, we will fail. United, we will prevail. InshaAllah.

The writer is the Focal Person for English Print Media to the Minister for Information and Colonies.

Life on pause is still life, and it is to be lived to the fullest.

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