In the fight to contain the novel coronavirus SARS-2 and the disease caused by it known as COVID-19, the Holy Mosque of Mecca is closed for pilgrims. The call to prayer across some Gulf nations has been modified to urge citizens to pray at home instead of beckoning them to the mosque. Elsewhere, St Peter’s Square in Vatican City was closed for the public for a third Sunday, and the usual 80,000-strong crowd of pilgrims was absent when the papal blessing was delivered.
Places of worship are a particularly dangerous vector point for viral diseases, as people across the social spectrum congregate at them in close proximity. The novel coronavirus is especially more dangerous in such gatherings, as with its long gestation period, carriers without symptoms can potentially infect hundreds of other people. Iran can attribute most of its 3,872 deaths to the catastrophic decision to allow pilgrimages to Qom and Mashhad to continue.
Meanwhile at home, Usman Buzdar, the chief minister of Punjab, before having his hand forced by others, had assured clerics across his province that their mosques would not be shut and that a selection of worshippers from the public would be allowed to attend the call to prayer. The clerics responded by announcing their full support for the government’s endeavors.
With due respect to the victims of this example, please picture a gum-booted Shehbaz Sharif battling the dengue outbreak by assuring mosquitoes their freedom of movement, after which they pledge to him their wholehearted support in tackling the disease.
The Tablighi ijtema, a meeting of almost a million people allegedly arriving from 90 countries, was allowed to congregate before being cancelled by the organisers themselves after the first day. Better sense prevailed, but not before cross-contamination was made possible. Hundreds of new cases are now being reported each day in Punjab from within the Tablighi Jamaat’s members.
Buzdar’s initial lack of willingness to limit attendance to houses of worship may come from an inner belief that religious gatherings are exempt from contagious diseases. But it is far more probably linked to his government’s lack of moral authority to take unpopular decisions, especially when faced with a gaggle of clerics on the other end. But where authority was not at stake against organised religion, and it came to the mercantile and markets, Buzdar first ordered the 10pm closure of shops and malls, as if the virus were nocturnal.
The Governor of Punjab recently addressed the public to advise that drinking hot water takes the virus away from the lungs and into the stomach, thereby killing it. The PTI information minister from Punjab told us how plagues such as the virus are a punishment from God for our collective sins, just as he thinks special children are.
The Taftan quarantine centre in Balochistan, designed to contain pilgrims travelling back from Iran, has been exposed as a vector point. Pilgrims returning from Iran were checked only for fever, and otherwise left exposed to each other. They were then allowed to go home, and are now testing positive to the man. When the health minister had initially asked for additional around 670 million rupees to plug shortcomings at Taftan, the PM snubbed him for trying to do the work of the provinces which have been responsible for health departments since these powers were devolved with the passage of the 18th Amendment. The extra money was denied, even though border management falls within the federal domain.
The chief minister of Balochistan still seeks praise for putting Taftan together—a facility whose videos and statistics portray it more accurately as a petri dish for the virus rather than a centre designed to prevent its spread. In his spare time, the Balochistan CM has shared images of meetings on the crisis, into which he has been ham-fistedly photoshopped as a Gulliveresque figure.
Our PM chose to speak to a foreign media outlet about the pandemic before he spoke to his own people. When he did address us, he first made sure to take the Trumpian tone, chiding all of us for worrying in the face of a 97% recovery rate, warning us against crowding testing centres and reminding us that we were poor and so lockdowns were not an option.
He then decided to speak for a second time, this time with journalists present. Yet again, there were no specifics offered and no clear justifications given for the position he took, which had not incidentally changed.
When he spoke for a third time, the ISPR had given a briefing before him and had highlighted the need to isolate and lock down the country. This time, the PM talked about how everyone would be assisted through subsidisation. This time he read from numbers jotted down on a piece of paper, detailing how this would take place; they were the same measures he had earlier been begged to at least consider before deciding against mandatory lockdowns in the first place. The subsidisation seems to be based on a top-down approach, in which industries are being helped in the hope that benefits will trickle down to its workers. Perhaps direct subsidisation through the expansion of the already existing BISP net, for which data exists, would have been a better move. When the prime minister addressed us yet again, he decided to tell us not to take this disease lightly, after all, because it will spare no one.
Another country which took the “Don’t worry it’s just the flu” tack was Italy. On March 19 it registered 475 deaths in a single day, more lives than the virus has ever cost in any other country, including China where it had infected thousands more. Every day since has broken that record, with Italy later being surpassed by the United States, which also didn’t worry until it was too late, and has since consistently reported more than a thousand deaths a day for the past week. It is now the epicentre of the virus with the most cases overall. Its President too does not like to admit he is wrong, and when caught in a hard spot, prefers to fall back on gimmickry. At home, the prime minister has announced a tiger force, a completely unstructured mass appeal to untrained volunteers, which in the third week of our crisis response is still enlisting members and printing colour-streaked shirts.
Because our prime minister made even this virus about the economy, a comparison of how this government has tacked it reveals a familiar pattern. Just as with the IMF and our bailout, this government dragged its feet when it was time for action, and then shoveled blame upon everyone else when finally buckling under the pressure its own indecision had created.
Whether it is our economy or our lives, it is perhaps time to reconsider the centre of this government’s electoral promise—that corruption is the primary malady from which we must recover, a cancer which can only be cured by honest representatives such as Imran Khan who do not belong to our regular political system.
The honesty of the current PTI leadership has failed to pass the test of basic journalistic scrutiny, which led to the pressure to form committees into the sugar and wheat crises. As agencies working under the PTI’s own federal government now attest, the crises were the outcome of mismanagement and misconduct from which ministers with influence over the decision-making directly benefited. The PTI’s second claim of a novel political order has equally been exposed by its own actions as a farce, with an admitted reliance upon legacy politicians whose own freshly turned coats speak to the same old wine in barely new bottles. Notwithstanding these shortcomings, can we still find agreement with their central premise: that corruption is a bigger problem than incompetence?
Examples of the cancer of corruption given by the PTI included the PPP and its parasitic, yet supposedly democratic capture of Sindh. Imran Khan promised to free the living corpses of Sindh from the clutches of the MQM and the PPP.
With the arrival of the coronavirus crisis, the Sindh government has acted with decisiveness and speed. It has responded to the federation’s lack of firm action on all fronts. It was the Sindh government which first declared holidays in all schools. It was the Sindh government that forced the PCB into realising that this was no time for crowded cricket matches. The public faces of the province exude awareness and compassion. The first proper lockdown was announced in Sindh. The country continues to follow its lead. It was first in announcing total Friday lockdowns, with mosques to be populated only by their staff.
Imran Khan was conspicuous in not praising any of the efforts of the Sindh government while claiming all of their actions with a collective ‘we’. Back when he was a single seat representative of the then anti-establishment PTI, Imran Khan would be quizzed about his simple-sounding solutions. Questions would be asked of his claim that removing a few corrupt people such as the Sharifs and Zardaris would cure the rot in an entire nation. Imran Khan would respond by saying, “The fish rots from the head. Cure the top, and the rest will automatically fix itself.” Can the same be said of incompetence?