Letter From Pakistan: Global Ineptitude In Facing Covid-19

Letter From Pakistan: Global Ineptitude In Facing Covid-19
On March 21st, about 30 hours before my flight from Karachi to New York, Pakistan was informed on television that in around 5 hours all flights in and out of Pakistan were going to be banned. Long speeches were made, the army dude spoke about building some buildings with rooms, the Chinese government’s largess was invoked. The optics were apparently fixed. The federal government was doing something and not just talking about the economy while the Sindh government actually took some proactive measures to shut things down: failure to contain it in Karachi could be catastrophic, given the sheer density of the city, especially in the katchi abadis (basically slums). The economic fear is real too, the poor will starve as things shut down. And, whichever way we look, the state’s historic, habitual failures are to blame—and not just in Pakistan—austerity and neoliberalism have gutted one health system after another. So much for the market taking care of everything.

Yet, this new ban with immediate effect, complete with very long speech and impressive blather, was as indifferent to citizens and as absent thinking as everything else this very silly government does. Immediate action, immediate effect, Trump style optics-driven daftness. It appears clear that this was in part driven by a desire to correct the other absurd requirement that everyone coming into the country needed to have had a Covid 19 test, such tests being—as is known to anyone who can read—anything but readily available anywhere in the world. But doing things is good. Anything. Even if it’s running in place or abandoning and trapping your citizens elsewhere in the world. Appeals were made to the citizenry to not to overwhelm consular services lest they have to, you know… do their job.

So much authority, so little competence, so many requests for trust and faith. Day before yesterday, (March 23) the DG ISPR – the public relations wing for the military--spoke.  But before I write what he said, let’s pause for a moment on this entity the ISPR—the Public Relations wing of the military. Bring in Saatchi and Saatchi or perhaps Jennifer Saunders from Absolutely Fabulous to manage the public side of an organization whose notion of “relation” is decidedly lacking in reciprocity seems appropriate. Nonetheless, he asked for trust in the state, which plea had a certain touching quality—we have done nothing to earn your trust, we know you don’t trust us, but if you don’t trust us now we might all die, which will be different from us killing some of you on the down low. This pathogen, as opposed to the social ones we incubated, respects no hierarchies. Help. Please.

March 25, we find that some flights are being allowed out of Lahore. I received the following spectacularly helpful notification from the US embassy:

"URGENT - Notification of Flight on Qatar Airways from Lahore to Doha

Qatar Airways announced they will operate one flight from Lahore’s Allama Iqbal International Airport on March 25, 2020 to Doha only.

Please contact Qatar Airways directly or through your preferred agent to inquire about pricing and availability of this flight, even if you had previously existing reservations.

This not a U.S. government operated or funded flight.  Availability and cancellations are controlled by the airline.  Onward travel to the United States may be difficult as many carriers have reduced or eliminated routes.

Travelers will be subject to entry and exit and health requirements at the plane’s arrival countries. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) raised the Travel Health Notice for Pakistan to Level 3 on March 23, 2020, because of widespread and ongoing transmission of COVID-19 within the country.  Upon arrival to the United States, passengers will be subject to CDC screening, health observation, and monitoring requirements.”

The day before that, I got a similar email from the US embassy saying some flights would be allowed from Islamabad—I will collect these emails for my quarantine chapbook. The State department took no responsibility for the costs (obvious price gouging notwithstanding) and also failed to point out that there was indeed no way to get to Islamabad (or Lahore) from Karachi. But they are doing their part. Things are being done. Senator Menendez can rest easy.

Meanwhile airlines asking for sundry bailouts are gouging customers requesting refunds and granting only travel vouchers. If you really want to get home if only to quarantine in your lovely NY apartment, which you are missing terribly (because it has all your books and its yours!) then you start playing a roulette of sorts; so, I take a travel voucher as Dubai has grounded Emirates and Emirates is only giving 149 dollars as a refund on your Karachi New York leg, and then buy a ticket on Qatar out of Karachi on the 4th of April, assuming that flights will resume which is when flights are ostensibly going to be allowed out, crazy prices notwithstanding.  But if Doha locks down flights around the 4th, you can collect another travel voucher and think about buying another ticket. As we/they say credit card zindabad (long live credit cards). How many travel vouchers can you collect, given that they all need to be used within twelve months?

One can only hope that someone is getting a cut, otherwise the ineptitude is so utterly random we should be even more terrified that these are the handlers of our future.

This piece was written on March 25, 2020

Sadia Abbas is Associate Professor in the English Department at Rutgers Newark. She is the author of At Freedom's Limit: Islam and the Postcolonial Predicament, co-winner of the MLA first book prize. Her first novel, The Empty Room, set in 1970s Karachi, has just been published.