English political philosopher Thomas Hobbes would have been an extremely satisfied person today—his idea of everyone against everyone has come true in unique fashion. He proposed this idea as a state of nature in which everyone is against everyone in the absence of a strong state to which everyone has given consent for regulating the society. This state of nature in which everyone is against everyone has full intentionality attached to it. We in today’s Pakistan’s society are not intentionally against each other. But we are a threat to each other unintentionally as both a government and media are coming out with the public messages that there is a real threat of transmission of COVID-19 from one person to another person. So here we have a situation where one person is a threat to another person if strict social distancing is not practiced.
There are those who have been tested positive for COVID-19 and there are those who are carriers but they have not been tested. So there is confusion as to who is a Coronavirus patient and who is not. One would be genuinely apprehensive whether a person walking towards you could be COVID-19 positive. The person walking towards you could have the same feelings about you. So the every person is a potential threat to everybody else.
This feeling of mutual danger is reinforced when one hears on media that there are patients of COVID-19 in isolation wards of local hospitals, among the groups of Tableeghi Jamat roaming around in the city, among the pilgrims coming from Iran and those who have traveled outside the country in recent weeks. Now there are cases of transmission of COVID-19 within the local communities. So the citizens in Pakistani urban centers are genuinely afraid of this situation.
The Pakistani state machinery’s planning, as apparent in their statements, announcements, decision, acts and public service messages, is clearly aimed at imposing a partial lockdown in major urban centers, ensuring availability of food for a longer period of time to Pakistani population and maintenance of law and order in the country. Ironically none of these aims directly deal with the threat itself i.e. how to tackle the spread of the pandemic and how to treat the patients who will be turning up at the gates of public hospitals in major cities all over the country. Ensuring the availability of food and maintaining law and order are routine affairs for Pakistani state machinery as they have been doing these jobs in the past in various situations of natural calamities and disasters. Preventing the spread of the disease or treating the patients on such a large scale is something new for the Pakistani state machinery, for which they have no experience at all.
The only technique that Pakistani government officials are proposing to prevent the spread of the virus is social distancing. Any government could expect its citizenry to practice social distancing in such a situation if there is a widespread sense of civic responsibility in the society. In the absence of such a feeling and civic sense, there should be no expectation that the citizenry will exercise much in the way of responsibility. Besides that, for a majority of Pakistanis, social distancing is not an economically and financially viable option. So the experts that I have conferred with during the last two days are almost completely sure that there is no possibility that the government would be able to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in our society.
The Chinese model—wherein now the Chinese government has lifted the quarantine of the worst affected province—is the result of round-the-clock monitoring, massive allocation of funds, sanitization of whole cities and a central and effective authority running the whole show.
In Pakistan, millions are feared to be affected by the virus by the end of May 2020. According to one estimate 14 percent of the population will be suffering COVID-19 related disease by the end of coming May.
If we listen to the experts, we should be concentrating our energies on how to treat—with whatever treatment is available so far—such a large number of patients in our hospitals, instead of wasting our resources on ensuring social distancing in a society like Pakistan, which is lacking in civic sense and hardly has any kind of organizational structure to make this happen. We can only force social distancing on our people, and that surely will produce its own tragedies.
At the moment, apparently, there are two kinds of opinions prevailing inside the corridors of power to face the challenge.
The first is to immediately go for a complete lockdown. However, Prime Minister Imran Khan in his third address to the nation, vehemently opposed the lockdown option and said that it was not possible economically and financially. Within next 12 hours the police, paramilitary forces and army started the lockdown in major urban centers in line with the prevalent view in the power corridors that a lockdown is the only option that Pakistan has to prevent the spread of the disease. Prime Minister Khan is apparently opposed to this idea. But he appears to have acquiesced to this option in the face of tremendous pressure. The result is a partial lockdown.
The second opinion inside the corridors of power focuses less on a lockdown. It argues, instead, that we should be preparing for an inevitable second phase in which our public hospitals will have to treat a large number of patients testing positive for COVID-19. We should contact every friendly country and try to amass as many medical supplies as possible in our country. For this we will have to make special allocations in the budget.
There is absolutely no authentic appreciation of the size and dimensions of the COVID-19 spread in our society, “We have no understanding of the spread so far[…]we don’t have the means to undertake such an appreciation” said a senior bureaucrat in Islamabad. The expert opinions mentioned above are based on statistical techniques and less on authentic data coming from the government sources. So we don’t have any idea how it is going to proceed, how much of the population will be affected, or in which part of the country and how we are going to deal with the threat.
There is panic inside the power corridors but it has not become visible. It is, of course, feared that such panic will become visible in case large-scale deaths take place (God Forbid).
There are government loudmouths who are claiming that Pakistan would be the second country after China to defeat Coronavirus—but such statements are not backed by any scientific evidence or any proposed concrete methods to deal with the threat.
The invention of a vaccine by any country including China, Australia, Canada or United States could possibly end the spread. But experts say it will take 18 months for such vaccines to come out in the market.
Could a cure be an answer? It will take even longer to hit the commercial market.
The Pakistani state machinery’s reliance on social distancing will be affordable for a tiny minority of Pakistanis in the longer run. The result could be a complete collapse of the economy and a similar collapse of social and political taboos that still prevent chaos and lawlessness.
In such a case, Thomas Hobbes will have the last laugh.
It is important for all concerned authorities to never forget that we have just come out of a civil-war-like situation— where militant groups in two parts of the country were up in armed insurgencies against the state machinery. Already, the taboo against violence is very weak in our society and economic collapse will weaken it further.
Umer Farooq is an Islamabad-based freelance journalist. He writes on security, foreign policy and domestic political issues.