Epidemics Within Epidemics

The Coronavirus pandemic is bad enough but, as dozens of countries have demonstrated, it can be controlled — there were just 3 new cases in Sri Lanka on June 12. Even in places where the number of infected persons was very large before the alert was sounded, Italy for example, new cases per day have dropped from 6,557 on March 21 to 163 on June 12. In Pakistan, they continue to rise — from 144 on March 21 to 6,397, the highest to date, on June 12. What makes the pandemic so recalcitrant in Pakistan, where the initial cases were minimal for lack of tourists, are the epidemics within the epidemics. 

The first of these is the blight of ignorance. A country where the majority cannot verify information for itself is hugely handicapped. All it should take is a visit to one of the many data sites (worldometers.info is excellent) to look up the trends on new and active cases, recoveries, and deaths for any country. A cursory glance would reveal the declining trends for most and, by contrast, the alarming upward slope for Pakistan.

Just this one glimpse would dispel all rampant doubts and conspiracies and convince people that we are now entering seriously troubled territory. And, it would make people realize that we really have nothing in place to arrest this inexorable upward trend. Some familiarity with exponential growth would remove the complacency induced by the slow start  of an epidemic which can be foolishly equated with road deaths and the like. One would know that even small numbers accumulate relentlessly — Pakistan is now amongst the countries with the largest number of confirmed cases in the world.

The slightly more aware observer would also note the ominous inflection point in the trends for Pakistan right around May 30. Take the number of active cases which were 40,931 on that day. It had taken 21 days to double to that number from 20,291 on May 19. It took less than 13 days to double again to 83,223 by June 12. The rate of increase is rising, not falling, a flashing red sign. Now recall that Eid was on May 23. It shouldn’t take a genius to put two and two together. The very benevolent allowance to shop till you drop before Eid and the even more generous extended holiday to go home and hug your loved ones has shown up inevitably in the May 30 inflection point.

Consider by contrast how China handled the 40-day new year holidays in which about 3 billion trips are made in a normal year. Once again, the charts will reveal the amazing fact that there was virtually no outbreak in any province outside Hubei where the epidemic erupted. 

The kind of numerical illiteracy that exists in Pakistan is to be blamed squarely on its rulers who have not invested in meaningful education and kept the population steeped in myths. But that is another story needing separate attention. For the moment, it can be mitigated only if the population has enough trust in its government to take on faith what they are being told and do what they are advised in their interest. Here too, a double strike is at work. The people have no trust in their leaders who have compounded the problem by saying contradictory things at different times including the suggestion that the pandemic is a visitation of divine wrath for allowing women to dress immodestly.

An inevitable consequence of the blight of ignorance, lack of trust in leaders, and the ridiculous melange of messages from the latter, is the epidemic of rumours whose transmission rate outpaces that of the virus by many orders of magnitude. There is hardly any theory that has not been promoted via a relentless barrage of social media messages. As a result, it is hard to find a person who takes the pandemic seriously for what it is, a health crisis threatening the lives of thousands of essential workers and an economic crisis that would plunge millions deeper into poverty. 

A consequence of all this is the bizarre interplay of two other epidemics, that of paralysing fear and false bravado. Some families are locked up having sent their help away. Others continue to mill around confident that nothing can happen to the God-fearing. The polarizing opposition of the former demanding an extended lockdown and the latter deriding it as folly has put paid to any sensible discussion of what could be done.  

Add to this the slow spreading epidemic of incompetence that starting in the 1970s has now percolated right through to the top. A befuddled government steering without a rudder is now telling people they are on their own after lulling them with do-not-worry platitudes. A minister pronounces what everyone knows — cases will hit 1.2 million by end-July. So, what’s the plan? The Prime Minister will personally ensure SOPs are followed and hit the violators hard. It is a lethal combination whose outcome can be in little doubt. 

Yet another epidemic, that of hot air, has gripped the intellectuals. Every institution with fancy pretensions has come alive with webinars and COVID-bulletins as if mortally afraid they will be held to account for sitting while death ravaged the land. Never mind that no one reads the bulletins, least of all those for whom they are intended, and most webinars just have retired luminaries  shooting the breeze recalling how they worked miracles in past crises. Add to them various ex-ministers who straight-facedly harangue people to do what they had not done themselves when in power. 

All in all, it is a right terrible mess the cost of which is borne by those without the luxury to work from home or the economic cushion to turn the break into an extended retreat to further their intellectual horizons. Arundhati Roy has vowed the first thing she would do once the epidemic is over is organize a public trial. In Pakistan, we should begin with a public investigation into the Taftan fiasco that let the virus infiltrate and run rampant in the country. 

This opinion was published in The News on June 17, 2020 and is cross-posted here with the author’s permission. Dr. Altaf is a former dean of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at the Lahore University of Management Sciences.

By Anjum Altaf

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