Mixed Messages

Between the commencement of Ramzan and the easing of the lockdown, I was at the wrong end of a rant for advocating the avoidance of congregations in mosques. A gentleman accused people like me of hypocrisy for continuing to drink at the Punjab Club while keeping the devout from visiting the House of God.

I am not a member of the Punjab Club but was sufficiently intrigued to investigate what was going on there. I was informed that everything was closed except for the bakery and that home deliveries were continuing for members who wished to entertain and had sent their cooks home. It also came out that tennis had been restarted but a couple of days later a rather urgent message affirmed it was discontinued. This was the first time I had influenced an action in Pakistan though undoubtedly the outcome owed more to a rather secretive and privileged institution wishing to avoid being thrust into the limelight. 

This experience whetted my curiosity as to what might be going on at other places unfamiliar to me. Enquiries about the Islamabad Club were rewarded with a notification from the management stating the following:

“The management has decided to open the track of Islamabad Club Polo Grounds (ICPG) strictly for walking or jogging only. This facility will be for the use of Club members and their families only. No guests or sporting activities shall be allowed, nor food and beverages or any other services will be available to the members.”

My position from the outset had been that parks should have remained open but still the fact that the ICPG was open for members and their families to walk or jog while my neighbourhood park remains padlocked for cooped up children even after the lockdown’s easing struck me as inconsistent and inequitable.

What was going on? Who wanted to impose the lockdown and who were the people who believed it need not constrain their lives? Were they the same or different “elites”? What was even more confusing was that even the self-proclaimed “non-elites” were indulging in the same behavior. Images of our Covid war-room showed the gentlemen sitting close to each other without bothering to wear masks. Ditto for ministers attending some ceremony or the other surrounded by unmasked minions. The message from on high was that social distancing and the like were for plebians only.

Unlike the USA and UK where macho men like Trump and Johnson are the butt of jokes, people here take political and religious role-models seriously, especially when they want to, and given the precariousness of the situation, the under-preparedness of the health system, the already low compliance with state directives, these sort of mixed messages are downright dangerous. 

All this is not helped by the fact that our leaders do not speak the language of the plebians, something I sensed at the time they wanted to uplift the poor via the Millenium Development Goals (MDGs). Hoping to make my contribution by disseminating their message to beneficiaries, I realized there was no equivalent term in local languages that could convey what was underway. Much scratching around yielded “sadsala tarraqiati ahdaf” which was no better comprehended by the beneficiaries.

The MDG was harmless circus. It provided a good living for all the huffers and puffers without a deleterious impact on society — the status quo remained unchanged. The fact that those involved did not take it seriously themselves became obvious when its 15-year life ended in ignominious failure in 2015 only for it to be replaced, without any post-mortem, by the gravy train of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) with yet another 15-year lease of life.

The situation with the Covid-19 epidemic is different because miscommunication is no longer harmless; it can result in a serious loss of lives. As a knee-jerk reaction to what was happening in other countries, our government too announced a natiion-wide “lockdown” but without clearly spelling out what it entailed. Everyone had their own interpretation. Asides from the obvious binary cases like schools and colleges, it was not clear what was open or shut. 

As one example, private medical clinics remained open in Kohat but closed in Peshawar. One doctor in Peshawar, who sees about 25 patients a day, said four of her patients died for lack of attention during the closure. Aggregate that ratio over private clinics in the city and more people might have died from lack of care than from the Covid-19 epidemic.

What did “lockdown” mean? Once again I scoured Urdu language outlets but came up with nothing besides “laakdown” except for one occurrence of “bandish-e fa’aliyat” of which the less said the better. Even a high school student could have done better than that with “taala bandi” given our long aquaintance with “naaka bandi.” 

I suppose the plebians might have reacted too negatively to “taala bandi” as an imposition and it was considered better to leave them with the ambiguous “laakdown” or “bandish-e fa’aliyat.” As a result, almost everything that could stay open stayed open, people freely rubbed shoulders in crowded places, travelled between cities when they could, all the time complaining of the disappearance of their jobs.

Ditto for social distancing. In the padlocked neighbourhood park I mentioned earlier, I saw six guards breaking their fast sitting around one small table while many others remained unoccupied. Either they did not comprehend what social distancing meant or they did not think much of it like our warriors in the Covid control room. I didn’t try to find a local equivalent for the term given the overwhelming potency of the signalling from the top.

And what to say of the ad nauseam regurgitation of the term “flattening the curve” in a place where most have never seen a graph or a curve in their lives except for the kind that graced the giant film billboards of yesteryears. 

Now the “lockdown” has been eased and, to make confusion worse confounded, we are moving to “smart lockdowns.” May the Good Lord keep us under His protection. 

The writer is the author of Transgressions: Poems Inspired by Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Delhi 2019, Karachi 2020. This opinion was published in Sindh Courier on May 15, 2020 and is reproduced here with the author’s permission.

By Anjum Altaf

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