Parsing the Epidemic

By Anjum Altaf

Whoever is advising the leadership on the Coronavirus epidemic is doing a poor job.

The Prime Minister is reported as saying that the lockdown has been imposed by the uncaring “elites” because they feared the poor would carry the infection with them into the posh areas. However, he is said to have added that the outbreak has shown the disease does not discriminate; it affects everyone whether rich or poor implying that the “elites” are not just uncaring, they are also stupid. 

Personally, one can agree that the “elites” (whoever they are) are uncaring and indifferent whenever anything outside their personal interests is involved. One can also agree that the lockdown, in the form it was implemented, was a bad decision; it was premature, driven by panic, and not sensitive to the specificities of local conditions. In particular, to the fact that, thanks to the “elites,” this is a country where the vast majority, day after day, eats what it earns that day. Leave aside that it has to refrain from eating the basic caloric minimum to put money aside for the rent and water to be paid at the end of the month. Given that, a prohibition on large gatherings and closure of colleges was understandable but preventing vendors from plying their trades was not wherever such activities could have been accommodated within the guidelines of wearing masks and social distancing. After all, if a concession could be made for congregational prayers, it could equally have been made for many other activities that were carried out in much less confined spaces.  

Be that as it may, I don’t really think it was the “elites” who came up with the decision to impose the lockdown. The likely reason points more to the dependency for ideas and money on the West that the Prime Minister decried in the same address. These kinds of decisions, because of an almost complete lack of local competence and the displacement of what little exists by sinecures, are almost always deferred to international agencies who advise on policies and to donor agencies who funnel the funds to implement them. This phenomenon was witnessed very clearly during the 2005 earthquake. The lockdown, this time around, was most likely a function of the WHOs one-policy-fits-all-poor-countries dictate that could not be denied for fear of drying up the funding pipeline. Its nation-wide implementation was a function of our leadership’s one-size-fits-all-regions response which required the least amount of thinking consistent with the capacity of the intellectual resources spread across its kitchen cabinet. 

What is really of concern, however, are the mental models that are driving the actions of our leadership. Start with dependency which should be the simplest concept to grasp. In what sense are we against it when the Prime Minister’s own cock-and-hen scheme was lauded for its invention and affirmation by Bill Gates? For confirmation of the contradiction between word and deed, just keep watching how all the post-Covid recovery policies are turned over to the UNDP, World Bank and IMF to be funded by USAID, DFID and the like. Meanwhile, local outfits, some part of the government itself, are rendered invisible despite them busting their behinds to get noticed. 

Move next to “elites” whose interpretation defies all comprehension. Listening to the speeches, one gets the impression that “elites” refers to those who ruled in the past, a meaning that can be found in no dictionary. The dictionary defines “elite” as “a select group that is superior in terms of ability or qualities to the rest of a group or society” while in political and sociological theory, the “elite” are a small group of powerful people who hold a disproportionate amount of wealth, privilege, political power, or skill in a society.”  

In the first, meritocratic, sense, there is nothing necessarily evil about belonging to an elite group — the Prime Minister himself rightly and deservedly belongs to a sporting elite for which honour he worked very hard. In the second sense, of a small group with disproportionate wealth, privilege, or political power, there is no way that the present leadership can be distinguished from previous leaderships. Of course, within this traditional “elite” some sub-groups hold more firepower than others which can yield one interpretation of the Prime Minister’s lament of helplessness. In any case, there is no convolution of meaning that can convince an audience that a small group with disproportionate amount of wealth, privilege or political power can transform itself into a “non-elite” just by being honest. A belief in any such conceptualization is the sign of deep delusion.

There is a lethal corollary to what the “elites” have wrought in Pakistan with immensely damaging consequences for the “non-elites.” In any normal polity, public intellectuals are a part of the meritocratic elite holding themselves at a certain critical distance from the power elite which they are supposed to hold accountable. But in the upside-down world of this country, “public” intellectuals are also vetted and promoted by the power elite, with self-selection being the outcome of choice, quite independent of credentials or prior performance in any field whatsoever. Loyalty is the currency in demand and dissenting voices are obviously “disloyal.” 

Finally, and most worryingly, there is the mental model of the virus itself which is supposed not to discriminate but afflict rich and poor alike. This model leads straightaway to a vision in which the rich can exercise their power and privilege to barricade themselves against the poor lest the latter carry the infection into the enclaves of the former. With everyone being equally vulnerable, the rich have to buy their survival at the expense of the poor.

But all the available evidence that has gone abegging defies this presumption. The virus, in all other places, has quite disproportionately affected the poor, the marginalized, and those already suffering from other ailments. It has disproportionately affected the old as against the young and men as against women. It has also disproportionately affected people living in dense areas as opposed to those with space at their disposable. In short, the virus has discriminated in all sorts of ways, an appreciation of which could have yielded much more targeted measures than a blunt lockdown ridiculously aimed in some imaginations to barricade the rich against the poor.

The Prime Minister’s heart is clearly in the right place beating for the well-being of the poor deprived of their livelihoods while the rich, in their comfortable isolation, experiment with baking sourdough breads. But, it seems, his ear is not tuned to the sources that can guide him in following his heart to the right remedies. This couldn’t have been more obvious than the sight of him, signalled to the entire nation, sitting with folded hands behind a tearful cleric-in-residence who aimed to turn the entire crisis into a morality play quite like what it must have been in medieval plagues when science as we know it was yet to be born.

And, here is the supreme irony of framing the crisis in moral terms as the wages of our sins. While the virus discriminates between rich and poor, young and old, women and men, all for reasons that can be fathomed, it does not discriminate between the religious and the irreligious, the devout and the impious, the faithful and the faithless, the worshipper and the non-worshipper, the honest and the dishonest. So much for the tearful moral explanation that has been discarded centuries earlier by all those from whom we are now condemned to borrow both ideas and money.

A caveat is necessary here for those quick to blame the vast majority of citizens for giving credence to such moral interpretations and for attributing crises to an angry providence. It is the “elites” who have, quite consciously and deliberately, kept them sheltered from even the slightest exposure to a scientific mindset lest, God forbid, they become curious and actually begin to march towards the rich enclaves in search of answers. Ignorance and fear among the many remain the surest guarantees of the continuation of “elite” rule.

So much has been revealed by this virus.

Anjum Altaf has a PhD from Stanford University. This opinion appeared in Sindh Courier on May 4. 2020 and is reproduced here with the author’s permission. 


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