Being optimistic in a world that we know will never be the same again
A woman wearing protective mask walks with her dog, Piazza di Spagna, Rome, Italy, March 14, 2020 (Photo: Getty Images)
I love solitude. Nighttime is magical for me. I love the semi-darkness that hums with the sounds of slow traffic, sporadic barks of dogs in houses down the street, a door creaking, the light snoring of my two dogs sleeping in my room. Even in the daylight, the idea of being on my own is not scary. Reading, doing HIIT workouts, writing, chatting with my family and friends, spending time with my loved ones, watching stuff online, and thinking about nothing and everything, sometimes my day blurs into night without a punctuation mark, when a barely audible voice inside me asks: so how was your day? Clueless about the right response, I continue existing within the four walls of my room. I have done it for years. Covid-19 has ensured billions around the world do the same.
The world will never be the same after Covid-19. In merely a few weeks, a virus has gripped the world by its throat sending chills down its arrogant spine. Hitting the very important to the invisible, Covid-19 is a global notification of human vulnerability, of fragility of existence of those who have plans to colonise Mars.
In March 2020, the world has become one in its suffering mortality, its quarantined solitude, its limitations to fight. No world war could have done what a tiny virus has done: we are all vulnerable. Covid-19 is an unambiguous message that human intellect and advancements have severe limitations when it comes to the fundamental of humanity: life.
In my own family, I saw in the last few weeks that our plans, even the ones carefully executed and placed in leather-bound folders, have the snowflake fragility of falling apart. In the microcosm of the affairs of my family, I see the reflection of the world that is learning, shaken, that there is no guaranteed tomorrow. Without denying the importance of looking ahead and planning accordingly, what I have learned in the last few weeks is that there could always be that one moment—this time, that one moment that is of global impact—that could have the power to turn our lives upside down, changing the way we view our reality, weighing what truly matters, letting go of what shouldn’t have mattered ever, valuing the chance we have been given to reprioritise everything that defines that four-letter word: life.
My younger sister was booked on a flight to Saudi Arabia for a couple of weeks where her husband started working a few months ago. The family resident visa had taken forever, but now her bags were packed, she shopped for two abayas and gave us instructions on how to run the house in her absence. Travel cancelled, bags unpacked, my sister is relieved she didn’t get stuck in Saudi Arabia for months with its strict travel ban. She was truly excited about doing her first umra, but special prayers like everything else have been put on hold.
My son Musa, 20, studies in New York. Last year, he discovered, much to his delight, that he had the option of doing the January-May 2020 semester at the Paris campus of his college. The required paperwork submitted, fingers crossed for making it to the small group who would have the glorious privilege to study, for a few months, in one of the most beautiful cities of the world, Musa often talked about being in the Paris of the Louvre, a window opening to the view of the Eiffel Tower, cobblestone streets leading to hidden cafés and quaint shops, Seine-side strolls. Studying Computer Science, Maths, Creative Writing and French, Paris promised magic and modern-day allure for five months during which one of his best friends from New York, Nina, would be with him. O, to be young and optimistic.
Everything happened without a hitch. Without having to travel to Pakistan or involving Pakistan’s embassy in Washington, Musa got his multiple-entry Schengen visa while being in New York. On January 27th, a day after his 20th birthday, we saw Musa off at the Lahore airport. The Paris that he had visited as an almost two-year-old and a 13-year-old was now a giddy step into Edith Piaf’s La Vie en Rose.
Staying in his lovely campus building, Musa could see Eiffel Tower from his window.
The next one-and-a-half month were classes, exploration of Paris on his own and with his friends, a three-day trip to Amsterdam, eating at tiny cafés, visiting the Louvre and other landmarks. Musa bought a guitar, wrote in his journal, took funny photos in the Catacombs and walked for miles, inhaling Parisian air that is like no other. It all changed in a matter of days.
The first blow was Musa’s American friends cancelling their plan to visit Paris. A day before their flight, President Donald Trump announced his travel ban. A series of changes began. Plans to visit Italy and Greece were put on an indefinite hold. Classes were online, most American students decided to return to the US, streets were still full of people, but Paris changed. There was something in the air. Paris didn’t realise it right away, but the world was about to shift in ways more than one.
Although Musa, after long consultation with me, decided to stay in Paris and continue his classes online, we knew a few days later that solitude in a deserted Paris would make a perfect screenplay for a romantic movie but was scary in days and nights without friends and family. In 24 hours, Musa decided to return to Lahore. Leaving everything he had bought in Paris in the room left in sobering distress, Musa knew it would be a long time before the enormity of what had happened would truly sink in.
Life has a way of taking you by your shoulders and pushing you in an unexpected direction, all your plans in disarray, abruptly scattered like an unfinished manuscript. Corona happened and the dream semester in Paris ended with a hurriedly booked, college-chosen flight back to Lahore.
THAT IS WHAT the global reality is today. So much has been postponed, delayed or cancelled there is a reverberation of a global regrets-only RSVP. In Pakistan, although there is widespread confusion about fighting the coronavirus, a nervous change is palpable. High-level conferences and important meetings have been cancelled. Big-scale weddings turned into intimate family events. Religious gatherings have shrunk, although many mosques in Pakistan still have a large number of people in attendance. Relying on god’s munificence to make the horror of Covid-19 disappear is Pakistanis’ escape mechanism. Educational institutions have been closed and online examinations are the new thing. Cinema, recreational areas, restaurants and shopping malls are also closed. Now the young are restless; eating out filled the major part of a long day. Visiting friends at their homes during the corona pandemic is like visiting a distant relative in jail: non-existent.
Since I live in Lahore, I’ll try to make sense of what is happening here. Although regular shops still have considerable traffic, non-essential shopping is on decline. Most offices are learning the work from home philosophy. Government offices do not have visitors, and fewer meetings are held. Public transport will shut down soon. A complete lockdown, albeit transient, in a loud governmental whisper, is resigned acceptance of the reality that people will not go into survival isolation on their own. And that too, despite the knowledge that containment is the best thing humans can do right now about a virus that does not have an exponential death rate but spreads faster than one can say coronavirus in disrupted breaths.
Social distancing is a hot Facebook post. Physical distancing is another favourite topic. Both seem to exist mostly on Twitter timelines and Insta stories. What Pakistan needs is a complete lockdown. In the language Pakistanis understands, it should be labelled ‘curfew’. It is the fear of legal penalties and not coronavirus that will compel Pakistanis to maintain physical distancing, many bemoan.
Lahore is full of people who have their heads buried in everything-is-predestined morbidity. My driver said to me when I told the neighbourhood drivers sitting under a tree outside my house to be vigilant about maintaining physical distance: “Baji, corona ghareeban na nahin hoonda. (Baji, coronavirus doesn’t infect the poor.) The very sweet woman who cleans my house told me very matter-of-factly when I asked her what people in her locality were saying about coronavirus: “It is a DHA disease.” DHA is an upscale, posh residential area in Lahore.
The major problem in Pakistan today is an emaciated healthcare system. Given with a cold nonchalance, it is the gift of the previous three tenures, two democratic, one of a dictator. Prime Minister Imran Khan is doing his best to assure a nation still fully unconvinced of the deadliness of coronavirus that each life is precious, and his government would work without rest, to fight a virus that has brought the world to its knees in a few weeks.
Pakistan’s hospitals are on full alert. The very courageous medical staff is working overtime. Quarantine centres have been made in almost every district of Pakistan. Covid-19 tests are free in government hospitals dedicated to the treatment of coronavirus. All airports have a screening system. Covid-19 patients with symptoms are treated for free in state-run hospitals. Those who try to hide the positive status are forced to get treatment. Sometimes, police step in to accompany them to hospitals. People act crazily when scared.
The world is praying with its hands folded, in prostration, kneeling, arms held up high. Pakistan is in a collective prayer, too.
On March 25th, Pakistan went into a lockdown. Containment is the key to survival, even in a developing country like Pakistan, where millions rely on daily wages to survive.
On March 23, as per the World Health Organization’s updated report, globally, 338,724 people are Covid-19 infected. The number of the dead is 14,687. Some of the most developed countries are the worst affected. The global healthcare system is on the verge of collapse because of the daily new cases of Covid-19.
In Bergamo, Italy, on March 19th, army vehicles were used to transport the coffins out of the city. Bergamo’s crematoriums are overcrowded with the bodies of its inhabitants. Italy’s 5,476 fatalities (March 23rd) make it the most affected country in the world.
In the UK, more than 5,500 people have been infected by a virus that doesn’t discriminate on the basis of gender, ethnicity, nationality or faith. In Iran, coronavirus is the reason why several families are in mourning. In China, 3,270 people have died. In France, 674 people are dead. Pakistan has lost five of its own.
People with full lives have been reduced to terrifying statistics in a matter of weeks. Every fourth country has a similar story. Only the number of the infected and the dead vary.
As I wrote a few days ago, ‘Covid-19 is a daily reminder of an animal virus entering one human body to quickly turning into an outbreak that now in the words of WHO can be ‘characterised as a pandemic’. As more reports come from various parts of the world, and in particular, the 10 most heavily affected countries, some of the world’s strongest economies—China, Italy, Iran, South Korea, Germany, Spain, France, USA, Switzerland and Japan—emerges the image of a shy, reclusive animal that tiptoes into my distressed mind. Unaware of its existence, I read about it in January for the first time. Pangolin, the most trafficked animal in the world, on the verge of extinction, does not harm anyone. It is still the most-trafficked ‘non-human mammal’.
According to National Geographic, ‘Pangolin scales, like rhino horn, have no proven medicinal value, yet they are used in traditional Chinese medicine to help with ailments ranging from lactation difficulties to arthritis.’ According to some reports, it was the virus inside a pangolin that made its way into the body of one human being in Wuhan who became sick. Soon, his disease was passed on to others. Today, it is being called a pandemic. Imagine the heart-breaking irony if this turns out to be true. The human propensity to do harm does not stop with its fellow beings. The list of victims includes nature and animals.
Harming a wild, timid animal that is not a danger to anyone for medicinal benefits that are non-existent is another act of human beings that shakes the very balance of the universe, setting into motion a chain of events that has consequences, that are unimaginable, merciless, and for a long, long time.’
As I try to make sense of the changed patterns of the lives of my loved ones, I think of all those who are waiting for their loved ones to recover from a disease about which not much is known, many falsehoods are published every day, and that doesn’t have a vaccine.
Harvard Medical School states: ‘An antiviral drug must be able to target the specific part of a virus’ life cycle that is necessary for it to reproduce. In addition, an antiviral drug must be able to kill a virus without killing the human cell it occupies. And viruses are highly adaptive. Because they reproduce so rapidly, they have plenty of opportunity to mutate (change their genetic information) with each new generation developing resistance to whatever drugs or vaccines we develop.’
Last month, WHO’s Dr Bruce Aylward stated: “There’s only one drug right now that we think may have real efficacy and that’s Remdesivir.”
Forbes wrote: ‘On February 24th, biotech company Moderna announced that the first batch of its vaccine candidate, called mRNA-1273, had been shipped to the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) and will soon begin phase one clinical trials. The drug was developed in 42 days.’
The Guardian writes: ‘About 35 companies and academic institutions are racing to create such a vaccine, at least four of which already have candidates they have been testing in animals.’
There may not be any vaccine for a-year-and-a-half. It is a terrifying, sobering fact.
MY MIND IS blank. I don’t know what will happen tomorrow. There is one comforting thought, the wary, hesitant but perpetual reassertion, as coronavirus runs amok in all continents, barring Antarctica: our lives, issues, priorities, dilemmas and concerns are different, but a frightening disease has reconfirmed the insubstantiality of our existence: our pain is identical. Synchronously worrying and comforting it is to perceive a global collective response to a global pandemic. Covid-19 does not spare anyone. Covid-19 does not accept any citizen discrimination act, a closed border, any selective travel ban, dehumanisation of asylum seekers and the macabre othering of the frail. Covid-19 is the world uniting in its identical pain in 2020.
Covid-19 is a stark reminder: all human beings are equal.
My mind drifts. Musa has been in self-imposed, 14-day isolation since his return from Paris. He doesn’t say much but the abrupt return from Paris is his reaffirmation of the invincibility of the unpredictable. He has been tested for Covid-19; we’ll have the result in 48 hours. In his room, Musa reads, writes, watches stuff online, talks to his family and friends, and works out. Yesterday, he decided to paint the room to keep himself occupied. He has painted one wall deep red. From his window, he has the view of an empty terrace. He wants to fill it up with potted plants.
Coronavirus or no coronavirus, Paris or Lahore, Musa, wordlessly, high-fives every tomorrow as the promise of a world that is vibrant, glorious, empathetic and optimistic despite its staggering darkness, its army vehicles full of the new dead, its young bewildered to see the older dying like distant stars, its hospitals overflowing, and its governments doing their best to cope with a virus that is novel and merciless. I know it is scarier than anything the world has seen in the last one hundred years, but I know one thing: this too shall pass.
Watching Musa scribbling, with a pencil, the list of to-do things in his Parisian journal, painting the wall of his room, and inspecting it from a few-metre distance, I smile. And I say a prayer. Musa’s existence is my belief: Covid-19 too shall pass.
Stay safe, world.
May God have mercy on His world.