Ruminations on a repurposed world
Peshawar, Pakistan, April 9, 2020 (Photo: AP)
Another night of disturbed sleep. Another morning of lying in bed, thoughts so many as if there is nothing to focus on. Despite being used to self-imposed isolation living amongst my loved ones, now every day seems more devoid of meaning than it ever has been in my quiet world. Life as I knew it turned, waved an abrupt see-you-later and walked away without looking back. Would it ever be the same again? I’ll ask myself on April 26th, 2021, provided I’m alive. Death doesn’t scare me. Helplessness does.
Coronavirus (Covid-19) happened. The world has changed irrevocably. Even the resumption of the familiar after a few months, a year, would be marked by the invincibility of that one phenomenon that sent a collective chill down the world’s apathetic spine. Starting from one of the world’s mightiest, wreaking havoc in some of the strongest, moving to the world’s sole superpower, it has re-questioned all global, familiar yardsticks of excellence. In a world that is smug in the power of its nukes and fighter jets and Fusil Automatique Léger battle rifles and human-less drones and Multiple Independently Targetable Re-entry Vehicles, there is no vaccine for coronavirus. There won’t be any for a year, eighteen months.
Today, four—the United States, China, Britain and France—out of the only five nations that have the capability to hit any place on earth with a missile, are devastated with the agony of their sick, the burden of their dead. According to NBC, on April 26th, the US have 900,000 confirmed cases. The number of the dead is 50,000. The number of confirmed cases in China is 83,910. The number of the dead is 4,636. The number of confirmed cases in the UK is 148,337. The number of the dead is 20,319. The number of confirmed cases in France is 124,114. The number of the dead is 22,614.
Their missiles are intact. Their precious people are no more. Never before the index of priorities was in need of an urgent replacement.
On April 26th, according to Johns Hopkins, the global number of confirmed cases is 2,947,616. The number of the dead is 206,607. Amidst the form-shifting bleakness are slivers of hope, of things will get better: 853,666 have recovered from the virus.
There are no goodbyes. There are no final hugs. The severely infected receive treatment but they die alone. Graveyards in the world’s most developed countries are overburdened. Crematoriums of Bergamo, Italy, became insufficient to deal with its daily dead. In New York, workers in hazmat outfits stacked coffins in mass graves. Management authorities of some graveyards in Iraq refuse to bury the contaminated deceased. Burials of Muslim coronavirus-positive dead are being done in isolation without mandatory Islamic pre-burial procedures. Even in death, coronavirus is a stark reminder of uniformity of human suffering.
Each life matters. Each death is pain that is forever. When the world is taken by its lapel, its sick and dead turned into statistics, a new realisation sets in. Frenzied responses, makeshift solutions, hurried remedies, handling only of the sickest, making do with the inadequacy of the healthcare system that prided itself on its capability to do the impossible, reliance on impromptu treatments and learning something new every day, the global healthcare system is on the verge of a collapse. Every day, it receives emergency props to reboot.
When the healthcare system of the most developed countries, the leaders in every field, is overwhelmed, many questions emerge to which there are no simple answers. It is not the scarcity of hospital beds or ventilators or personal protective equipment (PPE) or masks that has dealt a knee-crushing blow to the global health system. It is the world’s unpreparedness to deal with a pandemic.
Bill Gates’ 2015 TED speech was prescient: “If anything kills over 10 million people in the next few decades, it’s most likely to be a highly infectious virus rather than a war. Not missiles, but microbes. Now, part of the reason for this is that we’ve invested a huge amount in nuclear deterrents. But we’ve actually invested very little in a system to stop an epidemic. We’re not ready for the next epidemic.”
Coronavirus is the deadly proof of the farsightedness of Gates’ fears. The world didn’t pay attention even to the warning of the second richest man in the world, one of its most generous philanthropists, who presented a scenario that was very real, very terrifying.
Gates said: “The failure to prepare could allow the next epidemic to be dramatically more devastating than Ebola …we can build a really good response system. We have the benefits of all the science and technology… We’ve got cell phones to get information from the public and get information out to them. We have satellite maps where we can see where people are and where they’re moving. We have advances in biology that should dramatically change the turnaround time to look at a pathogen and be able to make drugs and vaccines that are fit for that pathogen. So, we can have tools, but those tools need to be put into an overall global health system. And we need preparedness.”
People heard the speech, applauded, and went back to doing what they do best: believe in their invincibility. Preparedness remained a twelve-letter word only to be hailed in motivational speeches and inspirational op-ed pieces.
Gates said: “What are the key pieces? First, we need strong health systems in poor countries…where we’ll see the outbreak very early on. We need a medical reserve corps: lots of people who’ve got the training and background who are ready to go, with the expertise. And then we need to pair those medical people with the military, taking advantage of the military’s ability to move fast, do logistics and secure areas. We need to do simulations, germ games, not war games, so that we see where the holes are… Finally, we need lots of advanced R&D in areas of vaccines and diagnostics.”
Gates’ key pieces remained, mostly, untouched. The unknown, in-the-distant-future outbreak was not an immediate concern, and the apparent excellence of existing healthcare systems gave the required reassurance.
Bill Gates in 2015 said: “If there’s one positive thing that can come out of the Ebola epidemic, it’s that it can serve as an early warning, a wake-up call, to get ready. If we start now, we can be ready for the next epidemic.”
Not one developed or developing country considered Gates’ words to be anything more than a speech that had hundreds of thousands of views on the TED website. In 2020, the new epidemic, a pandemic, has killed hundreds and thousands so far. The killing spree of the coronavirus does not have an end date.
National failures of the most powerful are a stimulant for global awareness. The imperativeness of preparedness becomes the sole agenda. For the post-coronavirus future.
Dotted across the globe, despite UN and other world peace bodies, are the red zones of active conflicts, even if war is a politically incorrect connotation today. Human beings, in an eternal war of hegemony, are killing human beings. In the 21st century, bombs and guns continue to ravage Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Nigeria, Somalia, Ukraine, South Sudan, Libya and Indian-administered Kashmir. Millions are displaced. The refugee crisis continues. According to the Global Peace Index of the Institute for Economics and Peace, in 2016, there were only 10 countries free from armed conflict.
Human, material and killing resources keep the body count active, infrastructure turned to debris, as games of regional and global hegemony do their ghoulish display. The military-industrial complex makes the rules of the game. Food, healthcare and other life-enabling factors remain subservient to the metal-plastic deadliness of guns. Missiles, not vaccines. Stockpiling of weapons to unleash unquantifiable destruction is the sign of a country’s might. In 2020, microbes have entered human bodies, crippling the most sophisticated healthcare systems and the strongest economies. Will the world learn?
The repurposed world would have: more scientists, less arms designers. More healthcare, less artillery research and development. More hospitals, less military bases. More medicines, less missiles. More ventilators, respirators, PPE and masks, less armoured fighting vehicles.
Coronavirus is not the last epidemic. As long as human life continues on earth, viruses will exist. Coronavirus is a zoonotic disease. Human beings need to change the way they live. Regularisation of China’s wet markets should not just be a hashtag but in the top agenda of world health bodies.
Stop trade and consumption of wild animals—bats, pangolins, snakes, bamboo rats, hedgehogs, badgers—whose bodies do not have any medicinal or nourishment value. Stop poaching and trafficking of endangered species like pangolins. In the last decade, as per the official Chinese figures for wildlife trade and consumption, Wuhan wet markets—from one of which, the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market, Covid-19 is alleged to have originated—did business worth more than $74 billion, providing work for 14 million people.
According to the Wildlife Conservation Society, ‘Poorly regulated, live-animal markets mixed with illegal wildlife trade offer a unique opportunity for viruses to spill over from wildlife hosts into the human population.’
With input from all developed and developing countries, the most affected to the least affected, a new paradigm could reshape the prioritisation of local and global healthcare.
The global health expert Alanna Shaikh states: “The real way for the long haul to make outbreaks less serious is to build the global health system to support core healthcare functions in every country in the world so that all countries, even poor ones, are able to rapidly identify and treat new infectious diseases as they emerge.”
Shaikh, in her TED talk on March 5th, 2020, had many words of caution: “Covid-19 is going to be a huge burden on health systems. Covid-19 has also revealed some real weaknesses in our global health supply chains. Just-in-time-ordering, lean systems are great when things are going well, but in a time of crisis, what it means is we don’t have any reserves. If a hospital–or a country–is out of face masks or personal protective equipment, there’s no big warehouse full of boxes that we can go to get more. You have to order more from the supplier, you have to wait for them to produce it, and you have to wait for them to ship it, generally from China. That’s a time lag at a time when it’s most important to move quickly.
If we’d been perfectly prepared for Covid-19, China would have identified the outbreak faster. They would have been ready to provide care to infected people without having to build new buildings.”
Will the global leaders listen?
Back home, in Pakistan, despite an air of gloom, there is hope that things will get better. Adversities, even the ones with a distinct corona of sugary proteins that project from the envelope surrounding the particle, have an expiration date. Pakistan went into a partial lockdown on March 22nd, as a complete one was unfeasible for a country where a large number of people live under the poverty line.
Under the leadership of Prime Minister Imran Khan, Pakistan’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic is quite remarkable within its monetary and healthcare restraints. Khan is in constant contact with the nation through his televised speeches, media interactions and Twitter timeline. Pakistan does not have the human and material resources of the first world, but Pakistan’s Prime Minister’s first priority is the wellbeing of its people.
On the complete lockdown of Pakistan, Prime Minister Khan, on March 20th, spoke to the nation: “…our issue is that 25 per cent of Pakistanis live under the poverty line. That means that they are unable to have two proper meals. If I do a complete lockdown today, it would mean that rickshaw drivers, roadside sellers, taxi drivers, small shopkeepers, daily wage earners of my country will be locked inside their homes. Would they have resources to feed their families for two weeks? Do we have the capacity that we provide them food at their homes? Right now, our capacity is not that. If I do a full lockdown, I’d have to think: what will happen to my Pakistanis who live under the poverty line?”
A few weeks later, in April, Khan announced the biggest cash distribution initiative in the history of Pakistan: the Ehsaas Emergency Cash Programme. Currently cash-strapped, Pakistan will not let its poor, its invisible be hungry. Ehsaas is the name of Khan’s government’s “biggest and boldest programme ever launched in Pakistan to uplift marginalised people.”
On April 9th, Prime Minister Khan tweeted: ‘Today saw the launch of the biggest cash distribution by any govt in Pak’s history, directly to the most vulnerable & needy citizens in our society. This is a great achievement of our govt to transfer cash to the needy in our society on such a massive scale across the country. Rs 144 billion will be distributed amongst 12 million families over the next two weeks.’
On March 14th, the lockdown was extended for two more weeks. On April 26th, the total number of confirmed coronavirus cases in Pakistan is 13,304. The number of recovered is 2,866. The number of dead is 277.
The chief ministers of the four provinces—Punjab, Sindh, Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa—are working without a break to ensure prevention and treatment of the coronavirus pandemic. Specialised hospitals have been established in almost every district of Pakistan. Special quarantine centres have been made with utmost attention to the care of suspected patients. Ventilators, PPEs and masks are the top point in the agenda of providing excellent care to patients and medical professionals. The number of tests is increased on a daily basis. Contact tracing is done with diligence. Welfare initiatives—state-run and private—to feed the poor are operational throughout Pakistan.
In Pakistan, the prevention, treatment and lockdown procedures may lack perfection, but they are consistent, constantly updated, and meticulously implemented.
Lahore, on April 26th, is uncharacteristically quiet. A stricter lockdown in various parts of Lahore was imposed on April 12th. The same will be implementable in all those parts of Pakistan where the number of suspected cases is high. People of Lahore seem to be resigned to the sheer enormity of the pandemic. It will end, but ‘when’ is the question everyone has, and not many wish to ask that repeatedly.
The affluent of Lahore are in a stunned restlessness. Nestled in their opulent houses, many of them are busy trying to find meaning in existence that is sans travel, parties, eating out and running business houses. Some of them find refuge in prayer. Some find validation through posts of their cooking and doing things millions of people do every day in a coronavirus-free world.
The middle class of Lahore are in an unusual conundrum. Despite the lifelong conditioning of keeping the façade of we-have-enough and dignified acceptance, now the anxiety is palpable. Their tightly-managed budgets are in disarray at the time when most businesses are on pause and monthly incomes through salaries have dried up.
The poor of Lahore are a heroic lot. Having been used to meagre daily, weekly or monthly wages, most of which have vanished in the time of coronavirus, large families clustered together in tiny houses are living their bleak lives clueless about tomorrow. Government and generous citizens are helping, but not even the best-intentioned help reach everyone.
In Pakistan, where the summer is almost eight months long in many parts of the country, staying indoors for a long period is not just a physical impossibility for the underprivileged millions, it is a huge emotional liability. Summer beckons, and fear of a continued lockdown heightens insecurity: Kal kya hoga? (What will happen tomorrow?)
In my home, my son and my family, our resident domestic staff, who is like our family, and my two dogs, are in self-isolation. But we are together, and that is what matters even when we agonise over disruption of many things—education, work and regular income. Our lives have hit the pause button. Our bonding has deepened, our talks are more meaningful, our disagreements are less acrimonious, our silences are increasingly comfortable.
One day at a time…