It’s never an easy year for Pakistan, but this one ended up going far worse than anyone could have imagined. And yet, it was still not as bad as it could have been. Even the gloomiest of scenarios painted at the start of the year focused on political strife and economic stress. Nobody would have thought we would be in a situation where nearly 10,000 citizens are dead because of a preventable disease, and we still consider ourselves to be lucky. Nobody would have thought one of our worst economic years in history would actually be considered, objectively, not too bad. As for politics, everybody could have predicted that it would stay as messy as always.
Yes, the year of Covid is almost at an end, taking with it around 10,000 Pakistani lives at the time of writing. But these deaths represent only a tiny fraction of the over 1.7 million deaths recorded worldwide. Despite a significant rise in recent weeks, even the case tolls are far beyond the world leaders and even regional countries. Where some large countries are dealing with millions of cases — including the United States with almost 20 million and India with over 10 million — Pakistan, despite its large population, has still seen under 500,000 cases so far.
But even with a relatively low caseload, weaknesses in our healthcare system have become further exposed. Hospitals are struggling despite the relatively low infection rate. Imagine if it were worse. It is also notable that, before the pandemic, healthcare funding had been considered a possible avenue for austerity measures by several government advisers. Imagine how bad it would have been if their advice were taken.
The pandemic, meanwhile, also exposed something that many of us have long known. Pakistanis have little understanding of the social contract. After some initial flubbing, the government did get its act together and come up with a Covid strategy that, despite its imperfections and pushback from citizens, appeared to be working. But just as the lockdowns were loosened and Pakistan was being seen as a success story over the summer by just doing the little things (mostly) right, the citizenry decided that winning a battle was enough and promptly took it upon themselves to try and lose the war.
Despite the proven benefits of mask-wearing and social distancing, our citizens — mostly young but often old as well — went for the time-tested strategy of only wearing a helmet or seatbelt when a policeman is nearby. Whether it be political rallies, religious gatherings, or everyday social events, apart from the virus, we were also infected with wilful ignorance that transcended age, gender, and economic background. This essentially neutralised our early successes and left us in a situation where instead of closing the book on Covid, as some countries have done, we are still frantically flipping pages.
Even the most pessimistic critics of the government, or Pakistani governance in general, would acknowledge that the economy cannot turn the corner and other aspects of life cannot return to normalcy until we get past Covid. Unfortunately, few of those critics, or even supporters, are willing to put in the surprisingly little work required to help put the country back on track.
Published in The Express Tribune, December 27th, 2020.