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COVID-19 and the Perpetual Crisis in Pakistan

Updated: May 18, 2020

by Ammar Ali Jan

We are passing through one of the gravest crises faced by humanity to which no one can afford to be indifferent and neutral. The crisis has been exacerbated in Pakistan due to the economic disparities in society, the authoritarian structure of the state and the incompetence of the current government led by Imran Khan. The result is widespread panic and fear as people struggle to come to terms with a drastically transformed reality.

The large class divide in Pakistan makes it impossible to create a “national” response to the crisis. The abrupt lockdown announced by the government last month created a particularly difficult situation for food-insecure households, as the state failed to create adequate welfare schemes for those on the margins.

What is worse is that factories began dismissing thousands of workers minutes before the lockdown was announced in order to avoid paying their salaries for the period of the closure. The incident highlights the precarious nature of work in contemporary Pakistan, as jobs remain insecure and workers disposable for the bosses.

The result is that millions are caught between choosing hunger and disease, as desperation mounts across working class neighborhoods. Sporadic protests have occurred in Karachi and Lahore, with hungry people becoming even more vulnerable to catching the deadly virus in order to fight for their lives and those of their loved ones.

For an economy with large numbers of insecure, uninsured, temporary, daily wagers and part-time workers to receive health care alongside universal basic payments, we need radical redistribution of wealth. Yet, instead of considering wealth redistribution, richer neighborhoods have started patrolling their entry points to ward off unwanted elements (essentially the poor).

This policy follows a longer history of “social distancing” in the region based on class and race. In Lahore, the first urban check-posts were built by the British at the Mian Mir Cantonment to keep locals away from British officers, as the former were feared to be vectors of dangerous diseases. The nexus of hygiene, militarization and apartheid then have a long history in South Asia that is coming into sharp relief during the current crisis.

It should be kept in mind that Pakistan is the 7th most vulnerable country in the world when it comes to climate change. Yet, our excessive indebtedness forces the state to improve its balance of payments in order to increase exports.

Since Pakistan does not have a large-scale industrial base, we are forced to open up our natural resources to foreign companies in order to pay back the impossible debts they have accumulated. Moreover, the drive to increase exports also leads to unsustainable practices of agriculture that produce quick profits in the short term but result in ecological ruin in the long run, adversely affecting the poorest sections in the countryside.

What is clear is that Pakistan must abandon the illusion of endless growth that has been thrust upon us for the past seventy years since independence. In our desire to “catch-up” to the West, successive governments have facilitated the country’s industrial elites while neglecting social sectors and repressing demands for wealth distribution.

Although we were told that the generation of wealth at the top would trickle down in the form of jobs and taxes, we have instead witnessed the emergence of monstrous monopolies that have little regard for labour or environmental laws, and are notoriously efficient at escaping the tax net.

The achievement of this “development” acquired after decades of subsidies to the elites is that we have not even managed to provide safe drinking water to citizens, with 40 percent of deaths occurring in Pakistan due to waterborne diseases.

There are also murmurings of discontent over the bloated budget of the military. The cost of our military budget has exposed the inadequate attention paid to our health and education sectors, as well as leaving few funds for productive economic development.

With COVID-19 and other epidemic and climate catastrophes on the horizon, it is clear that Pakistan cannot afford to perpetuate fantasies of regional domination or carry the burden of bloated militaries that are more often used against our own people.

The centrality of the military (as well as the police) within the state apparatus has led to fears that the lockdown could provide the state with an opportunity to strengthen its authoritarian grip over society.

Indeed one of the darkest discussions on the lockdown and coronavirus has revolved the authoritarian structure of the state. These discussions have been led by activists from the marginalized provinces of Balochistan and Sindh, where hundreds of cases of enforced disappearances have taken place.

These missing persons are often abducted by the security officials but their presence is not officially acknowledged, suspending them in a liminal place between life and death. With coronavirus, this invisible space has acquired a medical reality, as activists ask the subversively naïve question on whether the missing persons are being kept in quarantine.

It appears that COVID-19 has the magical power to render visible those whose existence was erased from official statistics.

Much like other South Asian countries, WhatsApp groups are now the central sites promoting doubts about government and medical claims regarding COVID-19. However, in a society that has faced repression for decades and has authoritarian social and political structures, it is to be expected that rumours and doubts will always have a potent life in the public imagination. But the confusion intensified due to the chaotic manner in which the country’s populist leader, Imran Khan, directs the fight against the virus.

Khan’s strategy could be considered rather comical if the repercussions weren’t so dire. In the initial phase of the crisis, the Prime Minister remained silent about the impending threat posed by the virus. Indeed, until mid-March, the only major debate on health was the government’s attempt to privatize the healthcare sector at the behest of the IMF, which prompted protests by health workers across the province of Punjab. Yet, as the government of the southern province of Sindh led by Khan’s rival PPP gathered praise for its swift response to the crisis, the federal government began contemplating its strategy.

Khan eventually addressed the nation on the seriousness of the crisis, while at the same time insisting that a lockdown is not possible due to the state of the economy. The following day, a lockdown was announced by the government, fueling rumours that the country’s real powerbroker, the military, was undertaking “political distancing” from the prime minister’s erratic conduct.

The situation, however, provides Khan with an opportunity to distance himself from the difficult decisions being taken. He can claim to be opposed to a crackdown on religious congregations while his police battles extremists, and disagree with a lockdown even as his administration puts the country to a halt.

Pakistan under Khan is a classic example of exercising sovereignty without responsibility as the state abandons the public in the midst of this unprecedented emergency. The result of this double game is that the government machinery is nowhere to be seen as desperate people wait for government support in the form of food and funds.

Perhaps it is this persistent uncertainty that transforms the virus into an unknown entity that is shaking reality as we know it. The absence of a concrete enemy deprives the public of the language to explain this force that has shattered the flow of time, creating a linguistic crisis as well. We try to understand this novel threat by borrowing language from the past, mapping the virus onto historically existing cleavages in society and amplifying social fissures in the process.

Yet, incredible grassroots initiatives are being taken by ordinary people to help the most vulnerable households. I have volunteered with the Haqooq-e-Khalq Movement’s Labour Relief Campaign, an initiative providing solidarity to working class families while demanding that the government provide job security and social welfare.

Mutual aid groups led by the youth are springing up across the country, with hundreds of people volunteering their services in scenes reminiscent of a spiritual awakening. Such efforts offer a glimpse into a very different Pakistan, one premised upon horizontal solidarity among citizens united in the pursuit of justice and dignity.

The coronavirus is not a politically neutral issue. As one of the gravest threats to modern civilization, it has emerged as the most concentrated expression of the social, economic and political contradictions that shape our global order.

We cannot treat it as an aberration in the generally smooth functioning of the system. More health crises are looming, while a climate catastrophe threatens the very fabric of our existence. There is no point of return from these crises.

Our current uncertainty is accelerating the process in which a section of humanity is deemed disposable, cementing apartheid for the poor as well ethnic and religious minorities. On the other hand, the pervasive feeling that the old world has lost its vitality in the face of COVID-19 has the potential to open up possibilities for imagining a radically different, and perhaps better future.

Such an ambitious undertaking would paradoxically require an immensely humbling admission. At the moment, we no longer possess the language to even comprehend the present, let alone one that can allow us to plan for the future.


Ammar is a writer, historian, teacher and member of Haqooq e Khalq Movement.


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