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‘When Man ceases to believe in God,’ according to G.K. Chesterton’s aphorism, ‘the danger is not that he will believe in nothing, but that he will believe in anything.’ Including the power of Clorox.  

Covid-19, if nothing else, has removed the cataracts off blind acceptance of what is purveyed as truth, even if it flows from the highest levels of government. Last week, in an unguarded moment during a White House press briefing, President Trump asserted, to the consternation of his scientific advisers, that an injection inside the human body with a disinfectant like bleach or isopropyl alcohol could help combat the coronavirus. With one stroke, he smote a thousand scientists with the jawbone of an ass.

Embattled peoples across the globe expect the leader of the free world to provide them with the solace of some comforting commandments. Instead this modern Moses offered tablets of hydroxychloroquine.  Was President Trump simply being sarcastic, as his staff maintained in a belated attempt to bleach away his absurdities?  Or was it yet another example of the ignorance of power? Either way, it was an unnecessary, cruel joke on humanity.

The Covid-19 pandemic has exposed that sitting in the Oval Office does not of itself imbue the incumbent with presidential properties. To quote G.K. Chesterton again: ‘Just going to church doesn’t make you a Christian any more than standing in your garage makes you a car.’ An office does not a leader make; it is the leader who makes the office. Only has only to look at the decisive performances of the premiers of New Zealand, Italy, Spain, amongst others. They have had the courage to wrestle with the spectre of death. President Trump has yet to bury his differences.

In the scramble to make sense of the coronavirus pandemic, two scientific disciplines have moved centre-stage – medicine, and statistics. Medicine treats those already afflicted; statistics warns those yet to succumb.

A recent study (one of thousands circulating on the internet) postulates the dates by which the corona virus should peak and then end. This study, based on data-driven estimates, has been prepared by a Singaporean university. China, it says, should have been 100% free by 9 April. For New Zealand, it predicts 11 May; India, 1 August; Spain, 2 August; France, 8 August; Russia, 19 August; United Kingdom, 20 August; Italy, 30 August; United States, 5 September; and Pakistan, 12 September.  The study calculates that world-wide, this pandemic should be history by 27 November this year.

And then, just as you think it is safe to plan 2021, this academic study slips in these caveats: the model and data used ‘may contain errors, [and] are inaccurate to the complex, evolving, and heterogeneous realities of different countries.’ What this study and others like it have not factored in is that the coronavirus is computer illiterate. It does not read graphs.

Various countries have reacted in their own individual way to this pandemic. Sweden has decided to ignore it; each state within the United States combats it separately as if Covid-19 was some hydra-headed gorgon; India treats it with the determination of a national demonetisation; China, with its centralised authority brooked no violation. We in Pakistan are struggling to find an equilibrium that will provide us our daily bread, at the cost of our daily dead.

Ever since we have been included in the comity of nations afflicted by Covid-19, we have allowed ourselves to slip into a plateau of passivity. That is hardly surprising. Nations like ours that live from day to day can be forgiven for not remembering yesterday and not anticipating tomorrow.

An incomplete lockdown by whatever name is un-smart if it cannot bend the curve of those afflicted and minimise occupancy of our cemeteries. Only the next few months will confirm whether our government has acted in our national interest.  John Ruskin, whose book Unto This Last inspired M.K. Gandhi, argued that ‘the first duty of government is to see that people have food, fuel and clothes. The second, that they have means of moral and intellectual education.’ Ruskin’s unspoken third was to ensure that its citizens remained healthy enough to enjoy the first two.

Past memories of man-made butchery - Buchenwald & Belsen, Hiroshima & Nagasaki, Vietnam & the killing fields of Cambodia - haunt us still. Three recent images show the impact Covid-19 and social distancing have had on religions that sought strength in congregational prayer: a Christian Pope praying in lonely isolation in St Peter’s, the Holy Ka’aba cordoned from the faithful, a silent Wailing Wall in Jerusalem.

Never in history has there been a greater need for a revival of individual faith in God and in humanism. Ritual, like Clorox, is not the solution.



[DAWN, 30 April 2020]

30 April 2020
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