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By now, we all know what to expect if any one of us is infected by Covid-19. But what can one do when a nation is itself afflicted? Pakistan has an advanced, institutional form of Covid-19. It can no longer smell corruption, has lost the taste for freedom, is unable to breathe the air of civil liberty, and all too often expectorates untruths. Nothing can mask the reality of its condition.

Covid-19 has spread, as paralysis does, gradually. It has travelled across continents, like some asylum seeker, unmarked, unwelcome. Nations with responsive, responsible governments have been able to grapple with this unforeseen challenge. Those with lame leadership lag steps behind this menace.

Over the centuries, such pandemics have spawned their own historians. The ten plagues of Egypt (including locusts) were chronicled in the Bible. The pestilence in 1585 that attacked 16th century France had the essayist Michel de Montaigne who recorded his experiences in horrific detail. And less than a hundred years later, the London plague of 1665-66 found its voice in Daniel Defoe, who survived the attack that decimated one quarter of London's population. Over 100,000 persons died.

Defoe’s account was published in 1722 as A Journal of the Plague Year.  It begins with a bland detachment that mirrors our modern experience: ‘It was about the beginning of September, 1664, that I, among the rest of my neighbours, heard in ordinary discourse that the plague was returned again in Holland; for it had been very violent there, and particularly at Amsterdam and Rotterdam, in the year 1663, whither, they say, it was brought, some said from Italy, others from the Levant, among some goods which were brought home by their Turkey fleet; others said it was brought from Candia; others from Cyprus. It mattered not from whence it came; but all agreed it was come into Holland again.’

A lock-down was ordered by London’s authorities. Theatres were closed down, gaming houses locked, shops sealed.  Imprisoned within their homes, ‘the minds of the people were agitated with other things, and a kind of sadness and horror at these things sat upon the countenances even of the common people. Death was before their eyes, and everybody began to think of their graves, not of mirth and diversions.’

Actually, Daniel Defoe was only five years old when the plague struck London, too young to remember its impact in any detail. He relied on the journals of his uncle Henry Foe, supported by his own enquiries. Defoe’s book should be regarded as Faction – the by-product of well-researched fact inter-woven with imaginative fiction. The best modern example of this genre would be Alex Haley’s heart-rending chronicle of black slavery - Roots: The Saga of an American Family (1976).

Modern technology has ensured that Covid-19 will have millions of Defoes and Haleys. This pandemic is being recorded live as it happens: on mobiles, through Internet, on WhatsApp, and in presidential tweets. Some leaders notably President Trump oscillate between folly and foolishness. His sort of clowning was a feature of Shakespeare's plays, where it functioned as "an emotional vacation from the more serious business of the main action". The buffoonery of many other leaders is disquieting, even menacing for it allows them an emotional vacation from the more serious business of responsible governance.  

It is apparent that our own government is being assailed by more problems than it bargained for when it was recruited into power two years ago. Its term began with financial insolvency, relieved by the IMF and supported by crutches provided by Saudi Arabia and China. It has found itself mired in a tortoise-slow accountability. Its foreign policy is cramped within the contours of self-inflicted isolationism.

Serious Pakistanis are not oblivious to the implications of the Sino-Indian confrontation in Ladakh. Some wonder whether the surprise attack on the Pakistan Stock Exchange on 29 June might have been a strike less against Pakistan than against Chinese interests. Forty per cent of PSE’s shareholding is owned by Shanghai Stock Exchange, Shenzhen Stock Exchange, & China Financial Futures Exchange.  The CPEC projects are too scattered a target. By hitting the PSE, our neighbours hope to hurt two birds with one stone.   

And does the government need more enemies when it has such loose-lipped ministers? With one indiscreet disclosure, our aviation minister has ensured that our airline pilots will not be trusted anywhere. Our federal & provincial governments order lock-downs; the public responds with private disobedience. Pakistan and Covid-19 like polio are becoming synonymous. Our passport like our currency is depreciating.  

Many patriots despair as they watch our governments and also national institutions entrench themselves deeper and deeper into irrelevance. To borrow de Montaigne’s chilling phrase, they are like ‘peasants digging their own graves.’   And also ours.



[DAWN, 2 JULY 2020]  

02 July 2020
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