As COVID-19 strengthens its grip over the country, Imran Khan reassures the nation with his signature compassion, and doctors count the number of available ventilators; the country is increasingly divided. It is difficult to recall Pakistanis singing along to Coca Cola’s ‘Hum Aik Hain’ anthem for the Cricket World Cup ten months ago; the lyrics, evidently being hollow and symbolic in retrospect.

A small group of Pakistanis lounge around their large living rooms, listening to Ali Zafar dispense legislative and medical advice while staring out their bay windows to catch a glimpse of the ‘outside world.’ They are restless, scared, and irritated at the prospect of missing the small annual window where the weather is perfect for outdoor soirees. They eye their domestic help suspiciously and are questioning if their multiple grocery runs over the past few weeks has created a solid runway for a few months.

A larger chunk of Pakistanis pace around much smaller living rooms, checking their mobile banking applications to calculate their financial feasibility for the coming months in case they lose their jobs. Ends were challenging to meet in this economy as it was; they smell death every time their phone rings, expecting the dreaded notification from their employer. They eye an elderly relative coughing in the background and make a small prayer.

A dominant chunk of Pakistanis has heard the news: there is a disease that has crippled global superpowers. Armed with a few hundred rupees, they head home carrying very basic rations. They worry for their eight family members, some of whom have been complaining about their employers in DHA refusing work lest they are ‘Corona Positive.’ They need not check a banking application for their daily existence pivots around their daily income.

So amidst fears, all three groups turn to their one potential source of comfort: the media. Upon switching the television on, they see Ahsan Khan, notably known for his ‘Harpic’ advertisements, and musician Ali Zafar on a panel discussing what the government should do and the best medical recourse for stopping the spread of this virus. On another channel, senior media representatives are rudely grilling the Prime Minister over the economy and the release of Mir Shakil. Not all groups understand everything they hear but know that the Army has been told to step in.

Law enforcement agencies and the Armed Forces are fighting a war on multiple fronts: transmission amongst people, people hoarding medical supplies and sanitation products, and misadventurous rhetoric. Videos emerge from Sukkur where a police vehicle, equipped with a loudspeaker, is uncharacteristically making pleas ‘Allah ke waaste ghar jayein aap log.’

For a country emerging out of terrorism’s shroud, the stage was set for a potential economic and geopolitical recovery. There is no denying that the spread of COVID-19 with the financial costs of protecting 200+ million citizens will dent national interests. Yet there are factors independent of the virus which intrinsically hurt any efforts to mitigate the devastation.

Yes, there is validity in both arguments for and against a lockdown. Still, it is admittedly an impossible task to escape a Catch-22 situation that has torn asunder global superpowers while running a third world country. This proliferation of this argument has spawned opportunities for people from all walks of life to generate political capital, validation, and commercial success.

Under normal circumstances, this is arguably healthy as decisions are critically challenged, and spaces are erected for dialogue. This is no normal circumstance, and a finite amount of precious daily attention is given to unfair criticism, irrelevant rhetoric, and unqualified medical advice. This further destabilises and panics an already confused nation, paving a six-lane motorway to anarchy. And in the shadows, some industrious fellows will continue to take advantage of a distracted people to hoard surgical masks and profiteer off the needy.

Utilising the same resources to notify standardised messages, updates, and relief facilities to the people would go a long way in easing tensions and potentially powering some approach to ‘flattening the curve.’ I am no epidemiologist, but some experts have indicated the frightening way Pakistan’s trajectory has blown past Italy’s: a country that is seeing ~ 700 death every 24 hours.

Yes. Pakistan is a poor country, but if COVID-19 ravages Pakistan and lays waste to the country, the reason will not solely lie in our economic weakness. It will be because of our national inability to identify a crisis, adopt sensible mindsets to prioritise unity over rhetoric, and because some people will profiteer over masks and sanitisers. As the Prime Minister said in his address, Pakistan is a nation blessed with immense faith and a charitable nature; relief operations shall be defining feature of Pakistan’s approach in combatting this pandemic.

COVID-19 is not a conspiracy; it has no religious, national, political, ethnic preference. This is perhaps the first time in many of our lives where it is imperative to have faith in institutions and offices entrusted with the safety and security of every Pakistani. Political and commercial agendas cannot trump health.

Perhaps ‘Iss parcham ke saaye talay hum aik hain’ can be the rallying cry that helps this great country overcome yet another speed-bump on our road to prosperity?

Asad Shabbir

The writer is a LUMS graduate, a TEDX speaker, and a novelist. He tweets

@sceneawwn.