My last night in America, I saw fear in my peers’ eyes. The same people that walked around self-assured with their days planned by the minute roamed the streets aimlessly. School had been cancelled for the rest of the semester in the middle of the day. Despite the fear of COVID-19, students flocked to college town to say their goodbyes, find emotional support and make sense of the situation. My Pakistani friend and I weren’t sure we would be able to get out of the country in time, flights were getting cancelled and yet, we felt the calmest. We commiserated about how this felt like high school again. Remember when schools would be closed for months because of terrorism, especially after APS? Most of the students around me didn’t even remember 9/11, the only comparable event this crisis caused their parents to evoke.

There is no doubt that the western system is collapsing, they are paralyzed like never before. Have our priorities been wrong all along? What is it that we have been trying to emulate all these years? America where millions don’t have access to simple healthcare or the UK whose PM believed in herd immunity so much that he tested positive for corona himself? Even worse, the global supply chain that literally gets food on the table for the citizens of the western world is teetering. All it would take is one segment of essential workers anywhere in the world, the truckers, the warehouse workers or the retail workers for the whole system to collapse.

In the decades since 9-11 we have been fighting an invisible enemy from within. We’ve experienced it all: business closures, school closures, avoiding public spaces for fear of being attacked, paranoia and death. We may be fighting a new enemy but we are not fighting for the first time. We know there is an end to the tunnel but the majority of the world’s countries and their citizens feel paralysed. In countries where institutions and systems are everything, no one was prepared for the sudden breakdown that ensued. One misstep and whole civilizations fall.

But we are prepared. Pakistani’s have not only survived but thrived in times of uncertainty. Since our inception, our right to exist as a state has been questioned by the world. How many times have we been labelled ‘a failed state’ ‘3rd world’ and ‘undeveloped’. Yet, we all stand equal before an indiscriminate virus.

Perhaps it is time to shrug off their version of success and walk away from the current world order. In a cruel twist of fate, we stand equal if not better than many countries in this crisis. Precautions against an invisible and undiscerning enemy like COVID-19 is of course of the utmost importance but there are opportunities recuperate, rebuild and rethink as a nation. As free market capitalism exposes its fault lines and governments step in to provide universal income, housing and food, we can be farsighted in the measures that we take.

Pakistan may not have such an extensive global supply system but the past few days have underscored our reliance on imports for basic necessities. As a country, we have no stockpiles to even feed our people for the coming months, and there are already fears of hoarding.

Reducing import duties is merely a bandage on a gaping wound. Firstly, as previously mentioned, the global supply chain is near collapse already. Major airlines are shutting down and most of the labour in the world is under lockdown. In China, even though factories have been allowed to reopen there are complaints of not having any orders. After all, most non-essential businesses in are shutting down around the world. China’s economy relies on exports of cheap garments, plastics and technology. No one has the buying power or will to buy these anymore. The export-based model of development that Asia had been following for the last decade has come to halt.

As the common citizen reorients their priorities, so must the government. While all industries need some kind of investment right now, some will be more fruitful than others. Our agriculture and food industry for example can be leveraged during the crisis and in the long term. Pakistan theoretically has enough food to feed its people. Like the rest of the world, our problem is related more to unequal access and false scarcity than an actual lack of resources. Right now, food prices are steadily increasing while farmers waste tonnes of food because they have no buyers. When prices increase, demand decreases. The middle men are able to make a profit off this situation but the majority of Pakistanis at the two ends of the supply chain bear the cost. Namely the daily wage workers going home without many savings and the farmer who doesn’t have access to credit or a market to sell his produce. The inequalities in our society are more visible than ever before. The rich will be able to afford the increase in price while the majority of the population will depend on charity. PM Imran Khan is right: people need to eat and we must do something about it. 60% of our population was already food insecure before this crisis hit. It will only get worse for them.

In major cities across the countries, we are quickly running out of food stockpiles. We need government intervention regarding food distribution and prices. If the government announces that it will guarantee prices to farmers and streamlines the food distribution system from multiple middle men to one or two we might see better food access. The Tiger Force is a step in the right direction to providing food to the most vulnerable but the problem runs through the very fabric of our economic system. If there was any time to intervene in the agricultural industry and think about the common farmer and common person, it is now.

During this unprecedented time in history, the GDP and the stock market are reduced to mere numbers. Governments everywhere are scrambling to find innovative solutions to survive. Every nation stands alone trying to provide basic human needs. We have been left by the western world to fend for ourselves without aid or intervention. Can we rise to the occasion and finally become self-sustainable and prioritise the needs of our people over geopolitical interests? For the first time, this is our opportunity as Pakistanis to use the difficult lessons we have learnt over the past 71 years to decide our destiny as a nation.

Rija Tayyab

The writer is an undergrad at Cornell University. She can be reached at rt352@cornell.edu.