While it locked the entire world, COVID-19 came with a little different face in Pakistan. Pakistan has been a resilient country, went through numerous nerve-wrecking crises since 1947. It stood firm on both internal and external fronts including political, ethnic, religious/sectarian violence, economic depreciation, military operations in different parts of the country to eradicate terrorism, uneasy borders with India, Afghanistan and Iran, the love-hate relationship with the US etc. Like any other developing country, Pakistan also confronted human security threats such as pandemics, earthquakes, floods, internal displacement of people, economic migrations, sheltering refugees from conflict zones, meagre resources, unskilled youth bulge etc.

COVID-19 has revealed many dimensions about the pandemic, our response, collective and individual behaviour. It helped us know the vulnerable state of health and medical facilities for a national emergency. It has unfolded and reiterated both our strengths and weaknesses. Strengths such as our comparatively better immunity level to struggle with COVID-19 or perhaps our ever-lauded resilience to get through any crisis under the sun. An overpopulated country where 29.5% people live below the poverty line, according to a report of Ministry of Planning and Development, we could have expected a lot more rapid spread of the virus in March, but we didn’t due to our comparatively better immunity and a well-observed lockdown till April.

Besides tougher circumstances, there is continuous capitalisation of COVID-19 in Pakistan. ‘Capitalisation’ may be a hard word but may be categorised as political, economic, socio-cultural and religious capitalism of COVID-19. Political capitalism is mostly seen in the non-coordination between the centre and provinces, especially Sindh. There’s a clear divide between Sindh and the Centre over preventive mechanisms since March. Chief Minister Syed Murad Ali Shah emphasised that he would not let his people die of corona; there were political parties, traders and business community that refused the idea of a complete lockdown. The Centre was also hesitant initially on this decision.

Economic and social capitalisation explains our individual and collective behaviour. We were quarantined at home for nearly 3 months and when eased down before Eid in late May 2020, Pakistan had around PKR 560 billion of Eid shopping spree, which is not that bad compared with PKR 800 billion spent in 2019’s Eid. It has helped traders and industries yet infected people. Corona patients are doubled to 100,000 exactly two weeks after Eid. With the pandemic beginning, various pharmaceutical/grocery stores hoarded and sold hygiene products at double the price. Similarly, clothing brands have started designing protective masks, matching the fabric of the dress (women’s wear). From gradual infections to the peak of the crisis, many fashion designers donated protective gears/masks to medical professionals. As the pandemic is becoming the new normal; designing protective gears, fancy face masks, perfumed sanitisers etc. will be future investment in the textile, cosmetic and pharmaceutical industries.

Socio-cultural/religious capitalisation lies in our perceptive world with our behaviour, rooted inherently, culturally and religiously. The government’s SOPs on closing mosques were violated during Ramzan because many considered coronavirus God’s call to return to ‘Siraat e Mustaqeem’ (right path). Iftaar/Eid parties, Taraweehs, Eid prayers doubled the casualties and displayed our selfish ignorant behaviour at the national level. Low income (Pashtoon, Siraiki, Punjabi) migrant groups were caught travelling back to their native towns during the lockdown and hence pandemic was ethnicised as well. COVID was sectarianised with the reference for pilgrims from Iran and people of Tableeghi Jamaats who spread the virus in closer areas.

COVID-19 is affecting everyone, transforming lives with uncertain physical, social, economic and psychological impact. A million-dollar question remains how to tackle the capitalisation of COVID-19 in Pakistan. The pandemic is one threat; developing a coherent collective action and national consensus to manage it is a bigger challenge than the disease itself. Pakistan lacks coherent and collective action to manage the COVID crisis. It has introduced various SOPs to create awareness on the prevention through electronic, print, telecommunication and social media. Imposed strict and smart lockdowns; it has helped daily wagers through ‘Ehsaas programme’. The three components of ‘Conflict Transformation’ to transform negative energies of a conflict into positive ones, has been adopted quite fairly; awareness, campaigning/advocacy and implementation (of a strategy). Yet, it could not bring the desired results. The reason is simple; persistent political mistrust and differences impacted the national plan to avert COVID-19. There are differing positions between the federal and provincial governments. Not only that, there is a clearly drawn line between the statements of the Chief Minister (from PPP) and Governor (PTI) in Sindh on the issue of lockdown, medical facilities, factual details about the hospital capacity but also the top hierarchy of PPP seems having acute differences against the national position on COVID-19 management. COVID-19 is a war-like situation. It cannot be handled with a politically divisive modus operandi. Political leaders need to forego their differences and act as a united force to manage it with consensus.

Another challenge is population. With low economic indicators, debt and population bulge, we are not in a position to compare ourselves with China, Europe or USA. Physical and social distancing is a luxury which cannot be enjoyed in a country of 220 million people with culturally larger (joint) families living in insufficient residential spaces. In the west, large dinners are usually only arranged on Christmas and Easter. 20 people eating together in a single family in a small space is a cultural norm and an everyday fact in Pakistan. COVID-19 is a lesser fatal bomb than the population. Population is flooded with relevant information but lacks individual/collective responsibility to work in harmony with government measures to prevent the pandemic. COVID-19 provides us an opportunity to look at the problem pockets of the economy and society. Individual and collective response and responsibility; effective, coordinated and cohesive governance; ability to think critically about the options to manage a pandemic crisis with minimum damage; retrospective lens to evaluate future options are direly required to cope with COVID-19 and its implications.