One of the gravest problems of dealing with a pandemic in the current age is the overhaul of information that accompanies it. While initially a medium of panic-generation, the media’s frenzy eventually tends to desensitise people towards things that matter most. A reflection of this can be seen in the Pakistani streets that are now brimming with people. Women flocking into shopping centres and families bringing back their traditions of annual iftar parties are the sights before one’s eyes. This laxed lockdown seems to signal that life can go back to normal. But can it really?

Lockdowns, around the world, can be lifted for two reasons. First, we can imagine, and perhaps even romanticise, a country that has successfully battled COVID-19 and is now harking back to “normalcy” by opening up its public spaces and resuming life as they once knew it. The second case is that of ours: a crippling economy which leaves us with no option but to lift restrictions on sectors that are facing debilitating losses.

And hence, it is imperative to remind oneself that the government’s decision to relax the lockdown is not celebratory. Rather, it is one that has been made under extreme pressure, highlighting our incapacity to deal with a pandemic. So those of us who choose to treat this relaxation as a way to resume their normal lives are doing little more than criminally placing more burden on a country that is already exhausted.

As of May 20, 2020, the reported cases in Pakistan have surpassed 44,000 while the death toll has crossed 939. These statistics, though alarming in themselves, are unrepresentative of a population that remains both uneducated about the virus and also largely untested for it. It is no secret that our healthcare system was in a dilapidated condition even before the virus, and, if anything, its dark underbelly is only starting to overturn now. Quarantine centres are already choked, and newer patients are being advised to self-isolate at home. Nationwide, ICUs are running short on beds; healthcare professionals are working tirelessly without any real safety nets. Private hospitals are charging an arm and a leg for basic testing, deterring many who might see themselves as potential carriers. Government testing kits, conversely, are either not enough or not adequately effective. The number of locally reported cases (those with no contact with someone from abroad) is also exponentially increasing.

In spite of it all, many are still choosing to mark this as a return to their normal lives with an overused explanation, “Everyone will eventually contract the virus, so why does it even matter?” The answer is simple: it matters because one carrier can infect 400 individuals (including the elderly and the immunocompromised) in one month; each of these can affect 400 more; and so forth.

Even in such catastrophic times, the government and opposition are at loggerheads. While the former seems to be looking for excuses to brush off the burden, the latter has found the perfect opportunity to bag votes. There is hardly any consensus on how the country should deal with the pandemic. Regrettably, playing the blame game remains the preferred option. Some points of consensus, though, are inevitable: we live in a country where millions already live in abject poverty and depend on daily wages. Our trade deficit has been astronomically increasing (now at USD 1.5 bn), and an impending wave of unemployment is imminent. Economists around the world are predicting a severely anomalous global recession, and Pakistan will be no exception to it.

Given the grave crisis, the government’s decision to lift the lockdown is naturally rooted in an effort to save the economy and those that live paycheck to paycheck. It would appear the options to choose from are harsh but simple: death by hunger or death by the virus. The government has chosen the latter shifting the onus on the populous to protect itself and exhibit social and moral maturity. This means that the decision to walk into malls and restaurants is no longer an individual one. In fact, it is a choice dictated by larger implications of communal responsibility and whether everyone is equally ready for the exposure or not.

There is no joy in criticising a government for its policy blunders when the responsibility is divided (and evaded) in equal parts with its citizens. The idea is not to preempt or obviate discussions about governmental accountability, but to prepare citizens in creating their safety nets in times when the state itself is incapacitated to do so. As people living through a global pandemic, the request being made is a rather simplistic one–to stay at home and avoid social contact (unless it becomes absolutely necessary, in which case to practice responsible social distancing).

So please, stay at home. Be it out of fear, a communal recommendation, for an old member of your family who is pleading for their health, the crippling economy, the daily wage earners, or the distressing conditions our healthcare workers have to face on the frontlines: stay at home. Your spa appointments and shopping sprees can wait. So please repeat after me: if I do not live from paycheck to paycheck and am not facing the brunt of this crisis, the relaxation in the lockdown is not for me.

Stay home. Stay safe. And keep washing your hands.

Nawal Fatima Rai

The writer is a History student at the Lahore University of Management Sciences. She is interested in conflict resolution and can be reached at nawal.rai@lums.edu.pk.