A health official collects a swab sample from a man to test for the COVID-19 coronavirus inside a van along the roadside in Islamabad on November 26, 2020. Image Credit: AFP

It saddens me. For many reasons. The feeling reaches a point where I seek solace in apathy. It eludes me. I am who I am, how do I change in my middle age. My sadness stems from things that are not personal, and they should not bother me the way they do, but they do. I wish I could switch my mind off like the light of an attic never visited.

The current political scenario of my beloved country saddens me. It shouldn’t but it does. Lifelong familiarity to the same evokes indifference. An almost identical landscape filled with interchangeable faces; eerily similar voices; self-centred narratives; and attacks on the opposition so loud, so fierce, so coarse as if a page plucked from the manuscript of a fourth-rate spectacle played in a roadside circus, the horror of the familiar plays on loop. At the end of 2020, the voices of the politicians of Pakistan are amplified on TV screens, highlighted in much-retweeted tweets, echoed in viral videos, circulated in WhatsApp chats, caricatured in hilarious but utterly unkind memes. Almost all of it is dark. And very, very depressing.

COVID-19 is on a rampage again. The current positivity rate in Pakistan is 7.3 percent. In the macabre statistics of coronavirus infections and mortality it may not be a terribly high number. But on December 5, it was 44 families who were abruptly plunged into mourning. One coronavirus death is pain for an entire family that watches its loved one lose a battle against a disease that to date has no vaccination. Reportedly, the COVID-19 exclusive wards in government hospitals in Lahore are at a full occupancy. The same is said to be true of most cities where the positivity rate is on a 24-hour rise.

Amidst the overwhelming horror of the pandemic, political attacks are unfiltered, increasingly crude, scathingly personal. Lines of traditional decorum blur as barbs are exchanged on television talk shows, the circus every night. Long held notions of civility among political opposing forces, bludgeoned over time, are now skeletal reminders of what should be but is not. Speeches in rallies are marked with so much venom it is as if tongues are dipped in juices of a boomslang. Nothing is off limits. Everything is kosher in the war of chaos. Politics in the time of coronavirus is deadlier than a hungry piranha set loose in a pond full of little, colourful fish.

Protests are democratic. Strong but constructive criticism of governmental actions keep the government on its bruised toes. Holding the government responsible for its frequent faux pas and missteps is the job of a solid opponent. Demanding better governance is the right of every citizen. Holding rallies, even armed with destructive criticism, is the prerogative of a robust opposition, even if its power is the culmination of eleven parties clasping claws to unseat a government. Freedom of expression, within constitutional and cultural and legal demarcations, and even in subversion of all of that, is a fiercely protected right of every inhabitant of a nation that calls itself a democracy.

If it was merely that.

COVID-19 infects without discrimination. It kills without checking the material or political significance of an individual. The government of Prime Minister Imran Khan is not contemplating the idea of a complete lockdown, which was neither feasible a few months ago nor is it now. Smart lockdowns may have to be implemented in the areas all across Pakistan where the positivity rate is on a constant rise.

Events arranged by various governmental departments or ministries, normally attended by hundreds, and in some cases, by thousands of people, have been restricted to a gathering of 300 guests, with strict physical distancing and mandatory wearing of masks. Even that arrangement may have to be reconsidered as at the end of most of these events people still manage to cluster, unmasked, to take photos with the chief guest, a minister or a high-level government official.

Weddings, traditionally big, extravagant, multi-day events, with a large guest list, have become another major source of the spread of coronavirus in Pakistan. December is the month of weddings in Pakistan, and despite most weddings being rescheduled for a COVID-19 free unknown, many people are holding festivities as if nothing is wrong. Even a small-scale, COVID-feared event has the potential to spread the virus, and ideally, all weddings should either be limited to strictly families of bride and bridegroom, or rescheduled.

One of the biggest issues related to the prevention of the spread of the coronavirus is that of events that are held as if life depends on them whereas in reality they are nothing more than political point scoring exercises or show of street power meant to create chaos. A funeral of a religious leader attended by countless people is an unstoppable occurrence in Pakistan for myriad reasons. Political rallies, of government or the opposition, on the other hand, fall into the category of the postpone-able, the deferable. Once the rise in COVID-19 cases decreases to almost no cases, political activities can restart in full throttle, in high passion, giving it whatever connotation is suitable as per the political expediencies of that particular week or month.

In any public gathering of a large number of people, it is almost impossible to ensure the full implementation of COVID-19 transmission and prevention measures. Clustered, mostly mask-less, and that too for many hours, attendees are suspectable to infection. Imagine a gathering of thousands of people in a political rally. Imagine the risk of infection, and that infection travelling to family members, colleagues and friends of the infected people. Work for the purpose of earning money is difficult to postpone, shopping for essentials is almost impossible to delay, travelling for matters essential to everyday existence is often hard to reschedule, but what can and should be delayed are political activities.

What my mind has trouble understanding is how political bombast is more relevant than the deadliness of coronavirus circa end-2020. There are so many deaths. People of all ages are dying. Every third day there are heartbreaking stories of perfectly healthy people suddenly getting infected and becoming so sick in a matter of a few days there is little or no hope of them getting out of a COVID-19 treatment ward alive.

What is left is a lifetime of pain of the knowledge of your loved one dying, lying on a hospital bed connected to machines and IV drips, without any one to hold their hand, no goodbye, no last hug, no parting I love you. What it ends in is a hurried burial without even seeing the face of that loved one that one last time.

How is any political rally worth more than the life of even ONE human being?

Mehr Tarar, Special to Gulf News-1592296810288