Covid and the Age of Ignorance

Ignorance is bliss, as the saying goes. Though the global pandemic has taught us that there is a very fine line between ignorance and indifference. Covid-19 represents one of the world’s worst health emergencies in recent history, and most certainly the most devastating any of us will endure in our lifetimes. Yet social media is full of images of the so-called educated classes carrying on as normal. There are dance practices and international trips. And seemingly no regard for quarantine.

What is it, therefore, about having a collective human conscience that we are finding so difficult to cultivate? Can the blame for this rest solely with you or I?

Let us rewind to this time last year when Prime Minister Imran Khan described this virus as “just a bit more than flu” that “kills only old people”. This was followed by Asad Umar, the then federal minister for Planning, Development and Special Initiatives, comparing the number of Covid-related deaths to road accident fatalities. Time and time again, the government pushed ahead with the narrative that it could ill-afford a full lockdown since this would be catastrophic for daily wage earners. Certainly, economic considerations are not to be ignored but it is highly irresponsible to send such mixes messages in a country prone to conspiracy theories.

Last year, Saudi Arabia closed the doors of the Holy Kaaba to worshippers; underscoring how the Muslim world grasped the magnitude of the situation. Not so in Pakistan where clerics and scholars did not see fit to encourage the faithful to pray at home. We can and must ask people to be self-reflective and think about how their own individual actions impact the lives of those around them. But what of those in power? Are we to absolve them from failing to present a clear narrative from the onset?

National governments with their mixed messages may have failed us. But we, too, bear responsibility for how we move ahead; as individuals, as families and societies. This will not be over for anyone unless it is over for everyone

Covid-19 was never just a case of “the flu”. But our political parties used this deadly virus as a means of political scoring, with the opposition hosting jalsa after jalsa, pulling in crowds with hardly a single mask in sight. That this happened in defiance of the government’s ban on public rallies underscores the impotency of the ruling PTI. Nowhere was this clearer than when tens of thousands flocked to the funeral of Khadim Rizvi, the late TLP (Tehreek-e-Labbaik) leader.

If the ‘Age of Ignorance’ has taken root in Pakistan – the situation is tragically even worse in neighbouring India, which is facing the collapse of its entire healthcare system. Families are left to watch their loved ones die on the streets and in front of hospital gates, while their own Modi Sarkar is busy petitioning Twitter to delete negative tweets daring to call out the BJP government over its utter mismanagement of the pandemic, despite pressing ahead with the recent Bengal elections.

Covid has spread like wildfire, exposing devastating gaps in the healthcare infrastructure of so many countries around the world. Additionally, it has also revealed mass apathy. We seem to have evolved into such creatures of habit that our ability to adapt to unprecedented crisis has become almost non-existent. In the past, action was required to defend our country, family and home. Now, it seems that the best remedy is to sit still.

Sri Lanka is currently in the grip of an emergency. The country observed Aluth Avurudu (Sinhalese and Tamil New Year) some two weeks ago. The result from cluster groups formed to celebrate the festivities has been 1,500 new Covid cases a day. Given that the country has a total population of just 20 million, the Army has had to step in to physically make 10,000 new beds to offset the unavoidable burden on the healthcare system; ICUs are already at full capacity. Incredibly, this has not been sufficient to stop people from enjoying Colombo night-life as they gather on the beaches of Unawatuna, pretending that their wealth and privilege will somehow immunise from Covid. The people of Pakistan and India suffer high illiteracy rates and are, therefore, in urgent need of constant and consistent messages from their respective leaderships about required SOPs. The same cannot be said of Sri Lanka.

Will it take a specific level of destruction and tragedy to stop us in our tracks, mid-dance, and make us realise that we do not want to be remembered as those who lived in the Age of Ignorance? For in a day and age when we could have done more by doing very little – we have chosen instead to fulfil our short-term needs for communal celebration and activity over long-term collective health benefits and safety.

Yes, national governments with their mixed messages may have failed us. But we, too, bear responsibility for how we move ahead; as individuals, as families and societies. This will not be over for anyone unless it is over for everyone. We must break this cycle of apathy, and develop the empathy required for history to remember us kindly.

The writer is a lawyer and teacher based in Colombo, Sri Lanka. She writes for the Sri Lanka-based “The Morning” newspaper and tweets @writergirl_11

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