By Rafia Zakaria
April 22, 2020
THE event was held for the men who carry other people’s burdens. On April 16, President ArifAlvi spoke at a gathering of coolies who work at the train station in Rawalpindi. The president, wearing a surgical mask, also handed out bags of rations to the coolies. In the pictures from the event, the president is seen being handed the bags (apparently by Minister of Railways Sheikh Rashid) that he then gives to the recipients. The recipients, all standing in line in their uniforms, were wearing gloves, but oddly the president himself was not. Everyone was too close, too terribly close to each other for our virus-ridden moment.
The event reveals Pakistan’s terrible conundrum as Ramazan approaches. In Pakistan, everybody knows that good deeds require an audience. The need of the needy must be displayed to the world, as must the good intentions of the giver. Without the performance of piety, too many in Pakistan believe piety (like the tree that falls in a forest) cannot exist.
Such is the strength of this belief that neither the fact that we are close to reaching 10,000 confirmed Covid-19 cases in Pakistan, nor the knowledge that the virus can be carried up to six feet on near microscopic saliva droplets, can prevent such events. Undoubtedly, the president only wanted to help the coolies who are facing destitution, but one wonders whether those in charge of his security took a moment to consider the means of transmission of the virus we are all trying to keep at bay. At the very least, the president could have been given a pair of surgical gloves and people instructed to keep at least a six-foot distance from him.
The event is not a one-off. On the same day that the aforementioned event was held, Minister of Maritime Affairs Ali Haider Zaidi held a press conference after visiting the Ehsaas Centre at Government Degree Girls College in Orangi Town, Karachi. The minister and those around him were wearing surgical masks but everyone was standing quite close to one another. No one was wearing any gloves and, in a photograph, the minister is almost touching the wooden podium set up for him. The virus is known to survive on hard surfaces for over a week. It is, in fact, how it is often transmitted, and why they have had to clean train stations from Wuhan to New York with bleach.
Things are even worse in Quetta. On April 19, Deputy Speaker of the National Assembly Qasim Khan Suri attended an event at the Quetta Press Club where he handed out cheques to deserving journalists. In one photograph taken at the event, the deputy speaker is seen handing out a cheque to the recipient. The recipient wore a surgical mask, the minister wore nothing, and gloves were not to be seen anywhere. Everything (save the recipient’s single mask) appears to be as it would have been had Covid-19 never been a threat, let alone a pandemic.
Individual politicians and government figures are merely acting out the mores of public piety. If they do not undertake these public acts of piety, a population that insists on them will not believe that they take place at all. Therefore, we have a situation where even though the risk of contracting the potentially life-threatening contagion is tremendous events are being held so that the government can be seen to be doing its work of helping the suffering.
It is Pakistanis as a whole who must be held responsible for creating a system where everyone believes that a good act is not good unless there is an audience for it. What politicians have been doing in the week before Ramazan, many individually wealthy and affluent Pakistanis will undertake in the next month. As always, rations will be distributed but only after a small crowd gathers outside the iron gates of this or that mansion. Then the magnanimous seth will appear, and physically hand the food (and the virus) to the gathered. Similar scenes will take place inside large textile plants and sugar mills.
The business of taking physical risks and ignoring the power of Covid-19 is not limited to the wealthy. The religious cadre of the country has already shown its disinterest in following any scientific guidelines about how to limit transmission by avoiding physical contact. There is a mediaeval mindset with ideas that haven’t progressed much since the time of the Black Death. Just as mediaeval victims died because they did not understand how germs are transmitted, so too has a large part of the clergy today chosen to revel in ignorance, imagining defiance against disease as a morbid act of faith.
The world is in tumult; the way things are when this Ramazan begins will not be the way they are when it ends. The spiritual journey this season stands in parallel to the transformation of the world. Perhaps Pakistanis can encourage similar transformations in their ideas of insisting that acts of piety, generosity and benevolence must be seen by as many people as possible and then some more.
With public gatherings at least technically forbidden, there is an opportunity for Pakistanis to discover that good deeds done, rations distributed and aid given feels good even if there is no one to witness it. It can fill the heart with joy, it can encourage gratitude and submission before the Almighty and it can give birth to the urge to do more good acts. Public acts of piety, the usual habits, the usual showing off, is like playing Russian roulette; yet this month — in which we must be directed towards spirit and faith despite the challenges that Covid-19 brings — is not at all a time for dangerous games.
Rafia Zakaria is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.
Original Headline: All good deeds are public
Source: The Dawn, Pakistan