It is a widely held belief that the year 2020 has been the year of the coronavirus. Months and moments have lost priority over more dismal means of keeping time in check; the temporal progression of this year has been popularly defined through terms like “quarantine,” “lockdown,” “first wave,” and now, the “second wave.” Until recently, other markers of time such as school terms or university semesters had also crumpled into vague ideas due to the closure of educational institutes, while work-from-home schooling and employment increasingly blurred the lines between work and home life for many. The world is going through a crisis—and so are its people.
In Pakistan, important cultural markers of time, such as both Eids, or the months of Ramazan and Muharram, were also tainted this year by the ever-present threat of the virus. Given this overwhelming control over human lives exerted by this uninvited pandemic, it is not a wonder that people are increasingly trying to reassert control over their routines. This is one theory that can help justify why, at this point, members of the Pakistani population are pushing concerns about COVID-19 aside in favour of returning to their pre-pandemic lifestyles. However, does this excuse hold weight in the face of the globally rising number of lives being claimed by the coronavirus?
The situation: As perceived
A brief look at the outside world, whether by physically stepping out or glancing through social media, suggests that normalcy has been resumed by many. In popularising life with COVID-19 as the “new normal,” it appears that many have simply concluded that nothing is no longer out of the ordinary. Streets teeming with buyers and sellers, restaurants filled with large groups of friends, and halls hosting family events cement this impression. The matter of real concern, here, is not the return of “normalcy,” but the blatant disregard for the safety guidelines that were conditional to this freedom. The nonadherence to globally and locally assigned SOPs (standard operating procedures), such as social distancing and the wearing of face masks, is a curious reaction to the pandemic by populations that have directly faced the consequences of the pandemic. There are few people who have not been negatively impacted by the social distress, economic devastation, and tragic deaths cause by COVID-19.
Through a small-scale open poll conducted over 24-hours on social media, I attempted to quantify the reasons behind changing public attitude towards the pandemic. From amongst 169 participants, 48.5% of people assigned their growing indifference to the situation to the belief that “It is no longer as serious.” Meanwhile, 27.8% selected the option that said: “If no one cares, then why should I?” The remaining percentage suggested that they were okay with contracting the virus, or that social events held priority for them over precautionary measures. In a supplementary poll, however, 66% of a pool of 108 participants claimed that they were still concerned about the pandemic, while the remaining 34% admitted to having relaxed about the situation.
In a separate focus group conducted with some of my acquaintances in diverse professions, I learned that many had resumed their pre-pandemic lifestyles. FZ*, a practising lawyer, commented that “people in local courts, except for the judges, are not following any SOPs.” A corporate office-worker, HH*, confirmed that “people at office seem to live with the idea that COVID does not exist anymore.” Similarly, AI*, a dental housing officer at a military institute, observed that “patients don’t wear masks over their mouth when roaming the hospital halls” and hospital staff have to keep reiterating the correct guidelines, while RK*, a final-year student at a government hospital in Lahore commented that “literally no one is following SOPs. Only the doctors wear masks.”
The nonadherence to globally and locally assigned SOPs (standard operating procedures), such as social distancing and the wearing of face masks, is a curious reaction to the pandemic by populations that have directly faced the consequences of the pandemic.
Commenting on their own perception of the situation, most agreed that they have become relatively complacent towards the coronavirus and are not as fearful as earlier. HH* also suggested that since the reopening of public places, the coverage of the situation has lost its “sensationalised aspect” and “people have become immune” to news related to COVID-19.
This personal survey is limited in its reach and demographic, but serves a window into current popular perceptions of the coronavirus in Pakistan. Through these opinions and observations, it may be inferred that people are not operating with as much fear or caution as at the start of the pandemic, and hence are not strictly adhering to COVID-19 guidelines.
The situation: As it is
As of October 12, 2020, the official COVID-19 statistics for Pakistan list 319,317 confirmed cases and 6,580 deaths. Within the last 24-hours, 385 new cases and 8 deaths have been reported. The current number of active cases stands at 8552.
With the number of daily cases reported in October, with few exceptions, showing an upward trend so far, it is observable that COVID-19 is not slowing down. However, the numbers, so far, fall below 700 cases, which were exceeded in the second half of September. Given the current pattern of increase in daily cases, a similar spike could be expected in the second half of this month. As active cases increase, it is feared that a second wave of COVID-19 may reach Pakistan soon.
Lowering temperatures can increase the risk of viruses of influenza. However, experts claim that the continued spread of the virus is due to the weak implementation of necessary SOPs, such as social distancing and the wearing of masks.
On October 9, the National Command and Operation Centre (NCOC) formulated and released a guideline for implementation at marriage halls. In a statement, the NCOC claimed that marriage halls have the potential to increase positivity at a national level if SOPs are not followed. The guidelines, which have been shared with the federating units, include:
- 300 individuals for indoor gatherings and 500 individuals for outdoor gatherings
- The event should last two hours only and wrap up by 10pm
- If found to be violating SOPs, marriage halls should be closed for a specific time and be fined.
In another statement, the NCOC commented that large scale public gatherings are currently banned in most countries. “However, if some public gatherings are unavoidable, then these must be organised with strict compliance of SOPs,” it said. It was suggested that new guidelines were currently under deliberation by the National Coordination Committee.
Earlier on October 5, while chairing a meeting of the NCOC, Minister for Planning, Development and Special Initiatives Asad Umar had also expressed grave concern over marriage halls and restaurants as major sources of spread of the novel virus. On the same day, the Pakistan Medical Association (PMA) had shared a similar warning about the importance of adherence to SOPs. Dr Qaiser Sajjad, Secretary PMA, expressed concern over the situation, stating: “PMA believes that the government should take appropriate steps to properly manage the situation before it is worsened. It needs to monitor closely and if cases increase in some areas or institutions, they must be locked again.”
This came after Prime Minister Imran Khan, on 4th October, tweeted a precautionary message about a likely spike in COVID-19 cases during winter.
“Compared to some other states, Allah has been kind to us in Pak & spared us worst effects of Covid-19,” the Prime Minister said in his tweet. “There is a fear onset of winter could result in 2nd wave. I urge everyone to wear face masks in public to avoid a spike. All offices & ed [educational] institutions must ensure masks are worn.”
On October 8, the Punjab government enforced ‘micro smart lockdowns’ in all 36 provincial districts to curtail the spread of the virus. This follows a sudden surge in positive cases that indicates the arrival of a second wave of coronavirus. Additionally, the government is also preparing new SOPs for public gatherings like protest rallies or Urs, and directing respective district commissioners to ensure these guidelines are implemented by organisers. During the meeting, Law Minister Basharat Raja also lamented the lack of precautionary measures being taken at gatherings.
Meanwhile, in Islamabad, the National Institute of Health (NIH) released a Seasonal Awareness and Alert Letter (SAAL) advising health authorities to declare high alert due to the possible spread of seven diseases, including COVID-19, during winter season.
The frequency of such announcements in October is an indicator of the severity of the situation in Pakistan, and points towards the possibility of stricter regulations being soon implemented to deter a second wave of the virus. In the given circumstances, the public attitude of non-seriousness towards COVID-19 is indicative of a gaping contrast between factual knowledge and perception.
Why are SOPs not being followed?
In light of recent COVID-19 developments, it is incorrect to claim that “things are no longer as serious,” as was suggested through the aforementioned poll results. There appears a clear incongruity between the situation communicated by authorities, and the situation as understood by the public.
One reason for this may be the shift of government and media narratives away from the severity of the coronavirus onto other matters, such as partisan politics. It is observable that the urgency around the coverage of COVID-19 has considerably simmered down, relative to the earlier months of the year. This trend has also been noticed internationally, with topics like the US election now taking centre stage on prime-time news. As media narratives play a significant part in shaping public opinion, it may be inferred that public attitudes reflect the increasingly casual coverage of the virus.
To date, government officials are at times observed not completely following SOPs, thereby underplaying the necessity of the preventative guidelines. A shaky understanding and implementation of the COVID guidelines at the state representative level is likely to impact their coverage and consequent dissemination to the wider population.
The quality of media coverage of the COVID crisis may also be the result of the governmental stance on the issue. The shifting of government narratives, with the virus first being dismissed as something akin to a “flu” by Prime Minister Imran Khan himself, and the ensuing debates on the merits of lockdown policies, gave rise to an incoherent understanding of the situation by the public. To date, government officials are at times observed not completely following SOPs, thereby underplaying the necessity of the preventative guidelines. A shaky understanding and implementation of the COVID guidelines at the state representative level is likely to impact their coverage and consequent dissemination to the wider population.
In the case of people being aware of the situation, yet still flouting SOPs, a number of factors can be recognised as responsible. Non-adherence to rules may stem from feelings of individualism, whereby compliance to authority can lead to feelings of suffocation. The longevity of the coronavirus is a significant contributor to this attitude. In a comment under my poll, one user credited “compliance fatigue” as a possible reason behind changing public attitudes. This refers to the feeling of frustration and powerlessness that accompanies too many or too long-lasting restrictions.
Additionally, the non-compliance to rules by some members of society may lead to a domino effect. The unique circumstances of the coronavirus dictate that individual actions can affect a wider circle beyond the self. In this scenario, when some individuals are seen flouting guidelines with little regard to wider consequences, feelings of uselessness can compel other to act in a similar manner. If the irresponsible actions of A can affect B, even when B has been taking all precautions, B may eventually also start acting like A because their personal compliance with rules did not benefit them. The frustration of being selfless while others pursue self-interest can eventually dampen the spirit of rule-followers, and encourage them to also abandon caution.
Alternatively, those already exposed to dangers of the virus through their workplaces, or through other family members who are exposed, may feel little difference when easing down on SOPs. The decision of adherence may be viewed as merely precautionary, but without any real guarantee of protection. Such a reading of the situation may easily give rise to feelings of indifference.
What needs to change?
As has been observed over the past months, the mere suggestion of SOPs is not enough to encourage people into compliance. A change in public attitude can occur only through a change in their perception of the situation. As of now, the severity of the crisis is still lost on many. This can be addressed by the consistent hammering down of a narrative of urgency around COVID-19, by effective and comprehensive communication through government and media channels. The proliferation of mixed messages and inconsistent stances must be avoided. It is also imperative for the government to dispel false information by reiterating the facts of the current crisis, and how to deal with it.
Another key obstacle to public indifference towards SOPs is the lack of accountability. As of now, rules are sparsely and unevenly implemented in public places. Stricter rules, with consequences like fines for non-compliance, must be communicated to all relevant stakeholders. A system of checks and balances must overlook the fair and efficient adherence to the rules by everyone. Authorities must also lead by example.
The bigger picture
The situation Pakistan finds itself in today is not a unique one. COVID-19 has affected many countries around the globe with much greater severity than Pakistan. While Pakistan has successfully managed to control the spread of coronavirus so far, it must not let the situation erupt into a greater crisis.
Governmental inability to deal with the unprecedented concerns of this time, and increasingly lax public attitudes currently define the situation within many countries, including those of the developed world. However, Pakistan must remain aware of its relative vulnerability in the world. As a developing nation struggling with a history of debt, economic instability, corruption, terrorism, and a fragile democratic apparatus, Pakistan cannot afford additional, avoidable, burdens that may set its development back by decades. If the COVID-19 crisis is allowed to deteriorate, it will prove devasting for Pakistan as a whole. Examples of developed nations who currently suffer the same impacts of the virus, or reflect similar public attitudes, cannot be used to justify Pakistan’s situation, as those countries possess greater resources for recovery. Pakistan’s is a relatively precarious situation that must be viewed in context of its socio-economic status.
As a developing nation struggling with a history of debt, economic instability, corruption, terrorism, and a fragile democratic apparatus, Pakistan cannot afford additional, avoidable, burdens that may set its development back by decades. If the COVID-19 crisis is allowed to deteriorate, it will prove devasting for Pakistan as a whole.
Resilience as a trait is often associated with the Pakistani nation. However, without necessary harbouring an environment of fear, Pakistan must address very real, and severe, implications of not effectively handling the coronavirus crisis. As the year dwindles towards its end and invites a change in season, the appropriate measures must be implemented to ward off an impending, likely deadlier, wave of the virus. It is encouraging that authorities are once again issuing guidelines and asserting the gravity of the situation. The wider population must also realize the stakes, and act responsibly.
*Names have been abbreviated to maintain privacy
Feature image by: Akhtar Soomro, REUTERS