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Dystopia beckons

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Dr Asim Sajjad Akhtar

IT is here. More than four months of almost daily acrimony and bungling on the part of officialdom later, Pakistan has become one of the global hotspots for the novel coronavirus. It was a matter of if rather than when, but we — and the two-fifths of humanity that reside in the Indian subcontinent — are now in the thick of it.

Speculating about the ultimate damage that this deadly pathogen will do is an exercise in futility. It has already ravaged individual countries like Brazil and the world system more generally, the IMF’s most recent estimate suggesting that global economic output will decline by $12 trillion. Indeed, the identifiable fallouts of the pandemic are simply the tip of the iceberg. The interrelated crises that have been exposed by the pandemic will continue to unfold in the years ahead, and thinking through them critically is imperative if there is any chance of halting an increasingly rapid slide into dystopia.

Take, for instance, what Covid-19 has illuminated about the actual workings of the health sector. The perilous conditions in which doctors, nurses and other essential workers in the public sector are performing their duties and the exhaustion of public health facilities more generally is common knowledge. But less discussed is the shameless profiteering off those who are affected by the disease, and the tens of millions of people in this country who suffer ailments other than the coronavirus.

The rates of private hospital beds and other services have increased exponentially. Basic medicines are being sold on the black market at exorbitant prices. Even hailing an ambulance for emergencies incurs scandalous costs. This is aside from the sale of ‘magic’ treatments like the blood plasma of recovered Covid-19 patients that harken to established and despicable practices like the selling of kidneys.

The pandemic’s identifiable fallout is just the tip of the iceberg.

In a nutshell, an increasingly large number of working people in Pakistan are already at the mercy of a privatised healthcare system, sharks lurking at every corner to pillage the toiling classes who are at best uninformed and at worst prone to be taken for a ride because of the worldview that our paranoid state apparatus has inculcated over the decades.

The situation in the education sector is similar. The once ubiquitous idea that the state must provide affordable education to all of its citizens, up to the level of the public university, is now for all intents and purposes a pipe dream. Private schools, colleges and universities delivering what at best can be called mediocre education are to be found in every street of every small town and city of Pakistan. If you pay, you get certified. Those seeking to protect the right to public education — or even internet access, as the arrests in Quetta on Wednesday demonstrated — get vilified.

The pandemic presages a world in which those who cannot afford to purchase health, education, water or other basic needs will be confined to physical ghettoes, not unlike some of our katchi abadis, walled in from ‘civilised’ and ‘sanitised’ society. Or perhaps it is better to imagine it the other way around; elite ghettos in the form of gated housing communities already dot the Pakistani cityscape, including in ‘international port cities’ like Gwadar. Not generally advertised is that many such housing schemes come into existence through brutal dispossession of politically voiceless working people. Aren’t we already reproducing the model of heavily fortified Israeli settlements in occupied Palestinian territory?

For those who believe this is the stuff of science fiction, think again. All around the world, the pandemic has provided a fillip to already authoritarian statecraft, the power of Big Tech, class, racial/ethnic and gender privilege. We’re still getting our head around the idea of second or third waves of the virus. Cutting edge and grounded science confirms that destructive practices of industrial agriculture are likely to throw up more deadly pathogens. And this is not even to speak of the planetary climate crisis.

Suitably sanitised, the Pakistani mainstream is well practised in calling out excesses in Palestine, Kashmir, Burma, and other selected places far away from our own melting pot of injustice and tyranny. Meanwhile, the wherewithal to understand epidemiological matters, or climate science more generally, is conspicuous by its absence, the utterings of Climate Change Minister Zartaj Gul Wazir an indication of how dire the situation is.

Yet the underlying crises are about much more than individuals. Critical inquiry and independence is a must if we are to transcend the establishment-centric political system and halt the slide into dystopia. But repression makes the cost of independence high. It all feels like a car crash in slow motion. Which means that there is little time to waste for those still on the fence. It will all come to a head sooner than you think. This essay was first published in Dawn.

Dr Asim Sajjad teaches at Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad. He is a Leftwing activist and member of the AWP Federal Committee.    

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