Sherbaz Ali Khan
Nothing is permanent except change is a maxim, which not only we hear quite often but go through it constantly during our lives. Some changes are regular, gradual and expected and we tend not to be bothered by those. Within a day, we see several manifestations of change including day followed by night, rising and setting of the sun, changing weather pattens, changing places of physical presence, changes in feelings, and mental, psychosocial and emotional states and so on. Some changes are abrupt and we find difficult to adapt to those until we go through them and learn or train ourselves to be ready for such changes. The phenomena of sudden death of loved ones, discovering serious illness, going through a trauma, getting lost something of financial or any other value, coming across an accident or natural disaster, outbreak of pandemic, turning into a war zone and so on are some examples of unexpected or least expected changes, which test our capability to acceptance and pose the challenges of adaptation. Acceptability of change and adoptability to change are what make all the difference as this has been a strong mechanism of survival in human beings.
COVID19 is one those events in our lives, which came as a surprise and big challenge. So far, it has been characterized as unpredictable in terms of its size, magnitude, duration and cure. Based on what practices have been adopted to contain the virus, Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) have been developed and people have been asked to follow these SOPs, which could potentially reduce their chance of getting infected. Lockdowns have been observed fully, partially and smartly. Cleanliness and social distancing are at the heart of the SOPs and lockdowns. At the same time, addressing the issues, emerged as a result of lockdown and SOPs, are also major concerns for governments and people. Some countries have been relatively more successful in containing and controlling the virus than others due to their adherence to various measures, and the inherent nature of the people of those countries to abide by laws and regulations adopted by the governments in the wake of the virus. It has been hard for governments to strike a balance between containing the virus through lockdown and SOPs, and saving people from being hit hard by the socio-economic impacts. However, this issue has greater impacts for developing and poor countries.
While in routine chores of everyday life, people live with their normal cultural, traditional, religious and contextual practices and take them for granted. These practices become so much immersed in society that a little different or deviant practice or behavior looks odd, questionable, reprehensible, non-conferment, and at times reason for banishment. Therefore, even some social norms and practices, which might otherwise be responsible for many hardships within the society, are carried on unquestioningly. Some of the examples could be overwhelmingly observance of hierarchy systems, extravagance and ceremonious festivities at personal and collective events, dowry and related curses, distribution and categorization of work, expectations of and exceptions from certain behavior on the part of elite while otherwise on the part of poor, double standards in implementation of laws and norms, deliberate gap between what is and what people say is, attaching ego with positions, non-acceptance and at times intolerance towards difference of opinions, different standards for self and others, traffic violations, seeking short cuts, being punctual equivalent to being weak, and uneven tug of war between cleanliness and contamination and so on. As a way of uniformity in the society, conformity is what is expected from the members of the society. Now imagine, in a changed situation, adaptation becomes subject to the existing practices instead of the needs of the changed situation.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, the government and especially Prime Minister Imran Khan, every now and then, cautioned the nation about server consequences in case of being unable to demonstrate responsibility for self and others. The government could have passed a law for implementation of lockdown and SOPs strictly, but ground realities barred it from that and the Prime Minister’s emphasis remained more on educating the nation and expecting that there will be responsibility on the part of the people. This expectation was justified as everyone knew that what a pandemic is and how life-threatening will be the result of nonchalance. Instead of a complete observance of caution, what reaction became evident in different sections of the society was that of uncertainty, unacceptance, challenge, irony, defiance and wait and see dilemma. In the meanwhile, we could see how other counties were following the SOPs and appreciate their success in containing and controlling the virus, but our own conduct on face of the pandemic demonstrated us to be ready for inflicting self-destruction. Some proclaimed it to be fake, others opined it to be a conspiracy, some asserted it cannot hit our country, few declared defiance to be the best defense, while some others saw opportunity for profiteering. In an unusual situation, government’s decision and directions should come as first to comply with, however, we could see that different interpretations of the situation came from different sections of the society, who leave no chance unavailed to make their presence felt. Also, some people became critical to federal government on their perceived inaction on its part to bring complete lockdown and strict implementation of SOPs, without taking into account the social and cultural dynamics related to the issue.
Parliament at the center and Provincial Assemblies at the provinces should have played leading role with government but their relevance seems to have faded in the current situation. Opposition’s role is another strange phenomenon in our country. Everywhere in the world, there are governments and their oppositions in democratic systems, and there is no doubt that oppositions take every chance of criticizing the government with intention of making it more responsible and responsive as well as demonstrating their own ability to be good alternative for future government. In developed countries, once a government is in place, opposition not only recognize it but extends cooperation where necessary. In our country, and perhaps in some of other developing countries, opposition has been for the sake of opposition. They will oppose every move of the government even if it is in the best interest of the country. This belligerent role of opposition has been more evident during current times, where they want to see the fall of government at any cost. Instead of giving any alternative solution, and extending cooperating to government, opposition is only criticizing and exacerbating the difficulties. Just to see if there has been any contribution on the part for opposition for Corona relief, it will be interesting to see if any of the millionaire members of opposition parties have contributed to the Prime Minister’s Corona Relief Fund! Also, it will be interesting to see how many people, whether from government or opposition, who could not go for Umrah and Hajj this year, contributed to the fund or contributed to anywhere else for relief activities.
The overall response to the pandemic so far suggests that people and systems are resilient to a large extent. However, the issues faced by privileged and marginalized are disproportionate. The inequalities due to the societal norms also seem at work with government administration’s dealing with the situation at local levels. Poor is not only vulnerable to social and economic hardship, but also at the risk of facing consequences in hands of local administration if caught in violation of SOPs. Conversely, those with influence and power are less likely to bear the brunt of noncompliance. This convenience for elite exception, sends down the message of inconvenience for law abiding citizens, and negative precedence prevails over positive. Also, worth mentioning here is an issue which poor face in having access to government’s emergency cash transfer program in rural areas due to the slow pace of biometric and related issues. A larger number of poor had to go through several visits to cash disbursement places to be able to get hold of their cash. At the initial phase of Covid, government had made it clear that all the support for deserving people will be go through the leading role of government, where it will identify the beneficiaries and channel all the public and private support resources to avoid duplication or exclusion. Later on, however, many NGOs, charity organization and philanthropist made their way into different places and distributed their support martial among the poor on their own, so there are chances that some people might have received support multiple time while others left out in absence of proper identification and monitoring.
Our society is lacking examples of staring from self. What people usually say is that the other people are not following, so why should they care. Precedence is sought while opting for or not, to do what needs to be done. For not doing something needed, there will be reference to example of other people. System will be blamed for noncompliance of people to certain obligation, regulation or duty. Government will be blamed for every fault existent or nonexistent. Strategic faults will be found out with super powers, international organizations, and world leaders for not being able to lead the world the way they should. In all this debate, what is forgotten is self; tantamount to immunity for self. Self-exemption then leads to freedom and at times license to act as per convenience, and not to act when there are no reward or reprimand, no consequence attached to noncompliance, no requirement of conformity, and no sense of personal gain or loss. Out of the way, if someone starts from self, the others, who don’t follow, look at them questioningly as if they have chosen to act against what is normal.
When the same people go to the other countries; where law is abided by, regulations are followed, and deviant behaviors have legal consequences, they seamlessly fit themselves into the system of those countries. DR. A. P. J. Abdul Kalam, the former President of India and a renowned scientist, in one of his speeches highlights this difference of conduct at home and abroad of his countrymen, which is equally true in depicting the conduct of our society. According his satirical eloquence, upon arrival in a country other than their own, they leave behind every practice they so adamantly follow in their country. Very vividly describing the changed behavior, Dr. Kalam reminds, “When in Singapore, you don’t throw cigarette butts on the roads or eat in the stores. In Washington, you would not dare to speed beyond 55 mph and then tell the traffic cop, “Jaanta hai main kaun hoon’, I am so and so’s son.” One of the changes, which so aptly makes its way into people while abroad catches his attention when he says, “You wouldn’t chuck an empty coconut shell anywhere other than the garbage pail on the beaches in Australia and New Zealand. Why don’t you spit Paan on the streets of Tokyo?” He further goes on to say, “We expect the government to clean up but we are not going to stop chucking garbage all over the place nor are we going to stop to pick a up a stray piece of paper and throw it in the bin.” After quoting many examples of the changes, one goes through while in abroad and trashing the same while at home country, the culmination strikes so forcefully when he says, “Everybody is out to abuse and rape the country. Nobody thinks of feeding the system. Our conscience is mortgaged to money.” Could there be any better illustration of the conduct of some section of our society? I guess, not.
It is obvious that some of the social behaviors despite being anti-social are part of practice in our society. Their anti-social impact not only perpetuates the cycle of inequality in overall social structure but also prove resistant to the adaptability of the people to the changes and changing world. Preference of social practices over law and regulations, or selective implementation of law and regulations, at times, lead to injustice and exclusion. Society needs critical thinking. Adaptation to technology and modern means of life are so rampant and people are so flexible about them, but when it comes to social and behavioral change for making lives less miserable, stagnation and stigma still rules. In a critical situation like the current pandemic, or any other life-threatening situation, when time and circumstances demand change and that becomes a matter of survival, then eyes should not shut, rather they should be wide open to the realities.