Heroes of the coronavirus pandemic: Ordinary Pakistanis

– Story by Ayesha Mir, Islamabad.

As novel coronavirus cases grow exponentially across Pakistan, the government is yet to decide whether the federal capital will remain in partial lock down, or transition into it fully. Until then the Deputy Commissioner of Islamabad, Hamza Shafqaat and his team have managed to keep panic at bay by taking the lead in not only taking swift precautionary unfolding but also by maintaining steady communication with citizens through social media.

While the Prime Minister scrambles to put together a team of ‘corona tigers’ to give food to the needy, volunteer teams have sprung up who are hunting down people from lower-income brackets to send them food. Yet, the response to the virus in Islamabad, as in many other Pakistani cities, remains disparate as there are many who simply cannot be reached through online mediums nor afford to socially distance/isolate themselves during this pandemic.

Presently in Islamabad, there have been 43 confirmed cases, out of which 41 are active and 2 have recovered. According to Shafqaat, in a video message uploaded on the 27th March, 10 patients are over the age of 50 and more than 50% have carried the virus over from abroad (England, Saudi Arabia, and Iran). So far there are no reported cases of local coronavirus transmissions. Police and army forces have set up 3 quarantine centers and have successfully sealed Chak Shehzad, Shehzad Town, and H-9 Rimsha Colony.

The biggest challenge is Bara Kahu, where 16 patients (who contracted the virus during a tableeghi ijtamaa in Lahore) were traced a few days ago, but the local transmission was prevented by locking down the area completely. Shafqaat shared videos of officials disinfecting all high-density areas in the capital and coordinating the distribution of ration packets. The Islamabad Police has also established panahgahs at I-11/4, Tarlai as a ration warehouse where supplies can be dropped to help daily wagers.

Islamabad Observes Lock-down During Coronavirus Pandemic

Amidst the partial lock-down, locals who a week ago had brushed aside all warnings of social distancing have finally been forced to remain confined to their homes as malls, restaurants, markets, and private offices are closed. Grocery store owners and workers are now exercising extra precaution against contracting the novel coronavirus disease by wearing gloves and masks and disciplining shoppers to line up outside stores and enter with intervals. Many have also drawn markers every 2 meters to facilitate shoppers in maintaining a safe distance from one another.

Since the 26th of March 2020, all educational institutions (schools, colleges, universities, and madrassahs) have been closed until the 31st of May 2020 and have made arrangements to operate through online instruction. But many professors such as Dr. Aasim Sajjad Akhtar who teaches at the Quaid-i-Azam University said that the digital medium may prove to be discriminatory towards students who come from former FATA districts and many areas of Balochistan where internet services are not available. He called for online instruction to be suspended until the technology is made available to students all across Pakistan.

Volunteers to the Rescue

Many daily wagers are left bereft and starved as a result of the lock-down amidst the coronavirus pandemic. Fortunately, swathes of young activists have rushed to the rescue: within a matter of days, volunteer-based community-led programs like EHM, Green Volunteers, Corona Solidarity Campaign among many others, with the help of generous donors, stepped forth to make sure families are fed and rents are paid. Although the lock-down has posed difficulties in acquiring ration items in large quantities, especially aata, many individuals are going out of their way to make sure all needs are met.

Heroes of the Lock-down

Through constant coordination on WhatsApp groups, volunteers are working tediously to draw up lists of laborers, valets, waiters at wedding marquees, restaurants, and domestic staff to trace the maximum number of low-income households across various katchi abadis in Islamabad. In fact, many have decided to collaborate to avoid any overlaps and have managed to reach areas beyond Islamabad and Rawalpindi including Sakhakot, Dargai, Ouch, Lower Dir in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa; Matli and Molvi Sultan in Sindh; and Wanbhachran and District Mianwali in Punjab, and are keeping a careful track of their activities to make the process as transparent as possible.

Volunteers brave the odds, reaching sealed zones amidst the coronavirus pandemic to ensure food reaches the starving
Volunteers brave the odds, reaching sealed zones amidst the coronavirus pandemic to ensure food reaches the starving. Credits: EHM

Despite these efforts, the crisis has evoked the age-old class divide in Pakistan. According to Zunaira, the head of operations at EHM, while all volunteers operate under strict safety guidelines with masks and gloves, it is challenging to convince people from lower-income brackets to take similar precautions to protect themselves from the novel coronavirus disease. Although she tries her best to sensitize people during distribution drives by encouraging them to maintain distance and wash their hands often, her group is yet to decide on a strategy to increase awareness about the virus.

Ration packages being prepared by EHM volunteers
Ration packages being prepared by EHM volunteers. Credits: EHM

As the clock ticks and her lists grow, Zuneira worries that her team might fall short of donations, but she is hopeful that Pakistan will continue to display bigheartedness in the face of impending doom. The fact that the virus doesn’t discriminate between rich and poor has undoubtedly awoken the conscience of the affluent, and one can hope that if there is any lesson we learn from coronavirus, it is to establish a norm where we wouldn’t need a deadly virus to practice solidarity with those less fortunate than us.