Denial, panic, scapegoating and ultimate sense are the usual way societies have dealt with new diseases throughout history
The Pakistani media continues to carry reports about how large sections of society are being careless in their attitude towards the pandemic. It slams the Government for bungling the crisis by being misinformed about the dynamics of Covid-19 and its spread. Many have also criticised the regime for allowing its political biases to impact its contingency policies, which have so far been chaotic and almost entirely unable to stall the virus’ rapid spread. Prime Minister (PM) Imran Khan and many of his Ministers have been censured for “misinforming” the people about the true nature of the disease while, at the same time, vetoing the idea of strict lockdowns. So, as the outbreak ravages the country with frightening speed, Khan does not have much to say or show other than claim that he knew things were going to get bad.
With examples like China, Italy, Spain, Iran and the US before us, it didn’t require a genius to “know” that things would get bad here as well. Even though Khan was hailed by his sycophantic circle of Ministers for being oracular for this insightful prediction, he had also earlier described the disease as, merely, a “flu.”
The Government then continued to add unsubstantiated claptrap to its largely convoluted narrative in this regard, until intense media criticism triggered a sudden volte-face and saw the Government resort to accusing the general populace for letting things get out of hand. What’s more, the Government also continued to ignore some rational advice from provincial governments and health experts. One such advice was for imposing stricter lockdowns. But the PM disagreed. Instead, he began to rationalise his disapproval of lockdowns as an egalitarian act, undertaken for the benefit of the poor.
This rationale was almost immediately debunked by some writers on the economy. Business and economics journalist Khurram Hussain pointed out that lockdowns were, in fact, opposed by the business community, and members of this community were influencing Khan’s anti-lockdown sentiments. Veteran journalist and political pundit Najam Sethi shared similar views. Martin Gak in a piece for the German news site DW explains the idea of opening up businesses (and thus, allowing the deaths of thousands from Covid-19) as the 21st century equivalent of an ancient past, in which human sacrifice was practised in some cultures, supposedly for the well-being of the larger community.
The outbreak in Pakistan was further compounded by a controversial Supreme Court order in which the court asked provincial governments to open malls and markets before Eid. Not surprisingly, two weeks after that, Coronavirus cases in Pakistan witnessed an unprecedented spike.
But Pakistan is not the only country where the Government has badly botched the response to the pandemic and where the denial of its dangers or existence can be found in large sections of society. Similar scenarios are being played out in the US, Brazil, Mexico and India. Interestingly, each one of these, like Pakistan, have governments headed by populists.
The Brazilian PM actually took part in an anti-lockdown rally and then issued an order that the number of Corona cases in Brazil should not be reported. US President Donald Trump claimed that the virus threat was insignificant.
In India, it became apparent that the Narendra Modi regime only had the muscle to impose its Hindutva ideology but had no idea how to control the virus. In Pakistan, Khan with nothing to show in this respect, ended up somewhat absurdly gloating that Pakistan was the only Muslim country where mosques were not closed for prayers. As if this were some colossal achievement in a time of a raging pandemic.
Journalist and novelist Karl Taro Greenfeld writes that historically societies often go through “four stages of grief” during pandemics and plagues.
Mount Saint Vincent University’s Professor Jonathan Roberts, an expert on the history of plagues, agrees. Roberts says that the historical pattern in which societies behave during pandemics has remained intact and that he is seeing the same pattern being repeated during the current outbreak.
Roberts has been investigating the ancient and modern histories of social and political responses to contagions. The pattern he was talking about starts with outright denial of an outbreak, followed by a panic reaction. This is then followed by scapegoating, which is tied to the emergence of conspiracy theories. On a more hopeful note, Robert suggests that in the fourth stage, those in power finally allow the proliferation of correct information to get out. But by then, thousands of lives have been lost and economies devastated. What’s more, a community of people who are blamed for the outbreak during the scapegoating stage, would have suffered severe ostracism and harassment. This is related to what the World Health Organisation (WHO) calls an “infodemic”, when madcap theories, once relegated to the lunatic fringes of society, suddenly emerge on the mainstream during the fear triggered by an outbreak.
Author and medical sociologist Dr Robert Bartholomew says that Jews were blamed for the 14th Century Bubonic Plague in Europe and the 1918 flu pandemic — which killed millions — was dubbed the Spanish Flu, not because Spain was the outbreak’s epicentre but because the Spanish Government was the first to identify the problem. During the same pandemic, many in Britain believed that the virus was a germ created by the German military, even though an equal number of Germans were dying from it. With the proliferation of social media sites, unsubstantiated claims, denials and scapegoating have increased at an alarming rate about the source country of the virus.
But for Robertson and Greenfeld, there is light at the end of this tunnel. Both claim that, historically, the last stage of the aforementioned historical pattern is when societies and rulers come to their senses and work to address and contain the problem.
Rational contingency plans and their implementation, scientifically- sound advice to the public and the debunking of crackpot theories are vital. Unfortunately, many countries like Pakistan still seem to be stuck in the earlier stages of reaction: Denial, confusion and scapegoating. Only a handful of nations have moved into the more hopeful fourth stage.