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May 19, 2020

Citizen apathy


May 19, 2020

The UK has recently been receiving a lot of criticism for the revised slogan ‘Stay Alert, Save Lives’, a flip from the ‘Stay Home, Save Lives’ slogan they originally adhered to.

People in the UK have interpreted this as the government absolving itself from the responsibility of protecting its citizens from all harm, and effectively, putting the burden of protection on citizens themselves. All in response to gradually lifting lockdown restrictions to save the economy.

While the British example has shown that citizens in developed and resource-rich countries expect the most from their state apparatus, many countries like Pakistan simply do not have the resources to equip public health systems to cope with an illness of this nature. This in itself is a travesty that many have already spoken about.

Given this, should citizens then take on at least some of the burden of preventive responsibility when the state is unable to deliver?

A basic sense of what is right and wrong, leaving aside national unity, says that they should. Not just in Pakistan, but anywhere in the world. While it is the government’s responsibility to provide adequate health systems including testing, treatment and protecting its frontline medical staff, citizens are equally responsible for ensuring that they take the situation seriously and follow preventive guidelines. Particularly since the first line of defense in this case, medical practitioners, are being rapidly infected, and in some cases dying, both in the UK and in Pakistan.

But the main threat to Pakistan, in addition to inadequate health systems, is the inability of its citizens to understand the threat this virus poses and to maintain the necessary precautionary measures. Many have pitted this as an issue of rich vs poor. That the affluent will survive the lockdown, but the poor will not.

But the pandemic does not see wealth or class. During the lockdown, many citizens from both sides refused to adhere to social distancing guidelines and packed grocery stores flouted rules openly in both affluent as well as low-income neigbourhoods. Despite closed highways, many managed to escape the lockdown and travelled cross-country, perhaps taking the virus with them into the rural hinterlands.

When markets reopened, many reported scenes of shoppers defying social distancing. A more terrifying sense of apathy among citizens, was evident in the fact that apparently many refused to be tested during random testing in many districts of Karachi, caught between stigma and personal apathy.

What is the reason then, that while economists scream hoarse that there is no trade-off between saving lives and saving the economy, people themselves seem not to care about saving lives? Especially their own.

Perhaps the most commonly attributed (and damaging) reason for citizens not taking on any personal responsibility to remain safe, has been the lure of the economy itself. There is no doubt that millions have suffered because of shuttered businesses and lost jobs. But telling your citizens that “the virus may not kill you, but starvation will”, may not be the best way to convince people that if you don’t try and save lives, having a job may not matter.

And it is not simply that many Pakistani’s think that Covid-19 is fake news, though many still do. It is that they feel invincible towards an ‘invisible’ enemy, made only worse by the fact that the tussle between the centre and the provinces has divided people across the country about the veracity of the claims being made.

But ultimately, there also lies a lack of personal and civic responsibility among Pakistanis of all hues, one that is fueled by self-interest rather than national interest. It is these very citizens who for instance, will slaughter animals in the middle of the streets during an urban flood and then decry the government for not maintaining hygiene after them. It is these very citizens who will refuse to comply with government orders to stay away from mosques, but will then attempt to abscond after they defy the order.

It will also be these very citizens who will refuse to take precautions and if God forbid infected, will cry foul when they are unable to get treatment, because hospitals just can’t cope anymore. The very hospitals who were begging them to have some level of compassion for the dying, but which fell on deaf ears. Of both the government as well as the citizens.

And a great deal of this apathy has been in effect because of overall state failure in Pakistan, a state which has refused to help its most vulnerable citizens cope with a pandemic. But the state cannot do without the cooperation of its citizens either. It is ironic then, that the very lax citizens who are now risking the lives of the whole country, were created by the country itself because of its apathy towards them.

Citizens have the right to demand protection from their governments. And the government must comply. But there also lies a civic responsibility on us to protect both ourselves and others. In Pakistan however, public apathy is perhaps as bad as state apathy.

The writer is an independent specialist and researcher in international development, social policy and global migration.