Welcome back, for all my readers not only in Pakistan but all over the world. This is the first post of 2021 on this blog and there isn’t much to do right now except take stock of everything. It is now an incredibly tough time for everybody all over the world and when we look back at how we got here, it seems our minds cannot comprehend it, because the year that just ended was one that did not keep itself within any bounds. It feels like eons ago, but I think we all look back with nostalgia at New Year’s Day, 2020, which was the last New Year we celebrated in a normal world. The beginning not only of a new year but also a new decade, it was an occasion of hope and optimism. There was so much to look forward to, including for me. Then, a year later, we have just spent a New Year’s in a world that changed beyond recognition. And it did so in the most unexpected of ways.
It was really the beginning of 2019 that was the world’s last normal New Year’s. By the time 2019 ended, the world was already becoming a more troubled place. Most notably, as we celebrated New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day, we watched the populated areas of Australia endure wildfires that were the most extreme in the known history of the continent, a grim indicator of the mounting climate crisis. They were so terrible that Australia scaled-back its celebrations and cancelled fireworks, while polluted air forced millions of Australians to stay home or wear facemasks, experiences now familiar to the entire world. Another crisis of unusual extremes dampening the New Year, one scarcely noticed at all in the international media, was the shutdown of Jammu and Kashmir by the Indian government, the most prolonged ever in a democracy. Since August 5, 2019, Kashmiris were placed under lockdown, restricted from leaving their homes, gathering together, and traveling on the roads, experiences which, again, billions of people are now familiar with.
Regardless of these and other problems bubbling up, we all carried on with our jubilation for the new decade. And then, just as soon as the New Year festivities died down, we got our first sign that the world we used to know was slipping away. It was on the morning of January 3 (here in Pakistan) that I went onto the BBC News website and saw the headline across the screen, “US kills Iran’s top general”. This was certainly not a sentence I would have ever expected to read, especially when the two countries are not at war. But it happened anyway, in response to a mob besieging the US Embassy in Iraq while 2019 was giving way to 2020, and as one would expect, the Middle East was brought to the brink of a war that could easily have been the worst since 1945. A further shock came when the US President threatened to destroy “52 sites very important to the Iranian culture”, which presumably included the world-renowned ruins of thousands of years of Persian civilization. These were all very strange and terrifying things to hear. The new developments worried practically the entire world. Americans began to fear being drafted, something not seen since the Vietnam War, and there were even widespread fears of “World War 3” breaking out (a plausible scenario, since a major full-scale war in the modern world can easily proliferate).
In the end, no new violence came to pass, save for a rocket barrage that gave more than a hundred American troops concussions and tragically downed a passenger airliner with the loss of all 176 onboard. But the world would proceed to transform in a dizzying way. Many of those who tweeted the hashtag “#WW3” probably did not think it could literally come true. But what none of us could have ever imagined was that something very much akin to a world war was actually heading our way at lightning speed. A new virus was breaking out in China at that time, believed to originate from something as mundane as a horseshoe bat interacting with a scaly anteater, and it was about to change the world a hundred times more than Trump and his generals could. Being declared a pandemic by the WHO within two months on March 11, the COVID-19 pandemic is, from the beginning, considered the biggest global crisis since World War 2.
The ravages of WW2 were nowhere near as widespread, though, with only a few major regions touched by war, while much of the world was mostly unscathed save for significant economic shifts and regular-sized deployment of troops abroad. But infections with COVID-19, extreme restrictions on human activity to forestall them, and the resulting economic devastation swept every corner of the globe and it has remained that way since. This is a world event that has personally impacted almost every single human being, perhaps a first in human history (well, maybe except for titanic volcanic eruptions).
What followed since the shocks at the beginning of 2020 was the globe going through the most dramatic of cataclysms. In the first two decades of the 21st century, we have gotten ourselves accustomed to living in a stable world where, basically, barely any history is made. It is only when picking up a history book and flipping through the pages did we get to observe the world transforming itself from one state to another, civilizations being reshaped, and massive upheavals rocking humanity. And these developments usually took place over several years to centuries. Since 2019 ended, the pace of change and the scale of challenges that we used to only hear of while studying history, we are witnessing every day on the news channels and in our own lives.
History was made on a grand scale throughout 2020 and continues to be so in 2021, as the storming of the US Capitol showed from the start. It was an event that shattered the world even after that world was already left in pieces by 2020. If an uprising of that kind took place in practically any other nation, it would have meant little to the rest of the world. But American democracy has been a pillar of the modern world for centuries and never in the entire history of the USA was an uprising ever attempted in the nation’s capital to determine by force who would be in power. The 2020s surpassed the history books in this way. The events that transpired on Capitol Hill on January 6 and afterwards are a powerful measure of how different things became in the 12 months since the United States assassinated the military head of a nation it was not at war with, the leader of the free world threatened to destroy cultural and historical heritage as a means of conducting war, and the only US government building being invaded was the embassy in Iraq.
2020 was the age of change, a time of historic developments, but it was also, almost entirely, a time of adversity. When you read through history, you will notice that it is typically defined by human suffering and hardship. The same is true for the developments of the past year. Since 2020 began, crises and extreme challenges have been prolific. Countless disasters and tragedies have occurred. Many new risks emerged and people everywhere are living under perilous circumstances. Many of the events that have happened are situations that are difficult for people to cope with or which people were dismayed by, striking a blow at their most deeply-held conceptions of how the world should be.
The losses and the hardships so many people are enduring are very real, as is the grief and fear and dismay and even anger they are feeling. The world has always been rife with problems, but things have suddenly become much worse now, and that makes it all the harder for us to cope compared to people in previous ages who lived in much worse circumstances than we still do right now. So this is a difficult subject to touch upon for way too many people and it just seems so surreal that this subject is everything going on in the world. One result is an added layer of confusion on top of everything we are feeling. It can seem hard to understand why the world is becoming like this, which may add to the sense of terror. But my job here is simply to help you understand how things are happening. And right now, the world, which is a dynamic place that always has its ups and downs, is in a time of elevated suffering and danger for the people living in it.
It is with a view to this that 2020 was PPLDM’s busiest year ever. Every country suffered greatly in some way and Pakistan is no exception. We started this blog and wrote the first post in 2017 in response to a terrible mass tragedy that happened in Pakistan on June 25 when, in one of the worst accidents in Pakistan’s history, oil spilt from a crashed tanker caught fire and burnt hundreds of villagers gathered around to collect it, killing 219 people (https://pldmsite.wordpress.com/2017/07/20/first-blog-post/). We then spent all of 2018 and 2019 mostly writing about the standard disaster risks that exist in Pakistan and working to prepare people for various events expected to occur. But 2020 was an altogether different experience. We spent the entire year dealing with crises presently affecting Pakistan, imminent risks, and disasters that just occurred. We ourselves were affected and had to completely adjust our lives, like everyone else, to new circumstances and work from there, doing what we could to help the nation. And the nation’s humanitarian needs were truly extraordinary.
The spread of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, what scientists call SARS-CoV-2, was the dominant event in Pakistan since February. Pakistan proceeded to be one of the regions where the virus was spreading the most, though the impact of the pandemic was relatively moderate in its severity compared to many other countries. At the same time, a severe desert locust invasion, originating from Arabia and East Africa, pushed Pakistan towards an alarming food crisis throughout most of 2020, only waning in the latter months but never completely going away. A plane crash with the loss of nearly all onboard also occurred on May 22, 98 people dying after Flight PK8303 went down. Various extreme weather events occurred, the worst of which was the monsoon season’s rainfall, which devastated various areas in the country, particularly in Sindh. Floods affected 2.5 million rural Sindhis. Intense monsoon rainfall wreaked havoc in urban centers, especially Karachi, where record-breaking spells in August stranded several million people. Pakistan managed to flatten the coronavirus curve in the summer, but the pandemic returned with a vengeance in the winter and became a full-blown calamity, while worrisome emergent strains of COVID-19 arrived within our borders. All the while, major economic and political troubles increased Pakistan’s vulnerability to the hazards washing over it, as did the extraordinary crises overcoming all the other nations that could have provided Pakistan with aid.
Such is the world we are left with at the beginning of 2021. The question for all of us now, in Pakistan and in the rest of the world, is if we will overcome the crises still going on and get things back to normal this year. I don’t think a return to normal is possible in terms of things going back to the way they were before 2020 began. Events like the coronavirus pandemic have very likely changed the world irreversibly, so we have to say goodbye to the world we used to know and love. But we must find solutions to our challenges and stop these disasters in order to save as many people as possible and get them back on their feet. And we need to embrace a new normal, particularly with a view to achieving greater resiliency towards the challenges the 21st century is now throwing at us.
There is a lot to look back at in 2020, even though we may prefer to forget most of it. It is truly an extraordinary year that will occupy a prominent and special place in the history books, although historians may be busy working out what exactly it was the era of. For now, as 2020 has just ended, we just need to remember how it impacted us and changed the world we live in. And as it was such a catastrophic year, with the entire world suffering humanitarian crisis on a massive scale throughout, PPLDM formally designates 2020 as the Year of Disaster.
Those disasters are far from over. 2020 can be more precisely known as the year in which great crises and elevated risks emerged. And they will have a bearing on the longer-term future. For now, we have to cope. That, more than anything else, means that we need to adapt. First, we have to let go of any misperception that things are the way they used to be. We cannot rely upon anything working in a normal manner. For instance, foreign aid for any particular country in need, including Pakistan, is now hard to come by since every nation is in severe crisis, including the powerful, high-income nations that are always relied upon to provide assistance for the rest of the world. We must get our minds attuned to this new world. And we must recognize how problems are coming in on every front.
Second, the world has been in this state of crisis for a long period of time by now, long enough for us to change our ways and develop better responses that can serve us on a more permanent basis. But PPLDM is observing that this is not being done as much as it could be. We should be availing this time to move beyond costly short-term measures quickly adopted as crises set in, such as economically destructive and psychologically impacting lockdowns to suppress the spread of the virus until herd immunity can be achieved with vaccination or using environmentally harmful pesticides to control the locust outbreaks. The world has changed. We need to change as well and there is so much we can do.
The biggest takeaway from the Year of Disaster is that everything in the world nowadays is deeply interconnected and the crises and challenges 2020 brought are no exception. Disaster management is a greater necessity than ever before in the early 2020s and for PPLDM, it is not just about what is happening within the borders of Pakistan. Many of the crises affecting Pakistan are widespread across the world, with hazards like the coronavirus and its variants and the desert locusts crossing borders. The recent global developments and trends are creating a riskier environment for every nation. And international cooperation, which is vital for disaster risk reduction and humanitarian relief, is being tested more than ever. PPLDM’s new role in the new decade’s turbulent beginning is to keep a vigilant eye on everything that is happening around the world and help navigate Pakistan through the new and unprecedented global circumstances, as well as plan for what’s next after this in the foreseeable future.
If 2020 was a year of disasters, what will 2021 turn out to be? Will it be the same story? It better not. We all must be determined to solve the tremendous problems the world has become engulfed in so that the world is brought into a much better shape in 2021. Pakistan must join, hand in hand, with the rest of the world and we all need to utilize the capacity we spent 2020 building up. Scientists developed vaccines for COVID-19 within one year, a record-smashing pace. Now, it is up to all the rest of us to distribute and obtain these vaccines in what is likely to be the largest-scale endeavor in human history, all the while we are battling so many other prodigious problems. Innovation is required to get back on our feet in 2021, as is the involvement and cooperation of all the people of the world. And the world needs to act in a spirit of unity, which is gravely lacking right now. Conflict and hostility was one of the issues 2020 was rife with, as was the fact that people were often at odds with each other and divided on so many fronts. It is very important to get people to stop making problems for each other and work together. But where that does not manage to happen, people have to find a way around disagreements and just do whatever they can to solve the problems they are dealing with. Being able to manage on one’s own is another value necessary in 2021.
Our aim, if 2020 was the Year of Disaster, should be to make 2021 the Year of Survival. Now that 2020 has ended, it will always be remembered as a year in which the world slid into catastrophe after catastrophe. Let us be determined that, by the time 2021 ends, it will be forever be known as the year humanity successfully tackled these catastrophes and brought the world back on its feet. Achieving this goal will be a monumental challenge, but let us give it everything we have got. The struggle has just begun. PPLDM will be playing its part in 2021, doing everything it can to find the right solutions for Pakistan and for the wider world as well. An epic journey awaits us.
My message to all of you is to be strong and to achieve a clear vision of what needs to be done. Remember the year end goal. History is being made in this day and age. We need to take charge and make history the way we want it to be. It will give us the resilience we will need from now on, because the challenges of the past year are a preview of what the future has in store.
Now let’s see if we can do this.