Following is a COVID-19 issue brief from PPLDM.
On 10 March, a choir rehearsal was held by the Skagit Valley Chorale in Washington State, USA, where the coronavirus pandemic was just beginning to take hold. Lasting two and a half hours, it was attended by 56 people who took precautions such as keeping social distance and using hand sanitizer.
Within weeks, 45 of those people were diagnosed with COVID-19. Two of them died of it. There is little doubt that the choir practice is the cause of this huge cluster of cases. But how could the virus have spread so widely in the room given that it is unlikely that more than a few infected people were present?
At the time of the choir practice, the WHO downplayed concerns regarding the virus spreading widely through the air. The Washington disaster forced experts to rethink this. It is believed that, by singing, infected individuals emitted large amounts of viral particles into the air from respiratory tract. As a result, the choir rehearsal became a super-spreading event (an event that transmits the virus to an unusually high extent.).
It shows that we have to be very careful about events which involve people congregating densely in large numbers. A ‘small number of gatherings’ could be responsible for a high number of COVID-19 transmission. Regulating such gatherings could help us go a long way in slowing the pandemic. Restricting any potentially super spreader activity can sometimes be challenging, especially if the activity happens discreetly, or participants are too numerous to handle easily. Otherwise, it is fairly easy to track and suppress large gatherings of people.
There is, however, one kind of mass gathering that is always very difficult to disperse or control – civil unrest. Whether in the form of peaceful demonstrations or rioting, protesting has been a common feature all over the world, especially during last year. People gather in large number to vent their anger and discontent or to voice their demands in a manner that is disruptive because they mean to create an impact. Demonstrations are effective only when people crowd densely at certain vital spots, usually frequented by lots of other people.
Such disturbance happening while the pandemic is in full swing is a recipe for disaster. It will involve very large number of people tightly packed together. They will be chanting and shouting, thus expelling respiratory particles in thick amounts. The protestors will often come into proximity with a lot of other people like bystanders and law enforcement. Protests are therefore a major coronavirus hazard that Pakistan needs to be wary of as it battles the outbreak.
Should the circumstances be ripe for fermenting protest, dealing with the threat will be a huge challenge. By their very nature, protests are difficult for the authorities to block or control without resorting to actions repugnant to human rights values. The alternative is for the authorities to defuse the tensions that cause protests. Also, when people are aware of what is at stake, they themselves might avoid protesting out of concern for the outbreak. The pandemic is a crisis so big that we might expect people to avoid doing anything to further worsen it en masse.
However, the danger that protests and civil disturbances will break out in Pakistan while the coronavirus outbreak is occurring is very high. We have already seen coronavirus protocol being violated a lot by large numbers of people. Angry people are especially likely to disregard rules or concern for the safety of themselves and their fellow human beings. There will be a lot of anger as the pandemic brings massive disruption and misery to Pakistan. This is going to be a very difficult time for Pakistanis, who may resort to demonstrating due to hard circumstances even when nobody is clearly at fault for such circumstances. For example, in recent years, we have seen angry protests in Pakistan over water shortages, with poor people demanding that water be delivered, even if the water supply to a lower riparian state like us falls short during a season. Since rioting in the sun can make one a lot thirstier, it demonstrates that people will eagerly engage in such confrontational behavior even if it worsens the problem they are angry about.
What worsens the risk for us is that the authorities are likely going to be directly responsible for much of the hardship people will experience. This pandemic is driving governments everywhere to impose a slew of restrictions on all aspects of life for an extended period. Such policies are damaging people’s livelihood and are extremely unpopular with many across the world. These policies will bear down especially hard on Pakistan’s poor and lower-income people. They might see what is being done to them as a bigger source of anguish than an invisible virus killing a relatively small number of people. Plus, if drastic measures are successful in keeping the virus under control (therefore keeping the death count small), ordinary people might assume COVID-19 is not a serious threat to begin with and that the restrictions they are made to bear are unnecessary. So the motivation to engage in protests will grow higher as the reason to avoid protest decreases.
Protests have already happened since coronavirus became an emergency in Pakistan. Early on, there were protests by the pilgrims quarantined in Taftan over the conditions they were being held in, but their protest most likely created no risk that they were not already exposed to. On April 6, there was a protest by 150 doctors, who are the people who should know the best about what their behavior entailed, in Quetta over lack of personal protective equipment for those treating COVID-19. This protest also perhaps did not create new danger, except that the police arresting them provided opportunity for virus transmission.
Of much more concern, a major protest movement occurring during the COVID-19 crisis was launched against the detention of Jang Geo’s Mir-Shakil-ur-Rehman, who was arrested by NAB on 12 March over suspicion of corruption (specifically a bribe he was alleged to have taken from then Punjab Chief Minister Nawaz Sharif way back in 1986). The protests, which still continue, have often involved protestors crowding together in the typical manner. This unrest happening seems especially unbelievable as the grievance seemingly has nothing to do with coronavirus and there are much more important things to worry about. But, as it always turns out to be the case with anything happening during this pandemic, Mr. Rehman’s imprisonment is relevant to COVID-19 in important ways. Prisoners are among the people most vulnerable to the pandemic, as prisons are very fertile places for the disease to spread, so arresting him puts him at risk at a time when police around the world are considering letting people off for charges that do not urgently require detention. Also, media’s role in reporting on the coronavirus crisis is immensely important and a large media group like Jang Geo’s services should be particularly valuable now. Its owner’s arrest has hampered smooth functioning of Jang/Geo network and salaries to hundreds of employees have been halted. It is therefore a highly contentious issue, but it is a bad idea for his supporters to contest the matter in the way they have been doing.
These examples may, unfortunately, be the beginning. There is going to be turmoil in Pakistan. Fear and suspicion of authorities will be rife among the people as hugely controversial policies are pursued. Security forces will be overstretched. There appears to be plenty of mishandling of critical matters by the authorities. As the outbreak continues, Pakistan may resort to imposing lockdowns and quarantines even more, creating the perfect conditions for an outbreak of popular discontent that could greatly worsen the situation we are in. Preventing this from happening will be a huge challenge.
The quickest way for authorities is to break up protests by force. In ordinary circumstances, this is usually done only for disruptive or violent riots. But now, government may feel the need to use force for any protest in which people crowd together. A policy of force has big downsides. As people get hurt, public sentiment is inflamed further. Arresting and detaining people considerably worsens the risk of virus transmission.
An alternative is to defuse tensions. Measures vary depending on the reasons people are protesting and what could placate them. The authorities should, of course, always be willing to do little things like release Mir-Shakil-ur-Rehman, or obtain court orders for payment to Jang/Geo employees by seizing his assets. But when there are much bigger factors that are driving people to take to the streets, giving them what they want is usually no easy task. During this pandemic, in particular, Pakistan will have to navigate its way through many dilemmas and quagmires. For example, we have to tread a thin line between suppressing the spread of the virus and allowing the social and economic activity of the nation to continue. It may prove impossible for Pakistan to adopt a course of action that both protects as many lives as possible from the virus and keeps everybody reasonably happy.
In that case, it will have to be up to people themselves to avoid behaving in a manner that endangers them, the people around, and the broader society. It is important to reach out to every Pakistani and make them understand the danger the pandemic poses and the need to fight it tooth and nail, and to help them understand why things are the way they are. For the poor who resorted to angry protests in places like Karachi during recent summers, awareness was something that they were deprived of as much as water. We have to make sure that it is not the same situation during our current crisis. The pandemic is a crisis for the entire population of Pakistan, so properly informing every single Pakistani about what they need to know is necessary.
One thing that Pakistanis could be made aware of is how they can get their demands across while still practicing social, or physical, distancing. Even if every demand cannot be satisfied in desired time, we should make sure every Pakistani feels like they are being heard adequately. Protests happen because people feel it is the only way to get their message across. Let us provide satisfactory alternatives to this course of action.
If we fail to do that, we must find ways for people to engage in protest without providing the virus with opportunity to spread. All that is needed is for people to stay at a distance from each other and to wear personal protection. Protestors will have an incentive to follow this protocol, because their demonstration will be occupying a wider area, (a desirable thing from protestor point of view). Protesting has traditionally focused on being dense, perhaps because it packs a tight punch. But now, the amount of space protests take place in should be the value protestors should seek. It might be just as effective. People stand out in the open, wave placards, and chant loudly, while being far apart from each other, wearing masks and face shields. In the Washington choir practice, the virus might have spread so much because the crowd was indoors. Enclosed spaces allow respiratory particles to circulate in the same area effectively. But outside, which is where protests always take place, this risk is much lower.
Getting people to either find alternatives to protesting, or educating them to protest in a safe manner are two plausible strategies to be adopted if public discontent cannot be defused. Protesting has always been the last resort for people unhappy with what is happening, but as with many things, what is traditionally done has to be given up during this pandemic. We need to find new ways of doing things. This is a time for civil society and political leaders to reflect on the whole phenomenon of protesting, to reevaluate the mechanism of protest. The upheavals of 2019 made protesting the most valued form of activism for the world. But now, in 2020, we have to discover how to fight injustice and advocate for our cause differently during this global upheaval called the COVID-19 pandemic.
Best of all, we should learn how to get along with each other and cooperate, without resorting to confrontation, in order to make it through this time of crisis.
The brief has been authored by Shahzeb Khan, director at PPLDM.