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Of perpetual children

Well-adjusted children can be a great source of love, happiness, pride and feeling of wellbeing. In later years they are often a source of comfort, support and sense of accomplishment about a well-done job of parenting.

On the other hand, less well-adjusted children used to throwing tantrums can be a drain on their guardians’ nerves, but one hopes that, in time, they too will eventually outgrow this behaviour.

And then there are unfortunate parents, who are saddled with a perpetual child – an adult who never grows up, who remains forever incapable of living as an independent adult and requires someone else to care for him/her, even after parents pass away.

Where the present Covid-19 crisis has shone a light on everyday heroes and broadened the definition of who constitutes an ‘essential worker’ in the public’s consciousness, it has also further exposed the dead weight in our society.

During a crisis that is stretching the federal and provincial governments, we (again) see a group of petulant perpetual children that are refusing to calm down and behave, but are throwing tantrums, proving a dangerous distraction and a drain on already meager resources and attention. I am, of course, referring to the religious establishment.

When healthcare, manufacturing, construction, utilities, telecommunications, transportation, banking, retail and other sectors lock down, many workers become furloughed or unemployed and their families start going hungry. When educational institutes lock down, young people’s futures are delayed.

When the media locks down, people are deprived of information when it is most needed, creating societal unrest. When law enforcement locks down, criminals operate more freely. But nobody goes hungry, or is delayed from entering the workforce, or remains uninformed, or gets robbed when places of worship temporarily suspend congregations.

Yet, at a time when even educational institutes have decided to remain locked down for the sake of avoiding large on-campus gatherings, our clerics insisted on reopening mosques. Opening mosques while Covid-19 raged on was not a solution to any problem right now. To the contrary, holding millions of congregations daily would only have fuelled the spread of this pandemic.

At a time when there are hundreds of other tasks to be accomplished, the religious establishment demanded to be coddled and entertained, by the president of Pakistan, no less. The result was an agreement in which clerics committed to following a 20-point long list of precautionary measures.

Whether the agreed-to measures were adequate or not is for a medical professional to determine. One thing is certain though, laws whose implementation is not monitored are seldom followed in our country. Now, the question is, in a country with millions of mosques, who was going to ensure adherence to the agreement the clerics made with the state?

The police services, which are understaffed and under-resourced, already have their hands full, as do the armed forces. By acquiescing to the clerics’ demands, the government dug itself another hole into which it had to then throw meager resources. And that is precisely what happened. The deputy commissioners (DC) of Nowshera and Mardan ordered deployment of teachers at mosques during daily prayers and Taraweeh times “to ensure implementation of precautionary measures.”

Teachers make up a very large part of the labour force and there is historical precedent of mobilizing them in times of need – for example, elections, public campaigns, etc. A few weeks ago, we saw the same happen across the border in India. The district administrations in Bahawalpur, Bahawalnagar, Bhakkar, Rahim Yar Khan, Dera Ghazi Khan, Khanewal, Mianwali, Nankana Sahib, Faisalabad, Vehari and Sargodha ordered teachers (particular computer literate teachers) to be deputed at wheat procurement centres and grain markets. There is nothing inherently objectionable about putting this force of millions of public servants to work, especially while schools are locked down.

However, this can only happen when these teachers are provided training and the resources needed to do the ad-hoc job they are assigned. This includes providing them with already hard-to-come-by personal protection equipment (PPE). That, however, does not seem to be the case. A few days ago, teachers deputed to these duties stormed the assistant commissioner’s office in Sialkot, because they had not been provided with any PPE. More than 7,000 teachers have been assigned these duties.

Objectively speaking, not only have our clerics been unhelpful, but they also took up state resources in the form of people (teachers), and critical material resources (PPE), as well as endangering congregants, teachers and their families. There are already reports of some teachers being exhausted by this useless effort. Teachers are being put into high-risk situations without any training.

Governments will have to ensure massive testing of millions of teachers before reopening schools, or be liable for putting school children at risk of infection. In Sindh, just recently, the number of Covid-infected children was reported at 253, likely as a result of community spread of the infection through the adults at home.

Come fall, when schools will hopefully reopen, will clerics accept responsibility when a child is infected by her teacher who contracted Covid-19 because the government stationed them on mosque duty? Are government schools able to deal with the loss of teachers in classrooms? Is there nothing more important teachers should be doing right now?

Teachers should be busy preparing remedial lessons to cover for the loss of learning that our children had to endure. It would be a far better use of their time if they were planning and preparing for another disrupted academic year, to learn tools necessary to conduct classes remotely, if needed. Perhaps it is time for teachers to match the petulance of the perpetual children they have been tasked to supervise in order to be heard by the government.

The world over, functional governments have developed strategies to reopen their economies based on benchmarks of evidence. In Pakistan, the federal and provincial governments lack any such evidence-based strategy. It seems sectors of the economy are opened based on who is able to exert enough pressure to make them cave.

Mosques were reopened because governments feared the street power of clerics. Markets reopened where the threats of traders and Big Business became too much to bear. There is no strategy. Not being able to follow through on implementation is bad enough, but being unable to develop a coherent strategy is plain incompetence.

Dr Ayesha Razzaque, "Of perpetual children," The News. 2020-05-13.
Keywords: Social sciences , Covid-19 crises , Healthcare sector , Telecommunication sector , Transportation sector , Banking sector , Education Institutions , Societal unrest , Religious establishment , Material resources