The COVID-19 challenge

Author Name: Air Chief Marshal Kaleem Saadat (Retd)       15 Apr 2020     Environment

Today everyone, everywhere is talking about coronavirus (COVID-19). There’s an information overload and yet nobody really knows what to do about it generally, or when diagnosed with it. Social distancing is the silver bullet that health experts have come up with. It is not a cure but a prevention measure to impede its exponential spread. The precautions that health professionals suggest for example, for exiting homes and re-entering them are so cumbersome that one tends to deem them undoable and therefore gives up. Therefore, one faces two stark choices, stay at home or become reckless and ignore the recommended precautions.

There is also divided opinion about the need to wear masks. The pronouncement tends to undermine the motivation to wear masks because the experts contend that masks would save others from spread of COVID-19 but not the wearer. The emphasis is on washing hands but not the face, from where the virus could enter the human body. For a long time, it was theorised that the virus droplets settle on the floor but then it was ruled that the droplets could remain airborne for up to eight hours – a very scary scenario; practically making everyone vulnerable everywhere!

At the government level, it is difficult to understand the confusion, hesitation and ambiguities related to the lockdown. More so when there’s a lag between countries like China, Italy, Pakistan, India and the United States. The choices are between saving lives and saving livelihoods; between preventing deaths due to sickness or due to hunger and violence as a consequence of societal breakdown. Thus, it’s not that realities are different but the difference between the perceptions and forecasts of respective leaders about the gravity of consequences of the choices that they may make. The decision may not always be taken on the basis of science and statistics but rather on intuition – not a very encouraging prospect.

Elsewhere, there’s a clash between religion and science, especially between orthodox religious practitioners and health professionals and government officials. The former believe God or Allah is more powerful than the virus so there’s not any inherent danger in religious congregations so their followers throw caution to the wind and do as they are told or as they (mis)understand. The Jews and Muslims of this kind somehow find rare unanimity of views. This is despite the fact that the Holy Kaaba and the Vatican have been adhering to social distancing “religiously”. The controversy lingers!

Right now, everyone is dealing with this pandemic and implementing mitigation strategies. There’s agreement that this is not going to go away in a hurry. Normal life as we knew it, is slated to be resumed subject to the invention or development of a vaccine and the humankind developing the purported herd immunity. The world will get over this pandemic like earlier ones but what is unknown and feared is the toll it would exact on humankind and the devastation it would leave in its wake. When it’s over, there would be an occasion to introspect on why it happened and how to avoid similar recurrences. What would surely be missed out is the callous cruelty man has inflicted upon other humans for reasons of greed and control of resources. Was the violence wrought on Afghanistan, Iraq or Libya really necessary? Or was Bashar-ul-Assad justified in turning his country into ruins to save his throne? The World Health Organisation is urging cooperation between the big and rich countries in these desperate times. China and Russia have provided support to countries in need but the United States has not. The German government has accused the US of piracy when the latter redirected the shipment of 200,000 masks destined for Germany.

The developed world has released enormous financial resources to prevent economic and industrial shutdown and the consequent, massive unemployment. The developing world has neither the resources nor the mechanisms to help its citizens. There’s a double jeopardy here: they would not be able to export their merchandise to the strained developed economies and the investments made in their own stock markets and economies may be withdrawn. That’s surely the road to ruin. The resultant unemployment and poverty threatens their social order. The government in Pakistan is trying its best to provide financial support and hope to its beleaguered citizens. There’s a real need for individual and organised philanthropy to supplement the government’s efforts. The solution lies in the transfer of wealth from the rich to a large number of the poor. As  Will and Ariel Durantt writes in their book Lessons of History, there have been two instances in human history when this was done, in Athens in 594 BC and the United States in the Great Depression, which made it possible to tide over difficult times without social disorder. The UN, IMF and the World Bank need to help the poor countries by rescheduling the latter’s debt and providing additional loans. Domestically, well-to-do Pakistanis need to sponsor food rations for five to ten families around them and known to them. The estimated time for return to normal life is around 12 to 15 months, so patience and perseverance is required. But what needs to be understood is that together, we can defeat coronavirus!


Air Chief Marshal Kaleem Saadat (Retd) is President, Centre for Aerospace and Security Studies (CASS) and former Chief of Air Staff, Pakistan Air Force . This article was first published in The Nation newspaper He can be reached at