Covid-19 has divided the world into two groups of people – those who take the virus seriously and will do their part and those who do not, do not care to or do not have the courage or capability to do the right thing. We have to recognise this rather weird conflict and anticipate its consequences in the months or even years ahead. If there is no strong or clear-cut consensus or cooperation in the world community, we can expect waves of infections to be followed by millions of fatalities before the emergence of a so-called humankind herd immunity which will keep the virus or whatever its new versions at bay. Let’s hope sanity and modern science prevail to save lives.
I will put nations who follow the World Health Organisation’s lead on the protocols needed to fight the virus as the frontliners in the battle against the coronavirus. These protocols would involve meticulous testing, quarantine, lockdowns, strict personal hygiene, boosting up healthcare facilities, mask-wearing, safe distancing, sharing of medical information, vaccination (if and when the vaccine is found) and cooperation in people movement. I would obviously put Singapore as part of this group. If the problem is not solved, we may not survive economically. Plus, we do not have that many millions of people to sacrifice to nonchalance or indecision. Any life lost for us is a tragedy.
Then there are those countries who, for political, social or religious reasons, are struggling to come to terms with the virus. Politics and an almost dysfunctional self-obsession are at the heart of US President Donald Trump’s attitude to confronting the threat of Covid-19. At one moment, he is talking about sunlight as a cure for Covid-19, next he is leaving everything to the “wonderful” state governors to do what they think fit at a time when his country is looking to him for leadership. And suddenly, he is also at war with China and the “Beijing-controlled” WHO over all sorts of virus-related issues. At the same time, he is escalating tensions with the European Union even as experts are calling for a coordinated effort to cope with the Covid-19 pandemic.
Some Muslim countries too have complicating problems in the handling of Covid-19. Pakistan, whose doctors are second to none, in particular. Tens of thousands of mosques were reopened late last month, after religious leaders there prevailed on the government of Prime Minister Imran Khan to allow them to restart congregational services.
According to Al-Jazeera, the Qatari-based news channel: “It is a unique decision, among Muslim countries, and one that ties into the complex interplay of how political and social power flows in a country where religion is central to public life but does not have a formalised role within State structures. The result is a constant push-and-pull between religious and political leaders.”
Cases of the coronavirus in Pakistan crossed 20,000 early this month, with at least 526 people dead and more than 6,200 having recovered. Cases have been rising exponentially in recent days, and are expected to hit more than 130,000 by the end of May.
At least 2,682 cases, or 12 per cent of the country’s total cases, can be traced back to a single religious gathering by the Tableeghi Jamat missionary organisation outside the eastern city of Lahore in March.
Al-Jazeera quoted Madiha Afzal, a fellow at the Brookings Institution who studies political economy and extremism, as saying: “The Pakistani state does not have the ability to be authoritarian in terms of religion. It is the Islamic republic, but it is not a theocracy. It’s a democracy with a very […] complicated relationship with religion.”
Nearer home, Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim country, is playing hot and cold over Covid-19. A partial lockdown announced after a mass exodus of untested out-of-towners back to the provinces from Jakarta may or may not have been too late to prevent a spread of the virus across the archipelago. The results should show soon. Indonesia had 13,112 confirmed virus cases and 943 deaths as of May 8, the most fatalities in Asia after China and India. Even so, the government is talking about lifting current restrictions and resuming normal life in July.
Pakistan, which was literally born out of a sub-continental religious divide and one of whose presidents I once interviewed in Islamabad, may be a distance away from Singapore. But Indonesia is right at our doorstep.
Covid-19 respects no one, no religion and no country. And it is not going away soon.
Is Dubai part of Asia?
Last week, in discussing the dormitories issue, I quoted Ho Kwon Ping, CEO of Banyan Tree Holdings, as saying that we ought not follow the example of Dubai and become the Dubai of Asia. And I used that in the headline: “Do we want to be the Dubai of Asia?”
A number of readers pointed out, rightly: But Dubai is part of Asia! Indeed, it is. For example, it is part of the United Arab Emirates soccer team playing in the FIFA-sanctioned Asia Cup and, of course, the World Cup. So it is Asian. How do Singaporeans like it if the people of Dubai see this: “Do we want to be the Singapore of Asia?”
But Dubai is also in the Middle East. And the Asian landmass actually has Russia which we do not normally consider Asian. Perhaps, the right headline for last week’s column should have been: “Migrant workers and the dormitories: Do we want to be the Dubai of the East?”
Tan Bah Bah, consulting editor of TheIndependent.Sg, is a former senior leader writer with The Straits Times. He was also managing editor of a local magazine publishing company.