March 23, 2020

From hygiene habits to family dynamics, COVID-19 is changing Karachi’s people

Trying to come to grips with the situation, some find silver lining, others take time out for introspection

© Branimir Balogović

Sonia Fakira of Naya Golimar goes through the checklist of all the precautionary measures with her ailing mother every morning before leaving the house. This has been her routine ever since COVID-19 hit Karachi and changed everything for everyone.

Her neighbours are afraid — for her and for themselves — because she has to go out every day and visit several different homes, where she works as domestic help. She wouldn’t if she didn’t have to. But it’s important that she contribute to her family’s income.

She’s fortunate to still have a job, though. Other young women like her have been told by their employers to stop coming in for at least a month, to wait out the health crisis that has everyone on edge these days. They’ve been assured that they’ll be called back once this nightmare is over.

Sonia continues to work amid the fear that keeps hanging over her, the constant feeling that things might suddenly go from bad to worse and then keep on escalating. So, she and her family try to take all the precautionary measures that they know of, that they’ve heard of in the news or from other people, especially her employers, who seem to know more about these things.

Her other constant fear is that she might not be able to feed her family if there’s a food shortage. She can’t stockpile anything. Because that’s what people with better income or enough savings can do. Not someone from her financial background.

Abdul Sattar also belongs to this economic stratum. As a watchman, being suspicious of everything and everyone is kind of his job description. But ever since he found out about the first novel coronavirus patient of Karachi, his levels of suspicion and precaution have heightened.

Whether he comes across a person he knows or a stranger, everyone is a suspect these days. He keeps a closer watch on everyone now. And he covers his face with his headscarf while talking to people.

He has stopped shaking people’s hands and there are no more embraces with friends. Besides people, he has noticed the city itself change. Ever since the lockdown, as the night enters the later hours, he feels he’s back in his hometown of Besham in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Never before has he felt Karachi feel so silent. Never before has he missed his family more.

Family dynamics

Fouzia Akber, a teacher from Garden East, believes that the COVID-19 scare has brought her closer to her family. She recalls the people’s panic and the fear in their faces in the initial days, resembling the doomsday scenario that we’ve only read about in books or watched in films.

Her main concern, however, is not the increasing prices of everyday items or how to get the essential commodities or the number of people crowding the stores that have been allowed to remain open since the lockdown. She’s more worried about her son, who has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Getting him to observe self-isolation is a quite a difficult job.

To release his restless energy, a hallmark of ADHD, he needs to go on a half-hour walk on a daily basis. He needs time to accept any change in his life. And since the coronavirus scare and the following lockdown has disrupted his daily routine, his mother is trying all she can to help him adopt to these extraordinary circumstances.

As for Fouzia’s professional life, she’s learning how to work from home. The difficulties in adjusting to the necessary changes in her life and the fear of failing to do so is taking a toll on her. What’s worse is that the prevalent situation is affecting her family’s income and their social life.

But she hasn’t failed to find the silver lining. Spending more quality time at home with her family has brought all of them closer to each other. And to God as well. She prays for more patience so she can deal with her son’s condition without her family undergoing any major stress.

As for Syed Basalat Hussain Rizvi of Gulistan-e-Jauhar, it breaks his heart to turn both his daughters away when they rush to jump into his lap every time he gets back home from work. Being the emergency incharge at a private hospital, he’s always at risk because he’s on the frontline dealing with patients. So, when he gets home, he has to ask his daughters to wait until he has changed and washed up thoroughly before it’s safe for them to hug him. To keep his family safe from getting infected is one of his biggest concerns these days.

At work, the biggest change he has noticed is that they constantly wear masks and there’s greater pressure on them to detect cases of coronavirus and then educate the patients about it. They have also been allaying the fears of other patients who are afflicted with seasonal influenza but get worried that it’s COVID-19.

Pervasive fear

Key account manager Hibah Kamran has been dealing with constant fear. For herself and her loved ones. Since all media these days are dominated by information regarding coronavirus, she’s unable to focus on any other thing.

With restaurants, shopping centres and gyms closed, the silence and the air of fear everywhere in the usually lively metropolis have made things depressing for her. She never thought that many of the places of worship would also be closed.

Now that there’s limited people-to-people contact and no meetings with her colleagues, since she’s been working from home, she hasn’t been able to see her friends as much as she used to before.

With not much to do and nothing else to think about except the dreaded virus, she feels that her physical and mental health are being affected. And social distancing has played a major role in that.

As for Muhammad Sameer Rah, being the head of marketing and exports at a private company as well as an executive committee member of the Pakistan-US Alumni Network, he meets a lot of people.

But he has been extra careful while attending meetings ever since the COVID-19 situation started getting serious here. There have been absolutely no handshakes with colleagues because of the fear present everywhere all the time.

At home, he and his family have been paying more attention to hygiene than ever before. As a parent, though he has no problem with his children enjoying their holidays from school, he’s also worried about the impact the sudden break in their academic activities can have on their education.

Time to reflect

Educationalist Saresh Khemani believes that while the pandemic has turned us into scared individuals, it has also made us more mindful and empathetic. We’re now more concerned not just about ourselves but also about our families, neighbours and friends. In view of the global health emergency, she wants everyone to be more careful in their actions.

Ghazanfar Ali Memon, head of human resources at a private company, also advises careful retrospection and introspection in the current circumstances. Since life is too short, he wants everyone to make theirs meaningful.

He feels we should all go back to the basics, pray to Allah and ask for His blessings. He believes that we need to rely on the Almighty now more than ever, that we should do good and think of everyone as a human being, that everyone of us should focus on being a helping hand to others at this most difficult time.

Words matter

Karachi used to be known for its people’s carefreeness. And for their carelessness as well. Both groups, however, are among the different shades on this sprawling city’s colour palette. But coronavirus has been chipping away at our carefreeness and our carelessness. Now our glances are more furtive, and we’ve turned into a bundle of nerves. Every person who coughs, sneezes or shows any sign of lethargy is looked at suspiciously.

COVID-19 may have made germaphobes out of all of us. But it’s all right. Prevention is better than cure. Observing prevention is responsible behaviour. Those among us who used to scoff at people wearing masks to protect themselves from air pollution are themselves wearing masks now. Those among us who never even considered using a hand sanitiser or mocked those who have been using them are themselves frantically searching for such products now. Fighting over them. Hoarding them.

Our habits are changing. Both personal and professional. So are our family dynamics and social relationships. Even our societal norms. Whether voluntarily or forced by the prevalent circumstances, everything and everyone around us is changing. Handshakes and embraces have stopped. Social distancing is increasing. It’s all a bit strange for us. An idea that’s quite novel.

But soon enough we will realise — if we haven’t already started to — that physical contact alone doesn’t play a role in the conveyance of our feelings or in the sincerity of our emotions. Actions may speak louder than words. But words are important too. Now more than ever before.

Karachi is a resilient city. Its carefree people and its careless people are all bonded by our spirit to keep moving forward, our stubborn need to get up every time we fall. This bond runs deep. It’s tightly woven through our social fabric.

We don’t know if the things that have changed will last. But we have to know that we’ll recover from this. We’ve faced many daunting challenges before. They might not have been as scary, but when has any calamity stopped us from fighting back, or created a dent in our unity? If anything, Karachi’s people perform best under pressure, and they perform best together. And we always emerge from all natural and man-made disasters with a stronger spirit.

First published in The News International

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