Space is a privilege

April 23, 2020

Op-ed writer: Kazi Akber is a writer based out of Karachi. He studied writing and philosophy at the University of Toronto. He presents written and oratory commentary on social and political issues. He also hosts a podcast called Kiya Kahe Ga Kazi.

As of April 23, 2020, the novel Coronavirus has infected 10,927 people in Pakistan, and 230 of those people have died. In the face of public outcry, the government recently extended a lockdown that had been in effect for 17 days.

The lockdown will be extended till April 30th. At that point, the government will conduct another evaluation to determine if the situation can be safely normalized. Social distancing appears to be the best way to slow the virus's spread. Extensive global media coverage has shown us the disastrous results of delayed lockdowns. We have already seen 17,671 people in New York City die from the virus over the past 30 days.

However, if the primary solution is to stay home, what seems to be the problem? A majority of urban working class people in Pakistan cannot afford to stay home, due in large part to concerns about mental sanctity and economic strife.

Numerous people who fall under Pakistan's poverty line live in slums, which are located in megacities like Karachi. Karachi is known to be one of the densest cities in the world, with more than 16 million people. The 2016 world population review quotes a staggering 24,000 people per square kilometer. This figure is understood to be greater now.

Karachi’s residents mainly live in cramped locales that are only fit to be inhabited for a few hours. While I sit in my 500 square yard house and wonder why it's so hard for people to follow stay-at-home orders, I have to remind myself that a large percentage of the population risks suffocation and lasting mental health damage if they stay indoors for an indefinite amount of time.

Psychological studies have pointed out that social isolation and confinement can lead to lasting mental deterioration. The studies were conducted on sample groups from first-world suburbs. This raises the following question: If social isolation in presumably comfortable living situations can cause mental deterioration, what kind of damage will the residents of Karachi's slums, with their confined spaces and limited rations, incur during this lockdown?

Adding to the strife of the working class are concerns about employment. Approximately 72% of Pakistan’s population is employed in the informal sector. That means no contracts, no healthcare packages and certainly no prior notice when employers prioritize the bottom line over the worker.

A lockdown may feel exhausting to some people who are obeying guidelines. However, a large portion of the population can't adhere to social distancing laws, for reasons that surpass mere exhaustion. Even the great equalizing power of a global pandemic only partially mitigates the evident economic disparity in cities like Karachi, where those with privilege possess commodities they don't even understand the value of, such as the liberty to stay at home, or the space to do so.

Unprecedented world events such as the COVID-19 pandemic and ensuing lockdowns often shift the paradigm of reality in some fundamental way. In one of the most densely populated cities in the world, it has dawned on an exhausted police force and Karachi's frantic wealthy minority that a multitude of people in the working class simply do not have the privilege to comply with lockdowns. Space is essential for social distancing. Space, much like everything else, is a commodity that is not available to the downtrodden.

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