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Sun 20 September 2020
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As part of Byline Times’ series dedicating to giving a platform to new voices of colour, Neha Maqsood shares her experience of being in lockdown with her Mum and Dad during the Coronavirus crisis in Pakistan

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It’s three am and I’m awoken by slew of WhatsApp messages from my older sister. One reads: “I’ve been having sleepless nights. Mama and daddy have managed to give me high blood pressure.”

In Pakistan, the Coronavirus pandemic affected the society and its citizens differently. The country – already inflicted with a fraught healthcare system, political problems and a struggling economy – was now also pressed by the weight of COVID-19. Unfortunately, there was also a general lack of understanding by the population regarding the implications of the virus.

Perhaps, the justification for this complacency was valid.

In Pakistan, where 25% of the population lives below the poverty line, fighting against the pandemic wasn’t on many people’s radar – the main aim is to stave off starvation. Therefore, the Prime Minister Imran Khan implemented a ‘smart lockdown’ in Coronavirus hotspots, whilst allowing other unaffected small-and-medium-sized businesses and enterprises to continue functioning. In this way, a majority of Pakistan’s population which works in the gig economy – comprising of rickshaw drivers, pushcart sellers, small shop owners and daily wage labourers – were not disadvantaged by a complete lockdown. 

Despite social distancing and the smart lockdowns, life in Pakistan continued somewhat normally. With the total number of cases crossing the 200,000 mark, children continue to line the streets as they indulge in a game of gully (alley) cricket and adults continue to gather in hordes near tea-side shops for a steaming hot cup of chai. Friday sermons at mosques continue to be held, as they were during Ramadan and the festival of Eid, as people believe that prayer is the most effective method to combat the pandemic. 


Parental Rebels

Earlier in the year, I had moved back home to Pakistan after graduating from college to spend more time with my parents and to concentrate on developing my writing and acting career.

My days comprised pitching ideas to journalists and booking acting gigs. However, once the pandemic hit Pakistan in mid-March, I had to reorient my life with increasing urgency.

Establishing myself in the creative field was no longer on the agenda. Keeping my parents alive was.

As the number of cases rose exponentially in Pakistan, so too did the number of urgent calls and messages I received from my two older sisters, both doctors in the United States. Replacing the amusing TikTok videos and occasional memes we would exchange, the messages were inquisitive. “Is mama seeing her friends?”; “Did daddy go to work?”. If I’d reply in the affirmative to either, a succinct order would be given: “Hide their car keys”.

I was now liable for my parents’ actions – curbing my father’s workaholism and my mother’s social urges. The child became the parent.

And so I began tracking my parents’ movements, questioning them about their plans each time they stepped out of the house. I would then text daily reports to my sisters. This didn’t go down so well with my parents, who were defiant of our attempts to restrict their mobility. My father insisted on going to the hospital and my mother once justified going plant shopping with her best friend. 

Determined to rein in their ‘rebelliousness’, my siblings and I scoured online platforms and Reddit threads to understand the different methods employed by millennials and Gen Zs to effectively get through to their parents.

Factually and unemotionally laying out the terrors of COVID-19 was apparently the right way to go. My siblings and I expressed our fears and concerns to our parents in case anything were to happen to them. Though it took a few days, it worked as my father announced that he would take some time off work.

After a few weeks of social distancing, my parents and I had begun to adapt to the new ‘normal’. We recognised and respected each other’s routines and (odd) daily rituals. Every night over dinner, we would analyse the political and pop culture news of the day in a heated debate. We then calmed ourselves down by re-watching old Bollywood movies or taking a (safe) walk around the block. During these walks, I’d convince my parents yet again of my “impractical dreams” of becoming a writer and an actor.

When the month of Ramadan rolled around, we fasted. For the first time in three years, my parents and I broke our fasts together. And, when Eid came around, we stayed at home and FaceTimed my siblings.

It seemed as if I was still learning more about two people whom I had known for more than two decades. I learnt that my Dad enjoyed walking much more than he enjoyed playing golf. I learnt about my mother’s generosity, as she bought and distributed groceries to the under-privileged communities in Karachi who had been affected by the pandemic. 


Reality of Mortality

Before the pandemic, I had thought of my parents as these indestructible forces; invincible beings, who regularly worked out at the gym and travelled across the world for their children at a moment’s notice.

I’d refused to see them as they were: two people who were rapidly ageing in front of my eyes and, unfortunately, who also suffered from severe health conditions.

My father, an ophthalmologist and in his mid-60s, was a heart disease patient. He also suffered from occupationally-caused lower back pain. My mother, in her late 50s, had been a lifelong sufferer of the autoimmune disease, rheumatoid arthritis.

As the World Health Organisation has reported, the risk of death from COVID-19 generally increases if a person suffers from chronic health conditions.

The pandemic had forced me to become more cognisant of my parents’ mortality. This realisation especially dawned on me when my older siblings brought up the controversial ‘end of life’ discussion. I was in utter denial when they asked my parents about whether they had drafted a will or selected a healthcare proxy. I refused to listen when they asked my father about whether he wanted to be put on a ventilator in case of respiratory failure. 

All these years, I had rebuffed the notion that my parents’ days were numbered. As the youngest of the family, I was also holding on to a bit of resentment that I would never get enough time with my parents – which my older siblings had gotten before me. COVID-19 had forced me to witness the transience of life which I had been forgotten in my rush to chase man-made dreams. I recognised that there comes a time in our lives when parents can’t stay alive on their own and they need their children to keep them alive.

These days, I’ve found myself adopting a more nurturing role towards my parents. I’ve been trying to get a hold on my own anxiety and ruminating thoughts about my parents’ inevitable departure from the world. Instead, I’m choosing to focus on the now.

Life is continuously passing, but I’ve stopped trying to control it. I don’t know what the next few months hold for me or for them, but I do know I’ll be spending time with my parents and getting to know them a tiny bit more.


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