Happy New Year…???

THE first column of the new year should have some hopeful content. It should enumerate a few good things that are about to happen, present bits and pieces of fortunate signs such as job creation, new house building, programmes to redistribute wealth and assist the poor, etc. All of this can come together to create a bouquet of optimism that readers can hold on to for the rest of the year.

Alas, this column would fail in this regard, because good news, it would appear, is remarkably rare as we enter 2023. This ubiquity of pessimism is not entirely expected. After all, 2023, like the tail end of 2022, appears to be the slow end of a pandemic that has ravaged lives and transformed the world. Some of the changes it has wrought have improved lives; others have resulted in a long list of funerals of both people and businesses.

Freedom from all that, courtesy herd immunity in most places, should be a hopeful moment. Breathing without the fear of inhaling contagion and death has been impossible for nearly three years now, a luxury that could be afforded only in the precincts of one’s home. Now it is available again in many more places, without the necessity of constant vigilance and sequestration. Once again, one can breathe without masks or huge doses of denial or bravery; the rest of the world being kept at bay by the immediacy of contagion is no longer the case.

But while fun and enjoyment are within your grasp now, inflation has made them just as unreachable as they were during the pandemic. Recently published statistics show that inflation in Pakistan stood at approximately 25 per cent at the end of last month, and is expected to continue rising this year. Food inflation, according to Bloomberg, was at an astronomical 35pc and fuel and transport inflation was over 41pc. The price of clothes and footwear increased 17pc and water and electricity (if the government is choosing to supply it at all) is 7pc more expensive.

Lockdowns are now a thing of the past, but going anywhere can be forbiddingly expensive.

The consequence of these numbers is more misery. Bloomberg analysis shows that, following the State Bank’s interest rate hike, it had been expected that inflation would fall by June this year. At the moment though, this ‘promise’ of superficial improvement months and months down the road is one that will not satisfy the citizens to whom the future does not look good. The government, already mortgaged to the hilt, will continue to borrow money from various institutions and other states at astronomically high rates, which will have to be paid back by crushing consumers of the future.

Admittedly, Pakistan’s condition is not entirely of its own making. The floods that ravaged Pakistan — a deadly mix of high land temperatures and rising oceans leading to supercharged monsoons — are the collective fault of a taciturn world uninterested in changing its energy-greedy ways. Pakistan did a good job of making this point at COP27 in Sharm El Sheikh. The Pakistani pavilion bluntly said: “What happens in Pakistan will not stay in Pakistan.”

This is indeed true, and it is also somewhat hopeful that developed countries are now seriously considering the need to compensate countries like Pakistan, which is facing the danger of regular climate-induced destruction because of what other countries have done. Ironically, Pakistan is one of the lowest emitters of greenhouse gases.

The impact of repeated climate disasters borne by countries like Pakistan will continue to be a drag on the world economy, not to mention absolutely hellish for citizens living in the country. Pakistan’s combination of glaciers along with flat desert plains that exhibit extremely high temperatures, and the changing pattern of the monsoons, makes it very vulnerable to continued floods in the coming years.

That is the big picture. The smaller, pressing picture is of the household, or even just the individual trying to survive this post-Covid mess. Lockdowns are now a thing of the past, but going anywhere can be forbiddingly expensive. The ability to see relatives and friends is great — but how to entertain large families when food prices are sky-rocketing? Each and every renewed freedom comes with new and pressing costs, relegating everyone to a massively sulky place.

The focus inevitably will have to be on side hustles and free fixes. When you cannot reward yourself with new clothes, bags or perfume — identify and then eliminate the most toxic person in your life. If total elimination is not possible, practise avoidance with diligence. As someone who has done this, I can vouch that it works.

Another good habit that pays dividends is no longer watching the news or depressing television dramas. Being happy is already a chore in these circumstances — don’t slap it dead with more negative energy. Finally, take at least a day off from social media every week. The constant comparative emotional economy created by self-serving platforms is noxious and does not contribute to mental well-being.

None of these suggestions will ease the pessimistic baggage Pakistan and Pakistanis are carrying into 2023. It can, however, lend a small bit of mental resilience required to weather the world this year. Inflation may be a curse that prohibits the usual avenues of merriment, but it also supplies a set of convincing excuses to not do things that have been carried on and on for the sake of propriety and politeness. Suddenly, the Pakistani has the power to not travel all the way across a city to attend a distant relative’s wedding; to not host the yearly party for office ‘friends’; and to not do other similarly annoying activities. Inflation can, in its own strange way, empower the individual over the collective, providing a ready reason to just say no.

The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.

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