Whether we are at the top of the rankings, or behind our arch-rival, there is little to celebrate. Lahore’s position as the most polluted city in the world — or being behind only to Delhi — is not something that has happened due to a random-chance event. Over the years, a series of policies (or lack thereof), weak engagement of the civil society, increasing population, and high value on profits over public health has made the city’s air literally unbreathable. The toxic smog is dense and envelopes the city like a dark shroud of evil. It is not going to disappear by planting a handful of trees this year.
While knee jerk reactions of closing schools or asking only half of the civil servants to come to office may make the news, these measures are unlikely to do anything. For starters, we do not even know the real public-health impact of the crisis. We are good at surveillance when it comes to keeping tabs on people who may have political views that we do not like, but when it comes to doing disease surveillance, we do not know where to start. All resources turn dry, and all ideas seem impractical. A robust estimate on the short and long-term impact of the smog in Lahore and other cities has never been made, but it is not hard to predict that any number that comes out is going to paint a very grim picture. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that nearly seven million people are killed by air pollution every year. One can imagine that Pakistan would have its fair share in that. Compare that to Covid-19 deaths which, according to the government dashboard, is under thirty thousand since the pandemic began nearly two years ago. My point is two-fold: first that the total annual deaths from smog are likely to be much more than all Covid-19 deaths in the country; and second, learning from Covid-19 and our success, we will need serious investment, awareness and coordination to bring it under control.
Like most issues of public health, the impact of the smog follows the socio-economic disparity. The most vulnerable are the poor and those who are left behind by a system that is built on consumption and privilege. The day labourers in Lahore do not have the luxury to have a new air filter in their dwellings, or the ability to work from home, or worse the money to get their children to the hospital when they develop chronic cough and lung ailments. Those who work in the brick kilns are not offered protection from the smog that the chimneys create. The poor are the first to be consumed by the toxic air coming from the decisions of the rich.
Perhaps the toxicity in the air of our cities is a reflection of the toxicity that is permeating the society in general, and our politics in particular. Driven by greed, lack of concern for others, and high consumption of bad ideas, we continue to suffocate our own people. The toxicity in rhetoric and action has a most prominent impact on the weak and the vulnerable. There is little effort in the way of changing our behaviour, and no interest in doing the hard work to undo the damage done over the last few decades. The dark shroud of bad behaviour, poor ethics, and hubris envelopes all our institutions — including the custodians of laws and justice.
I used to believe that perhaps all of us are in this together. Looking at the recent past, I no longer think so. Whether it is the toxic smog of Lahore, or the toxicity in politics, when the going gets rough, the privileged are guaranteed to find a backdoor that takes them out of the system to bluer skies and greener pastures.