23 October 2015

THERE are few things more dispiriting than returning from a holiday where you had unexpected blue skies to a homeland where you can hardly see anything outside the plane window.

What quirk of climatic times do we live in when I was travelling in a temperate country which had more sunshine than the tropical one which I was born and raised in?

Looking at the grey sky, you can’t help thinking that the haze is a perfectly apt metaphor for the state of our country, where everything is blurred, opaque, difficult to fathom, unresolvable and ultimately bad for one’s health.

But let’s talk about the physical impact of the haze first. In all the years since we’ve had this big smoke floating over and around us – and I can remember it as far back as 1990 – this year’s seems exceptionally bad. I don’t recall the haze lasting as long as this, and being as thick as this. We can actually smell the smoke and clearly see ash flying about. It’s like breathing in the contents of a vacuum cleaner bag.

What must this do to our lungs? Is anyone monitoring the health of those most vulnerable to breathing difficulties like young children, old people, asthmatics, people with HIV? I’m fairly fit and yet I feel sometimes as if my chest is congested.

I know of at least one asthmatic who passed away recently, possibly because her condition was aggravated by the haze. Are there any studies at all on what this haze does to our health?

Has there been a time when schools had to be closed as much as they have been? What happens to our children’s education, such as it is? What about those who have exams coming up? How do they cope without guidance at school?

And for some parents, having kids at home means having to take leave in order to watch over them. Which employer is going to be cold-hearted enough to refuse to let them take the days off? In which case, how many workplaces are going to be shorthanded because of this?

When the air finally clears, is anyone going to count the cost of this haze, in terms of lost productivity, in healthcare costs, in school hours lost? Or as usual, do we not worry about things we can’t see as yet? Years from now, will we look back to these lost times and wish we had been more attuned to what all this really means?

Meanwhile, as if there isn’t enough to depress us already, we hear that the haze may last all the way until March. Not only do we have to put up with ever murky wheelings and dealings by those whom we are supposed to trust, a ringgit which may soon be worth more lining bookshelves, ever-increasing prices, the constant need to force the public to swallow fantastic explanations for obviously dubious financial manoeuvrings, but we literally are having our oxygen cut off day by day.

Surely even our esteemed politicians are breathing the same air? Or do they live under some bubble into which fresh air is pumped? I’m not sure how that accounts for the inanities that come out of their mouths though.

It doesn’t help that along with the deficit in clean breathable air, we also have a major trust deficit in what the authorities would have us believe. API readings remain unconvincingly low when you can hardly see anything outside. Since they are presumably breathing the same air, are our authorities also happy with lying to themselves?

And if they are happy fudging the truth about things which affect them, what about things that only affect us the people?

It’s getting more difficult these days to present a good face to the world about what my country is like. It would be nice to be able to boast about more than just our food and our multicultural make-up.

But when you read about countries like Nigeria which elected a president who is fervently going after those who have been stealing their country blind, or that Canada rejected a racist and Islamophobic prime minister in their most recent elections, then you start to feel as if you’re being left behind. It’s a very sinking feeling.

What we need are leaders who inspire us to be better than we are, who tell us the truth about things so that we can deal with them realistically but at the same time give us hope that they will all get better. We need them to not just talk about the future but also take action to make that brighter future happen. Instead we get what sounds suspiciously like false cheer and empty promises, among much murkiness.

Much like our skies.