Flight anxiety: A traumatized Pakistan

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By Rafia Zakaria

The air was already heavy with tragedy and portent. 
On Friday, PK-8303 took off from Lahore, Pakistanis weary and worn after a month of fasting and lockdowns had only just begun thinking about Eid Al-Fitr, a small glimmer of hope in a long journey of tribulation. 
The flight itself, one of the very first permitted, was largely carrying people traveling home to their families for the celebration. It took off at around 1 p.m. on a Friday afternoon, the venerated last Friday of Ramadan when the faithful pray and ask for all they want in the coming year. There were about 100 people onboard the Airbus 320– roughly half of the plane’s usual capacity.
We all know the sordid events that unfolded next. As the plane neared Karachi airport, there were problems on the flight deck. One of them appeared to be that the landing gear was not opening. According to an Airbus 320 pilot I spoke with, this is a very unusual and unlikely problem, but nevertheless it is what is indicated by communications that the pilot had with air traffic controllers at Jinnah Airport. 
That conversation, available online, is a chilling one. Unbeknown to most people, several freely available apps provide live transmission of the conversations of air traffic controllers and pilots at nearly every airport around the world. The short recording of the pilot speaking with the control tower does not betray the extent of the drama that was unfolding. But then, pilots are trained to be calm.
As someone who grew up in that stretch of flight path leading up to Karachi Airport, it was chilling to hear about the plane crash. As children we were used to jets flying overhead and often saw the landing gear emerge from the bellies of planes flying at low altitude, looming large. Sometimes we dreamt they crashed into our house– but we never imagined it could actually happen. That a huge plane could fall out of the sky seemed to be only the stuff of nightmares.

The crash of PK-8303 has been just that– a terrible nightmare. One friend mourned the loss of a co-worker and his entire family. These people suddenly, inexplicably lost their lives owing to events that are still not entirely clear. 
An Airbus 320 is a highly automated aircraft; it does not ordinarily malfunction and fail to deploy its landing gear. Even if it did, the gear can be released in a variety of other ways. According to one of the two survivors, the pilot tried to land and failed at least once, and then warned passengers that they were approaching a problematic landing. 
I recount all these facts because the parameters of trauma surrounding an airplane crash are not limited to the victims and their families. There is something about the details of airplane travel– the packing, anticipation, rush to the airport, the text messages sent to family and friends once the plane is ready to take off– all of it makes up the drama of relatable air travel. 
Some of the world’s deadliest militant attacks have involved airplanes– rammed into sky scrapers, shot down and hijacked. Statistically, airplane travel is supposed to be much safer than any other means of transportation and this detail would provide some solace were it not for the fact that tragedies involving airplanes have always been so astoundingly devastating. 

ISLAMABAD: PIA chief Air Marshal Arshad Mehmood Malik briefs President Dr Arif Alvi on Friday on plane crash in Karachi. The president directed him to expedite the process of paying compensation to families of the victims. Air Marshal Malik briefed the president about the investigations into the crash and the relief efforts made by PIA. He said that so far 44 bodies had been handed over to the heirs of the victims.

It is impossible not to think of the unassuming souls onboard when one considers a plane crash. What did they say to their loved ones? Were there people on the flight who had decided to go at the last minute? Were there people who had decided not to go? All the thoughts that wander through our minds as we read the details of this crash, of the lives of the victims and of the miraculous survivors– all will be remembered and revived when we get on planes in the near future. All of it will add to our anxieties when we or anyone we love sets out to catch a flight. 
The more recent the memory of a terrible disaster like this one, the more difficult all our next flights will be. 
The anxiety of this tragedy added to the general uncertainty and rising death tolls from COVID-19 and an Eid largely spent in lockdown, have cast a dark mood over the country. 
It is impossible to erase the trauma of having watched or read about a plane crash or a pandemic, but realizing that the trauma inflicted by these kinds of events is real and worth taking seriously is within our power. 
To know that the mental health consequences of sad and sudden events are not diminished because we were not individually affected, allows us to be better at tending to each other and to ourselves. Anxieties and fears brought to light tend not to survive; we cannot change the events that lead to them, but we can treat the wounds they leave with compassion. 
That, then, is the task before a very traumatized Pakistan in a pandemic-ridden world. 

(Rafia Zakaria is the author of “The Upstairs Wife: An Intimate History of Pakistan” and “Veil.” She writes regularly for The Guardian, the Boston Review, the New Republic, the New York Times Book Review and many other publications.Twitter: @rafiazakaria)