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Pakistan’s Confused COVID-19 Response

  • Daud Khattak
  • July, 2020
  • 149
  • Pakistan Coronavirus

Pakistan’s coronavirus fight needs clear public messaging to avert a public health crisis

With over 108,000 COVID-19 cases, Pakistan has passed the official count in neighboring China, the country first hit by the novel coronavirus. Officially projected figures suggest positive cases in Pakistan could reach 125,000 by June 15. Yet thanks to the government’s contradictory public messaging, a majority of Pakistanis still haven’t registered the danger.

The pandemic, if it continues to be underplayed by the government, may pose a formidable challenge for Prime Minister Imran Khan’s leadership - along with causing a serious health crisis in a country of 220 million people with a weak healthcare system.

It has been 100 days since Pakistan registered its first coronavirus case. But the government has yet to come out with a unified statement and an orderly policy to inform, educate, and protect the masses. Instead, the public tends to follow dangerously fatalist and superstitious approaches rather than paying heed to science and health experts.

I have been closely covering the coronavirus outbreak in Pakistan by directly speaking to ordinary people, from the country’s tribal region bordering Afghanistan to the port city of Karachi. One common theme emerges: many people live in a state of denial and disbelief.

A section of society, mostly under the influence of religious propagandists, believe that COVID-19 is a conspiracy hatched by non-Muslims to keep believers from worshiping at mosques and following their religion. Similar misinformation surrounds the polio virus; propaganda that the polio vaccine is a ploy to make “Muslim men infertile” is one of the major reasons that polio still exists in Pakistan.

Maulana Tariq Jameel, a leading religious scholar in Pakistan and public face of the missionary Tablighi group, told a gathering that COVID-19 is the result of the “wrongdoing of women.”

“When a Muslim’s daughter practices immodesty and the youth indulges in immorality, then Allah’s torment is unto such a nation,” the highly acclaimed cleric said in a televised address while sitting side-by-side with the prime minister. Jameel later retracted his remarks, but the damage was done.

Even among those who accept the existence of coronavirus, some are under the impression that the virus can not touch Muslims. There is a narrative that the disease is God’s wrath against the “infidels” for their “immorality.” This section of the society, again under influence from religious propaganda, believes that Muslims are immune to COVID-19 because they wash their hands and faces five times a day while performing ablution before each prayer.

Yet another section of the society - mostly those coming from rural backgrounds and the lower middle class - presumes that reporting their symptoms to a hospital or a health worker means certain death. They believe that the government is trying to show more fatalities in order to collect money from international aid agencies and donor countries.

This is a rapidly spreading conspiracy theory with unclear origins. The most obvious reason for the spread of this conspiracy theory is the government’s unclear and ambiguous public messaging.

The public disbelief has its roots in the government’s unclear statements from the very beginning. Pakistan’s central leadership, instead of chalking out a unified strategy, tried to score political mileage by coming out with the usual bravado.

One of the first public messages was an Urdu language phrase that translates as “fight instead of fearing coronavirus.” This provided enough ground for the common people to respond frivolously to the deadly virus.

Prime Minister Khan’s speeches downplaying the nature of the menace, and his government’s flipflopping announcements - a lockdown, a smart lockdown and finally no lockdown, all without flattening the COVID-19 curve - further deepened the disbelief among the people.

The prime minister’s statements partly reflect his personal views about the global pandemic and partly emanate from his contempt for his political rivals. When the government of Sindh, the only province run by the opposition Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), started amassing praise in the local and international media for its strict COVID-19 measures while Khan’s central government was still dragging its feet on imposing a lockdown, Khan was quoted as saying that it was the “elites who locked down the country.”

At the outset of the outbreak in December 2019, Khan’s government remained unresponsive as the novel coronavirus started taking its toll in China, Pakistan’s northeastern neighbor and close economic and political partner.

Later, dozens of returning Shiite pi...

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