The Pulse | Politics | South Asia

Pilgrims First: How Islamists Are Undermining Pakistan’s Fight Against COVID-19

Pakistan is poorly prepared for COVID–19.

Umair Jamal
Pilgrims First: How Islamists Are Undermining Pakistan’s Fight Against COVID-19
Credit: CC0 image via Pixabay

Pakistan is on a dangerous trajectory when it comes to the expansion of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic in the country. Many estimates suggest that the country has a window of just one to two weeks before things get out of control, which could wreak havoc across Pakistan. Pakistan’s decision-makers need to make urgent and realistic decisions to not only save thousands of lives, but also the country’s fragile economy.

The patients of the coronavirus pandemic in Pakistan are rising quickly and are mostly linked to travelers returning from Iran, one of the worst impacted countries from the virus. However, what is disturbing is that an increasing number of cases are locally spread and involve people that do not have a travel history. The upsurge in cases is following the same trajectory, if not more, which the world has witnessed in the cases of Iran, Italy, and the United States.

Pakistan’s case is far more serious and one that has the potential to become the next epicenter of the coronavirus crisis. The country has a larger population than that of Iran and Italy combined. Pakistan is the 6th most populated country in the world. The cities of Karachi and Lahore are crowded with more than 10 million people each. The idea of voluntary social distancing is unlikely to work in a country where more than 20 percent of the population survive on daily wages. Moreover, millions will be unable to financially survive for more than a few weeks if they suddenly lost their work and the government couldn’t step in to help them.

Unfortunately, this crisis could not have erupted at a worse time for Pakistan. The country’s prime minister in an address last week warned that Pakistan cannot afford the economic cost of shutting down its cities. Pakistan’s government has also requested the international community to consider a “debt write-off” for countries like Pakistan. Last week, foreign investors pulled out “more than $1.388 billion from Pakistan’s capital markets in the ongoing month with hot money outflows amounting to $1.28 [billion].” It’s projected that Pakistan may lose $2 to $4 billion in the coming months as export orders are being canceled. On the whole, Pakistan’s economy may face an initial loss of 1.3 trillion Pakistani rupees ($8.2 billion) from the economic effects of the coronavirus.

It’s a tough situation in the country as the government considers the pros and cons of declaring an emergency and shutting down cities. “We thought that if we shut down our cities, then people are already suffering, if we save them from corona [virus] on the one side, on the other side they will die of hunger,” argued Imran Khan in his address.

Moreover, complicating the issue of social distancing is the existing inability and failure of the federal government to enforce a timely lockdown countrywide. Over the last two weeks, seminaries belonging to various ideological groups have refused to adhere to the government’s call to maintain social distancing. Last week’s Friday sermons across the country were filled with millions despite the government’s appeal to stay at home. “The Pakistani state, afraid of hurting the religious sentiments of its citizens — sentiments that it has inculcated in them over decades — did not cancel communal Friday prayers,” said Madiha Afzal.

The province of Punjab’s chief minister, Sardar Usman Buzdar, in a meeting with the head of various seminaries, assured that “mosques won’t be closed in Punjab.” Another group of Barelvi clerics has vowed to hold an All Pakistan Sunni conference: “No one can get sick except as per the will of God. If anyone gets infected with coronavirus due to our conference, then (the Pakistan government) should hang me,” said one leader of the group. Punjab’s Law Minister recently termed religious scholars cooperation with the government a “positive tradition” while the province’s information minister called disabled children “God’s punishment” during an address intended to lay out government’s strategy to deal with the coronavirus outbreak.

The government’s weak position vis-à-vis the right-wing elements is a reflection of the country’s decades-old policy to centralize religion’s role in managing the state and institutionalizing the use of appeal to move from one crisis to another. It’s quite telling that the country’s prime minister himself had to meet a renowned religious scholar to cancel an annual major gathering two weeks ago. After the Iran link, the religious gathering that had been going on for days and attracted people from more than 90 countries, has emerged as a strong link of the virus’s spread. A few days ago, two men from Gaza that tested positive, attended the Tablighi Jamaat or Jama’at al-Tabligh in Arabic in Pakistan in early March. According to Pakistan’s media, more than 250,000 people attended the gathering. Already, at least 12 local cases involving people who attended the religious gathering, have tested positive for COVID-19. It’s a disturbing development and one that could prove disastrous for Pakistan.

Apparently, Pakistan is the only country in the world where efforts to deal with the COVID-19’s outbreak may get severely derailed or remain on weak footing due to religious groups and their pressure. The story of the current government’s skewed approach to deal with the crisis doesn’t end here: Pakistan’s first death from COVID-19 involved a person who returned from pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia carrying symptoms and never made it public. He met with hundreds of people upon return and only got admitted to a hospital when symptoms became fatal.

The way Pakistan’s government is dealing with the crisis shows the lack of unity, preparedness, and competitiveness needed to address the issue. Experts warn that it’s appalling that this logic is being considered at the highest levels of the state. Amid a non-existent public healthcare system, lack of awareness, shrunk economy and a dysfunctional government, Pakistan cannot afford to cope with the likely apocalyptic eventuality that we see in the case of Italy and Iran.

The government in Pakistan needs to understand that it’s time to take decisive and bold measures. The government’s strategy should involve putting on the line complete power of the state regardless of any ideological, social, cultural, and financial restrictions. It’s time to formulate policies that are backed by data and science rather than leaving everything to the mercy of religion. The country is fast running out of time and the current government’s baffling approach will only make it worse.