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March 31, 2020

Corona and the clergy

Opinion

March 31, 2020

The history of the clergy classes of the world is replete with idiosyncrasies. Its retrogressive policies and obscurantist approaches towards social issues has always proved that this class is bereft of prescience. Its obstinacy hindered the development of sciences throughout the Middle Age while also stifling critical thinking that is crucial for any healthy society. Its abandonment of logic and reason led to fatal ramifications for nations.

The sins of this so-called sacred class do not end here. It not only gave a superstitious colour to every natural calamity, disease and pestilence but also came up with bizarre recipes to cure the ill. From epilepsy to plague and cancer to HIV, it described every disease as a divine wrath which could only be tided over through rituals and sacrifices.

Many may have been shocked by the sections of the Hindu clergy in India who asked followers to drink cow’s urine to cure the coronavirus or when some from the religious right in Pakistan urged their followers to eat pigeons’ flesh. But for students of history, this is not much of a surprise. This is what a large section of the clergy has been doing though out the history. From the inquisition in Spain to untouchability in India, from the persecution of scientists in Europe to the tormenting of rationalists in the Islamic world, it is clear how this class thinks.

Such attitude has always added to the miseries of people. For instance, the recent corona outbreak in Iran would not have been as worse had the clergy of Iran not tried to impose its conspiratorial mindset on the vast majority of the people, remaining in a state of denial first and ignoring the advice of Iranian health experts. Even advanced America, facing an impending humanitarian catastrophe, is not immune to the idiosyncrasies of the obscurantist class where the incumbent of the Oval Office is an ardent supporter of evangelical Christians whose world view is not much different from their ideological brothers and sisters living in other parts of the world.

Their stubbornness prompts them to reject all pleas of precaution and restraint. This is what the religious clergy did in Pakistan. Despite the request of the Punjab government, the Tableeghi Jamaat held their mammoth congregation in Lahore attracting tens of thousands of people. Some estimates suggest more than 100,000 people attended the gathering between March 11 and 13, initially meant to last until March 15. Gulf News put the number at 250,000 while insiders of the Tableeghi Jamaat claim more than 500,000 attended the ‘spiritual gathering’. The event is believed to be one of the major factors contributing to the spike in coronavirus cases across the country now. A number of people who returned to Sindh, Islamabad and other parts of the country carried the virus with them. Some of them have already caught it while others are still quarantined.

The activities of this organization were not confined to this gathering only. They continued their weekly gatherings (called Shab-e-Juma) across their mosques in the country besides holding a three-day congregation (called Seh Roza) in every major city until very recently. Annual regional gatherings in areas like Bajaur also remained reportedly unabated while the three-day long congregation ended on March 22 in Mardan, which is one of the worst corona-affected areas of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

The Jamaat also formed preaching teams in Lahore and elsewhere, sending them to various parts of the country. One such team roamed about several streets of an area in Islamabad forcing the authorities to lock down the vicinity after the members of the Jamaat tested positive for corona. Two more persons in another area of the federal capital, who attended the congregation in Lahore, tested positive. The Sindh government recently quarantined over 40 people, including foreigners, in Sukkar after it was learnt that they had attended the religious gathering in Lahore.

Pakistan reported its first case of corona by the end of February. Merely a 16,000 gathering of the proselytizing group in Malaysia towards the end of the same month had sowed the seeds of a health catastrophe there. Perhaps at the time when the World Health Organization was deliberating over the hazards of the outbreak, we were busy appeasing the powerful clergy by turning a blind eye to the preparations for this mammoth gathering. The global health body declared it a pandemic on the day this huge gathering kicked off, making a mockery of the state’s writ which was otherwise throwing vegetables of push-cart sellers, beating up young men riding a bike and employing sledgehammer tactics against the weak. But it chose to ignore the flood of humans in Raiwind likely to wreak havoc with the lives of thousands of Pakistan besides putting the health system of the country into disarray.

The gathering has raised several important questions. The Tableeghi Jamaat projects itself as a law-abiding organization, then why did it not cancel the event? Why did the prime minister appease Maulana Tariq Jamil instead of demonstrating the resolve of the state by having the event cancelled? Tableeghis from Palestine and Kyrgyzstan have caught corona? Are the event and its fatal ramifications not enough to convince our clergy regarding the suspension of all types of gatherings?

What is done cannot be undone but the government must make hectic efforts to test all those who attended the gathering or quarantine them. The Tableeghi Jamaat should immediately hand over the lists of the preaching groups that it formed and let the government know their exact locations. This does not mean that only one religious group bears all responsibility for the outbreak and the impending catastrophe. A Barelvi cleric announced a mammoth gathering in Lahore, assuring no one will be affected while some Shia organisations in Karachi insisted on taking out mourning processions too. All such groups should receive a clear message from the state.

It is unfair to lay all the blame on the door of the clergy only. The gross incompetence that has been demonstrated by the government should also be accounted for. We had enough time to make preparations. Our medical staff are still fighting this lethal disease without a proper protection. Front desks staff at hospitals and health facilities are without PPEs. One doctor has already lost his life while several others have caught the deadly virus. They do not need our applause but proper protection. It is a flawed argument that only medical staff working at isolation wards should have PPEs. In reality, front desk workers and doctors are the first point of contact. Therefore, they must be provided with PPEs too. It will be very disastrous if our health staff refuse to work in this unhealthy environment.

We should not expect all magnanimity from our medical staff only. The coming weeks could be apocalyptic. Our health facilities could be overwhelmed. Therefore, all hostels of public representatives, governor houses and CM houses should be turned into quarantine spaces. Law-makers could donate their salaries to the fight against corona. Millions are suffering because of the lockdowns; the state should set up a helpline to register the complaints of people, especially against those employers that have not paid salaries to their employees or have laid off staff. Only collective efforts can help us win.

The writer is a freelance

journalist.

Email: [email protected] gmail.com