Society in the time of corona

March 29, 2020

Interesting, revealing, and downright bizarre — looking at some peculiar reactions from society to the spread of coronavirus

Raiwind moot took place despite coronavirus outbreak.

The coronavirus pandemic has brought forth revealing, interesting and sometimes bizarre reactions from citizens in Pakistan.

Certain comments and reactions add to your knowledge, others make you laugh or make you angry. The extreme fear caused by the COVID-19 took time to register as the attitude toward it was rather indifferent initially. Even now, many Pakistanis, particularly those religiously inclined and the ones inhabiting rural areas continue to live and behave the way they did, oblivious to the danger posed by the deadly disease.

There have been reports of bridegrooms getting arrested on their wedding day for defying the government instructions not to host such gatherings. Police officers have been detaining shopkeepers for not keeping hand sanitisers in case they need to take thumb impressions of their customers. The media has also reported on the rush of customers doing panic buying and the quick and steep rise in prices of facemasks as the pandemic began spreading in Pakistan.

Two incidents highlighted the fact that tough measures by the government can work to make people abide by the law even if it concerns clerics and students of religion who are sometimes able to exploit religious sentiments to escape accountability. A funny man in a video remarked that it had been proven once again that Pakistanis respected ‘danda’ (stick, meaning force).

In the Punjab, a cleric who made a fiery speech rejecting the threat posed by the coronavirus completely changed his views when he was taken into custody by the police. A video of his speech had gone viral and could have misled many even though it lacked substance. The timely police action made him record another video unabashedly contradicting himself, describing the virus as a threat to public health and supporting the measures being taken to tackle it.

Needless to say, this cleric has lost whatever credibility he had among the people he led in congregational prayers or who had known him otherwise.

In Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’s Bannu district, the administration took prompt action to detain three men, including a cleric, Maulana Abdul Jalil, who had played a role in making and singing a Pashto poem that trivialized coronavirus and described it as a fraud on people. After being put behind the bars under Sections 13, 14 and 16 of the Maintenance of Public Order Ordinance (MPO) and photographed by the police, they appeared in another video in which the cleric is admitted their mistake and sought forgiveness from the people and the district administration. Looking embarrassed, he says, the coronavirus is a reality as it is spreading fast in Pakistan just as it is in other countries and that people have to adopt measures to protect themselves.

This would certainly be a lesson for them and for others who trivialise things without making an effort to understand the issue.

As someone rightly remarked, coronavirus reached and spread in Pakistan through three sets of people, all of whom are religiously motivated. First, were the zaireen (pilgrims) who were in coronavirus-hit Iran on a pilgrimage to visit holy in Mashhad and Qom and were returning to Pakistan. They brought the virus from Iran, weren’t properly quarantined and treated and spread it to other people and places on the way home to Gilgit-Baltistan and the Kurram tribal district, etc. They became the biggest source of spreading the virus in Pakistan.

In the Punjab, a cleric who made a fiery speech rejecting the threat posed by the coronavirus completely changed his views when he was taken into custody by the police.

Dr Osama Riaz, the young doctor who became the first casualty among the medical workers treating coronavirus patients in Pakistan, had caught the infection from the zaireen who had returned to Gilgit-Baltistan.

The pilgrims who returned home after performing Umrah also contributed to spreading COVID-19 in parts of Pakistan. The most prominent among them was Saadat Khan, the 50 year old dispenser from Manga village in Mardan district, who was the first Pakistani to die from coronavirus. To celebrate his homecoming after Umrah, he had hosted a feast in which rice and meat cooked in degs (cauldrons) was served to hundreds of guests. As is the custom, he shook hands with everyone and embraced many. It isn’t surprising that his two colleagues who accompanied him on the journey, some of his family members and many other villagers have tested positive for coronavirus. The number of Manga villagers who have tested positive for the virus is has reached 40 and is rising.

Members of the Tableeghi Jamaat have also played a role in spreading the COVID-19 not only in Pakistan, but also in a few other countries. The Tableeghis, who embark on preaching missions for three days to one year, had gathered at their Pakistan headquarters at Raiwind near Lahore recently and according to some reports about 250,000 people, including foreigners, stayed together for up to 40 days praying, reciting the holy Quran, listening to religious scholars and planning their future journeys. This annual gathering is called ‘jorr’ brings together Tableeghis who had been members of previous preaching missions. It is strange that the organisers were allowed to hold such a gathering when the risk of catching and spreading coronavirus was known to be high, more so due to the fact that those attending would live, eat and sleep in close proximity. The authorities have maintained that the organizers of the Raiwind event were politely asked to postpone it, but their pleas were ignored.

Several Tableeghis who attended the Raiwind gathering tested positive for coronavirus on their return. Two Palestinians visiting Pakistan for the event have also tested positive on their return home to become the first people in Palestine to catch the virus. Media reports coming out of Palestine now routinely refer to these two patients as the ones who contracted the virus in Pakistan. A citizen of Kyrgyzstan who also belongs to the Tableeghi Jamaat and attended the Raiwind gathering was found coronavirus positive when tested in Islamabad.

Nobody knows how many more Tableeghis, who had come from all parts of Pakistan to Raiwind, were infected as most of them have yet to undergo tests. Many of these Tableeghis and their colleagues have since been attending their local congregations. Some have also embarked on preaching missions to various places. When confronted as to why they don’t follow government instructions and postpone their congregations until the coronavirus crisis is overcome, they come up with the standard reply that they trust in Allah and nothing would happen to them as they leave their homes for the sake of Allah.

It isn’t easy to argue with these people, who are certainly devout and spend their time and money for missionary work. However, they have to realize that their actions should not cause harm or make it more likely.

The writer is resident editor of The News in Peshawar. He can be reached at [email protected]

Pakistani society and coronavirus pandemic