Dangerous theories

June 21, 2020

While the number of Covid-19 cases rises sharply in Pakistan many still believe the virus to be a conspiracy or a joke

“There is no coronavirus. This is a conspiracy against Islam and Muslims and Pakistani government is following a foreign agenda,” Muhammad Haseeb in Banigala, Islamabad, the political constituency of premier, tells The News on Sunday when asked why he wasn’t wearing a mask or following the recommended standard operating procedures (SOPs). A daily wager in mid 20s, he believes all talk about the virus is a lie and urges others not to wear a mask or otherwise fall for ‘Jewish’ agenda.

Naseem Khan subscribes to another popular theory. Working on a busy tyre point on Grand Trunk Road, he says this is a plan to fix a chip in people’s bodies in the name of vaccination and to read their thoughts. “This is an Israeli plan so that they can read what Muslims are thinking through a chip to be installed in the name of vaccination,” he says. When asked for his sources, he has no answer.

Starting from two cases on February 26, the daily average of confirmed new cases has grown to more than 4,000 in the first two weeks of June. Pakistan reported its first coronavirus-related death on March 17. By the middle of June this number has crossed 2,500. First 500 deaths due to this pandemic were reported in 48 days after the virus emerged in Pakistan, while last 400 deaths were reported in less than a week. The number of diagnosed cases in the country is feared to cross 200,000 by the next month (July) with an impression among local experts and international organizations like World Health Organization (WHO) that Pakistani government is confused regarding the lock-down policy and a large number of people fulfilling their religious obligations or at work or in the streets are not fully following the SOPs. A large number of people are seen in markets without masks. Wearing of gloves is quite rare even the capital city. Two third of the cases so far have emerged in the past seven weeks.

It has been observed that people who are superstitious and subscribe to hardline religiosity are largely ignoring the SOPs and believe that the virus is not very harmful. “Have you seen a death due to coronavirus around you?” asks Ahmad Khan, a shopkeeper. “We believe that our fate is decided by Allah and if Allah wants that we die with this virus no one can stop that,” he maintains.

A number of surveys, by different organizations in the country in the past few weeks, also indicate that a significant number of people doubt the reality of this virus calling it man-made, or a conspiracy. A recent survey has found that one in three Pakistanis believe in at least one conspiracy theory related to the virus. More than 40 percent declare it a “foreign conspiracy”. According to a survey by Ipsos, at least 33 percent assume that Covid-19 was created in a laboratory and released “on purpose”. At least five surveys by Gallup Pakistan have published similar findings.

Campaigns against and fear of foreign vaccines are not new to Pakistan. The country has been struggling to dispel this impression against polio immunization for more than three decades. Despite starting of these immunization campaigns in mid-1970s many people, mainly in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, refused vaccine drops to their children believing this was a conspiracy against Muslims to emasculate their children so as to control the Muslim population.

In the surveys, a large number of people with similar thoughts, declare virus a man-made thing; or allege that the government is receiving foreign funding in proportion to the corona-positive statistics; or an international conspiracy; saying that they are unable to see this virus at a large scale or seeing affected people around them.

“There is more hype and rumor than reality. The hospitals are putting everyone on the corona list to mint money and government is getting heavy foreign funding against each case. For me, the virus is a joke. It is meant to befool us,” says Irfan Akhtar, a small trader in Islamabad. Many people are reluctant to benefit from free corona-testing recently offered by the Islamabad administration.

Surprisingly, it is not only illiterate or uneducated people who believe this stuff. Many well-educated people and noted clerics are propagating strange conspiracy theories. Kokab Noorani, who appears on national television channels in talk shows on religion, recently, said that a Covid-19 vaccine would include a small chip that would allow Jews to control people’s minds. “We will then think what they want us to. Next, they will be introducing a single currency in the world,” he tells his followers.

Hussain Abdullah Haroon, a former foreign minister and ambassador to United Nations, has shared another ludicrous theory that the virus was created in a laboratory for biological warfare waged by the United States in Syria. He said the aim was to create a disease that would cause panic and fear among the people of the world. “The patent for the virus was obtained by an American company, Chiron, in 2006. The second aspect of this is that in 2014, they sought a patent in Europe for its vaccine. The patent wasn’t granted till November 2019,” he says.

“Why is this virus not affecting birds and animals? If the disease is that infectious it should have affected 50 million people during Eid shopping. Why are people only dying in hospitals. I went outdoors with my entire family on Eid and nothing happened to us,” Nadia, a woman, wrote on Facebook.

Pakistan was ranked as the third-riskiest country for corona virus in a recent study conducted by the Deep Knowledge Group on nations and their safety against the pandemic.

Prime Minister Imran Khan, in a recent address to nation, urged people to take the pandemic seriously. People are not taking the SOPs seriously. If we take precautionary measures, we can avoid further chaos and disaster and if we don’t do that, we will be facing a very difficult time ahead,” he stated. But even his speeches have left the public confused as he has negated his own stance on the virus multiple times.

Experts believe that there is a need for a sound communication strategy to dispel such impressions and conspiracy theories. They warn that such theories contribute to the unabated spread of Covid-19.

“We may differ with the government policies and strategy but we believe they are doing certain things to protect people and that people should follow the SOPs and ignore such stupid theories,” human rights activist Farooq Tariq says. We are shocked that many people still do not believe that this virus exists. It is a new infectious disease but still people say there is no corona. I say corona is a reality and such misunderstandings and conspiracy theories are causing its further spread in the country. I appeal them to stop propagating such theories and combat the virus in a proper way.”

The writer is a staff member and can be reached at vaqargillani@gmail.com

Dangerous theories: Many Pakistanis still believe COVID-19 to be a conspiracy or a joke