A painful reality

July 12, 2020

Has Covid-19 shown us just how willing people are to opt for unscientific advice over scientific information?

On February 26, Pakistan confirmed its first two cases of coronavirus. Four months later, the country continues to battle the pandemic with its various lockdown strategies to curtail the spread of virus. To date, nearly 5,000 deaths have been reported from all over the country.

While people wearing face masks and gloves are now a regular sight, there is no denying that the society at large chose to ignore the seriousness of the pandemic till it spread exponentially across the country after Eid-ul-Fitr. The social attitude towards the virus can be gauged from a Gallup survey which found that 3 in 5 Pakistanis believed that the threat of coronavirus was exaggerated. In response to a question: Do you agree/disagree that the threat of coronavirus is being exaggerated, 62 percent agreed that the threat was exaggerated, while 38 percent disagreed.

The denial vanished when the death toll rose to over 100 deaths in a day. Even Prime Minister Imran Khan, who had once described the virus as normal flu, acknowledged the surge in the cases then and urged the nation to take the pandemic seriously. In a slow yet gradual manner, masks, gloves and sanitisers became part of a new normal everywhere in the country but unfortunately, certain superstitious and scientifically baseless assumptions regarding the virus continued to persist.

Dr Qaisar Sajjad, secretary general of the Pakistan Medical Association believes that the measures taken by the government in regards to Covid-19 were too little and too late, saying that the government could have tackled the virus quite efficiently if it had heeded the WHO alert issued on January 22. He adds that while the federal government mismanaged the affairs of the pandemic, the people have also exacerbated the issue by following baseless advice circulating on social media.

“Because we have a literacy problem, people are gullible and easily fall for rumours and superstition. There was a rumour doing the rounds that doctors were killing coronavirus patients so that some people started self-medication, taking things like sana makki,” he says. “This was done on such a massive scale that eventually many people suffered diarrhoea, got dehydrated, and lost their immunity to the extent that they got infected with the virus they were trying to save themselves from.”

This is what happens when people reject advice from professionals and opt for unscientific remedies or fall for rumors, laments Dr Sajjad.

Shahriyar Jaffery, a Karachi-based journalist, says that the denial of the threat of the virus was rampant in the society even at the start despite the fact that doctors were advising caution. A section of the society considered the pandemic a smokescreen to establish a ‘new world order’. Another popular rumour was that bodies were being sold by the provincial and federal governments to Western countries. But that perception started changing after Eid when people started reporting and witnessing firsthand cases, and in certain instances deaths, due to the virus. This time they had no choice but to accept the reality.

“Now we are seeing a new phenomenon primarily in low-income areas. People are opting for desi totkas and spiritual healings by local hakeems and babas for protection against the virus,” says Jaffery. “The kalvanji and sanna makki found a demand solely on the basis of Whatsapp forwards and social media.”

A research published by Giora Keinan in 2001, The Effects of Stress and Desire for Control on Superstitious Behaviour may have an explanation for the way the society acted in response to the virus. The study says that heightened stress drives people to opt for ‘magical thinking’ and choices based on superstition, specifically when there appear to be few ways to exert control over a situation.”

It is interesting to note here that superstitions and ignorance related to pandemic are nothing new or restricted to a specific geographical territory. History shows that during the ancient Cyprian plague it was believed that it could be caught simply by staring into the face of the afflicted.

Jaffery, who is also reporting on the pandemic, says that during his reporting assignments he has witnessed people in certain mosques, including prayer leaders, either refusing or reluctant to use sanitisers because of the presence of alcohol in it. “They say an ablution is enough to keep us safe,” he tells The News on Sunday.

Najam Soharwardi, a journalist affiliated with The News, and a graduate of religion, law and society from the University of Westminster, says that the ‘anti-science’ behaviour adopted by the society, especially in relation to the virus, is because people tend to take knowledge from individuals and institutions that don’t really have expertise in the subject matter rather than doctors.

“Unlike Europe where what professionals say is taken into account, the biggest dilemma for South Asia is that people go to those who they believe have a spiritual connection, and hence, the answers to their woes.”

Soharwardi says that economics is also at play here. He says that the price of sanna makki which was around Rs 400 to Rs 500 earlier shot up to Rs 2,500 days after it was rumoured that the herb was an effective antidote for the virus.

“Technology has played an adverse role here because spiritual healers whose influence was once limited to their neighbourhoods now have a global audience – their reach has expanded to a devastating level.”

Yuval Noah Harari in his book Sapiens: A brief history of humankind explains scientific revolution as a revolution of ignorance. “The great discovery that launched the Scientific Revolution was the discovery that humans do not know the answers to their most important questions,” he writes. “The willingness to admit ignorance has made modern science more dynamic, supple and inquisitive than any previous tradition of knowledge. This has hugely expanded our capacity to understand how the world works and our ability to invent new technologies,” he writes further in the book.

A scientific revolution is needed to change the parochial mindset of a nation stalked by superstition. Is our society open to questioning and challenging dogmas intertwined with traditions? The reality is painful.

The writer is a human rights reporter based in Karachi. He covers conflict, environment and culture

A painful reality: Has coronavirus shown us how willing people are to opt for unscientific advice over scientific information?