Reckless rhetoric and vaccine reluctance – II

June 6, 2021

In simple terms, the willingness of 65 percent of the population to get the vaccine does not make it possible to obtain herd immunity

As NCOC head Asad Umar holds presser after presser to highlight the supposed success of Pakistan’s vaccination drive and to urge everyone to take their shots, there have been voices of dissent and confusion that create hesitation amidst the population. While the idea is to create herd immunity, this particular herd seems to be distracted by voices that might very well lead them over the cliff-side.

With the optimism of a child on his birthday, Asad Umar told the media on Monday, May 31, that slightly more than 5 million people had been vaccinated, and that the number would grow to a whopping 70 million by Eid-ul-Azha. It seemed that he was attempting to entice the masses to get themselves inoculated so that they could celebrate Eid, appealing to their sense of family, religion and need to make money. It certainly stands to reason that the federal minister would need to resort to these sorts of tactics. The Pakistani people are showing ever-increasing vaccine hesitancy caused by various conspiracy theories that are making the rounds.

Self-proclaimed expert Zaid Hamid, while speaking on a show called Badalta Pakistan in May, deduced that the coronavirus was nothing more than the common cold. Displaying a degree of wilful ignorance that must surely have taken some practice, he asserted that the world has been familiar with the coronavirus for the last 50 years and that every person has, at one point in time, suffered from it. Hamid said that Covid achieved this panic-lit limelight only because Bill Gates has conspired to make all future generations in the world America’s slaves. Hamid – who single-handedly deciphered the pathogen’s code while it took the global scientific community a year to create a vaccine – insisted that the drug that is being given to prevent Covid-19 is, in fact, some sort of a nano-tracking magic bullet that would eliminate Islam from the hearts of Muslims who take it. As any good home-grown fear monger, he made sure to point out that Gates’s ploy was to have Jews take over the world. It’s hard to say if Hamid had excellent creative writing teachers or terrible science teachers in his youth. Of course, Hamid is hardly the only voice of unreason. Before we had the vaccine, the same conspiracy theories were applied to the virus itself. Hamid is only enjoying the fruits of last year’s conspiracy theorists and their complete denial of coronavirus.

Last year, while WhatsApp messages and YouTube videos were spreading misinformation about coronavirus, a former Pakistani foreign minister shared some wild theories about how the virus emerged and who is “behind” the pandemic that has killed countless people worldwide. According to Abdullah Hussain Haroon, Pakistan’s former ambassador to the United Nations, the virus is not natural and was created in a laboratory. He insisted on a video recording that the virus had been created as a step up in the chemical warfare allegedly waged by the United States in Syria. He said that the aim was to create a disease that would spark panic and fear amongst the people of the world.

“The patent for the virus was obtained by an American company, Chiron, from the US government in 2006. The second aspect of this is that in 2014, they sought a patent in Europe for its vaccine. The patent would have been granted in a few years, but it wasn’t granted till November 2019,” he claimed, with the sort of confidence most people can only aspire to have. “Israel has said it would share its patent only with those countries that recognise it as a country.” The fact that Israel has not engaged in this supposed chemical warfare during its current conflict with Palestine seems to be a bit of a plot-hole in Haroon’s theory.

Last year in April, on GTV, former senator Faisal Raza Abidi stated: “I am not a specialist but there are no two opinions that the USA created coronavirus and launched it against China, Iran and Italy to ensure that all countries trade in US dollars and not in regional currencies.” In November 2020, when Pakistan was losing the manageable 2 percent positivity rate that it had obtained in October, he said that Covid-19 is “a massacre ultimately aimed at Iran and Pakistan as they don’t accept Greater Israel.” This theory was circulated widely.

Pakistan has made some strange choices. Throughout the wedding season in November and December, people flocked to the markets without masks, they embraced each other at events and treated the SOPs as a nagging background noise coming from their democratically-elected officials. As a result, Pakistan lost its battle against the second wave of Covid-19, and when the vaccine was finally available, there was a strong foundation against it.

Mehrab Ali, a fruit merchant in Karachi, is one of many across the country who aren’t lining up after Prime Minister Imran Khan launched the nation’s vaccination drive in February. The father of six, who also refused to vaccinate his children against polio, argued that Covid-19 is a foreign plot against Muslims, reported The News International. “Coronavirus is nothing but a conspiracy,” said the 43-year-old, sitting by his pushcart on a road leading to Karachi’s port. “I don’t believe the coronavirus exists, nor does polio. I am not ready to accept that Jews and Christians sitting abroad are worried about the health of our children – no way.”

In Pakistan, virulent anti-West conspiracy theories about inoculations abound, further fuelled by hard-line religious groups and spread across social media. People like Zaid Hamid are able to gain followers and believers because politicians and public figures have already convinced the people that the virus itself never existed. Ergo, the vaccine against something that never truly was has to be some insidious plot, right?

The mistrust goes deep, with health workers seen as spies and the ingredients going into doses being questioned. Suspicion about vaccines, in general, only deepened when it emerged that a fake vaccination drive was used to hunt down Bin Laden in Abbottabad, where he was assassinated in 2011 by American special forces. Mounting US drone strikes around that time also led to the Pakistani Taliban issuing a decree against vaccinations. The unfortunate news is that this alarmism is lowering the country’s chances of returning to a state of normalcy. Over 100,000 persons, who were administered the first dose of the coronavirus vaccine in Sindh, have yet to visit the adult vaccination centres to receive the second jab, The Express Tribune reported on May 27.

Health officials suspect that rumours of side effects and general scepticism around the vaccine are keeping people from getting it. District officials of the health department have been directed to contact the absentee individuals and convince them to have the booster dose administered. Pakistan has administered 0.2 doses per 100 people, according to The New York Times global vaccine tracker.

This hesitancy applies to healthcare workers as well. Perhaps they are the most educated about the virus and the vaccine, and yet Gallup Pakistan and the Pakistan Islamic Medical Association conducted a survey in March this year, which showed that 81 percent of healthcare workers were willing to get a vaccine. 19 percent were not yet convinced about their efficacy.

Moreover, the Economic Vulnerability Assessment, a survey run by the Centre for Economic Research in Pakistan (CERP), asked whether people were willing to get the vaccine or not. It conducted two rounds of questions, one in September/October, when there was no vaccine on the horizon, and one in late December, shortly before Pakistan obtained the vaccine. Its findings showed that the number of people willing to get the vaccine dropped minutely, from 67 to 65.7 percent. The survey found that the number of people who were uncertain dropped from 20.7 to 4.6 percent, marking an increase in those who are electing not to get vaccinated. In simple terms, the willingness of 65 percent of the population to get the vaccine does not make it possible to obtain herd immunity. Moreover, those willing to get the vaccine estimated that at least 60 percent of the people they knew would be getting it as well.

All that being said, there appears to be a ray of hope in this poorly performed pandemic propaganda. Findings from a CERP study show that one-on-one engagement with local community leaders, such as imams in mosques, is likely to have positive spill-over effects on swaying the community’s behaviour and curtailing the spread of disease. Moreover, a survey conducted by Dawn found that some of those who had said no to the vaccine would be willing to change their mind. In their findings, 5 percent of people would change their answer to a yes if their favourite politician got the jab, and 9 percent would change to a yes if their favourite religious leader would take the vaccine.

As it stands, the media and political leaders of the country need to play their part in dispelling the safety concerns surrounding the vaccines. Perhaps more importantly, religious leaders and others need to use their voices to counter the claims of Jewish invasion, nano-tracking, de-Islamification and chemical warfare that plague this country as much as the virus itself. If not, we might be letting unsubstantiated claims lead to innocent deaths.

The writer is the author of a short stories anthology, Encounters, and a screenwriter for the film Parchayee

Reckless rhetoric and vaccine reluctance – II