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Map of Pakistan

Located at the junction of Central Asia and the Middle East, the Islamic Republic of Pakistan borders India in the East, China in the Northeast, and Afghanistan and Iran in the West.[1] The country is currently the world's fifth-most populous nation with approximately 220,892,340[2] people spread out over the provinces of Balochistan, Kyber Pakhtunkhwa, Punjab and Sindh.[3]

Pakistan has been significantly affected by the COVID-19 virus outbreak. Despite reports of up to 290,445 cases of infection, and 6,201 deaths as of August 19, 2020,[4] Prime Minister Imran Khan refused to place the country on complete lockdown to protect the millions of Pakistanis who were living in poverty.[5] This exposes the unique socioeconomic and cultural barriers the country's residents have to faced. Pakistanis have been impacted by the pandemic in all aspects of daily life, as observed in the widespread effects on the educational system, social media landscape, religious communities, as well as the state of healthcare.

COVID-19 Effects on Pakistan's Education System

Three children watching English classes on the Pakistan Teleschool program (Captured by Sarah Caron for The Washington Post)

In Pakistan, the COVID-19 pandemic has shed light on many issues surrounding the country’s education system. Pakistan has one of the lowest literacy rates globally, ranging between 48 percent and 54 percent. [6] On top of that, the country has approximately 44 percent of children aged 5 to 16 that are out of school. [7] Economically, almost a quarter of Pakistan’s population live below the national poverty line with 31 percent in rural areas and 13 percent in urban areas. [8] These figures demonstrate the urgency for the Pakistani government to develop a plan to modernize its education policies.

First Ever Teleschool

In response to the closure of educational institutions, Prime Minister Imran Khan inaugurated a national broadcast education channel called Teleschool. Teleschool is a collaborative project between Pakistan Television (PTV) and the Ministry for Federal Education and Professional Training. The program is aired daily from 8am to 6pm with a slot allocation of an hour for each grade starting from primary to high school. Teleschool received lots of praises as PM Khan claims that this program will help government reach “remote areas, which didn’t have access to education facilities and infrastructure”.[9] This will help improve in rates of adult literacy and out-of-school children. Amidst the pandemic, Teleschool is an appropriate temporary solution to compensate for the loss in students’ academic process. However, studies have found that Pakistan’s education system suffers various problems such as lack of governmental funding, lack of teachers training institutes, lack of resources and an outdated and gender-biased curriculum.[10] Thus, this begs the question of the effectiveness of Teleschool as the program does not address the existing issues in the system.

1947 Partition

Historically, Pakistan has been struggling with its national education development policies. As we learn from Vox’s How This Border Transformed a Subcontinent, a variety of religions coexisted in the subcontinent of India prior to the 1947 Partition of India. The ending of British colonial rule over India resulted in the Radcliffe Line. British lawyer Cyril Radcliffe bundled together districts with a Muslim majority to become the Islamic Republic of Pakistan and majority Hindus/Sikhs districts to form the Republic of India.[11] Consequently, this separation led to mass exodus of Hindus leaving Pakistan which left many vacancies in the fields of economic, commerce, and education. Thus, began Pakistan’s struggles with its educational system. The independence in 1947 resulted in a nationalist foundation of educational planning in both India and Pakistan. From 1977 to 1988, under the military regime of Zia-ul-Haq, there was a dramatic increase in the influence of conservative Islamic values in the education system. The General’s education policy stated that:

“The highest priority would be given to the revision of the curricula with a view to reorganizing the entire content around Islamic thought and giving education an ideological orientation so that Islamic ideology permeates the thinking of the younger generation, and helps them with the necessary conviction and ability to refashion society according to Islamic tenets.”[6]

Since this period, government schools have been criticized for using textbooks that endorse religious indoctrination and exclude religious minorities in Pakistan. Along with, promoting negative perceptions of Hindu India and unfair views of the role of women. Thus, many scholars have criticized the outdated curriculum for it “does not meet the demands of the current times".[10] This traditional curriculum is used to develop the Teleschool online content as confirmed by Joint Secretary (Education) Syed Umair Javed.[9] This means that for that one hour, students are expected to just sit, watch and memorize the information presented on the channel which is outdated.  

Gender Disparities & Illiteracy

Additionally, gender disparities play into the vicious cycle of illiteracy and low economic growth. Pakistani women suffer from illiteracy because “gender is an organizing principle in Pakistan society”.[6] There is a persistent societal belief that women belong in the private sphere and their only duty is to become housewives. This argument is used to justify why girls’ education is needless. In the past couple of years, there has been a lot of efforts towards gender equality in Pakistan. However, as Narayan discuss in her article, Third World feminists struggle with the criticism that their “perspectives are suspiciously tainted and problematic because of (their) Westernization”.[12] As a result, women in heavily conservative countries such as Pakistan struggle to have their voices heard. This makes it difficult for women to obtain education opportunities which results in a vicious cycle of familial illiteracy as “illiterate women are unable to educate their children of either gender”.[6] Low literacy leads to a decrease in the workforce participation and productivity which effectively inhibits economic growth.

When analyzing the effects of COVID-19 in Pakistan, studying the country’s education system is essential as low literacy rate and a general lack of awareness lead to the population downplaying the seriousness of the pandemic. This lack of urgency as a result of illiteracy is exemplified through Hong’s experience with the “annual coat of smog” in Lahore.[13] Hong tells how the smog is so thick that one can only hear overhead airplanes. She explains that there are air quality monitors that “measure, convert, and translate the air into knowable standards to “help inform health-related decision””.[13] The data collected is translated into an Air Quality Index (AQI) value which is then posted on Twitter hourly. The data is also utilized by air quality information apps such as AirVisual. However, Hong finds that the information alone does not provide impactful understanding about the air or its health impacts. As a result, many people choose to ignore the information because they do not understand what the AQI value mean. This ignorance of environmental and health issues correlates with attitudes towards COVID-19 masks and social distancing precautions which all stem from illiteracy and a lack of understanding of the current situation.

Actions Needed

Numerous studies have proved that universal education is necessary to improve labour force participation and productivity which in turns leads to economic growth. Thus, considering Pakistan currently have the largest young population in the world with up to 64 percent being younger than 30,[14] investing in educating the young workforce is necessary for Pakistan to overcome the looming post-pandemic poverty. Overall, the Teleschool program is good as it helps the government reach far away communities. However, the Pakistani government need to seriously revise its curriculum and invest in the education sector to effectively address the country’s illiteracy issues.

The Role of COVID-19 in Religious Nation-Building in Pakistan

The COVID-19 pandemic is sparking further religious tensions in Pakistan as, rather than uniting the country, the virus’ economic and political impacts are inflaming sectarian conflict. Religious charity groups and the state itself in the Sunni-dominated country are refusing critical aid to religious minorities, unless they convert to Sunni Islam. Economic pressures, made significantly worse by the advent of the pandemic and subsequent quarantine, compel many Hindus and other religious minorities to convert to Islam of their own volition, in order to secure this aid. Meanwhile, xenophobic fears of the “Shia Virus” have inspired discriminatory action against Hazara Shias in Balochistan, such as disproportionate quarantine beyond what is warranted by the actual spread of the virus. These events can be seen through the lens of Pakistani “nation-building,” i.e. the attempt on the part of the Pakistani state to construct a religiously homogeneous Muslim nation, suppressing the reality of diverse and shifting cultures and faiths.

COVID-19 & Religion

Throughout the course of the pandemic, the priorities of powerful religious actors have hampered efforts to combat the spread of the COVID-19 virus. In late March the Pakistani government held meetings with both Sunni and Shia clerics, asking them to close mosques throughout the country in order to contain the Coronavirus. This request was largely refused. [15] Also in March, the federal government permitted Shia pilgrims in Iran to return to Pakistan through Balochistan province, an act which allowed for the virus to spread and provoked sectarian backlash towards the Shia minority.[15] Later, in May, provinces throughout the country lifted their lock downs in anticipation of the Muslim festival of Eid al-Fitr, despite the continuing spread of the COVID-19 virus.[15]

Meanwhile, the pressures of a “virus-ravaged economy” and the incentives of different charitable Muslim groups are compelling many Hindus and other religious minorities to convert to Islam.[16] This is not a new phenomenon in Pakistan, as religious minorities are vulnerable to violence and are essentially treated as second-class citizens in “all walks of life.” The incentives to convert are numerous. The recent increase in conversions, however, is likely due to the economic crisis that the COVID-19 pandemic has inflicted upon Pakistan, and its enormous threat to the already poor and marginalized communities under discussion. These economic troubles may spark an increase in sectarian violence against religious minorities, which are likely to further increase the attractiveness of converting into the majority.[16]

The Pakistani state and various religious groups are actively encouraging this dynamic of hardship and fear of violence encouraging the conversion to Islam. Many incidents have already been recorded of religious discrimination in connection to the COVID-19 pandemic and the government’s response. On March 28th, in the Lyari district of the city of Karachi, the charity group Saylani Welfare Trust distributed ration bags to inhabitants of the city, but denied these bags to Hindu community members. Saylani Welfare Trust denied the incident and attempted to manipulate social media discussion regarding the event.[17] In another incident also involving Saylani Welfare Trust, Christians were denied rations when the local cleric in charge of distribution told his workers to only give the rations to Muslims. Similar incidents occurred elsewhere, with the common pattern of private charity organizations giving aid only to Muslims and those who recite the Kalima, essentially converting to Islam.[17] By July 24th, International Christian Concern documented “at least 12 incidents in which Christians were denied food aid distributed in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.”[17]


It is clear that where pre-existing tensions lie, a crisis such as the COVID-19 pandemic can spark further division and conflict. However, it should not be thought that the incidents of religious conflict and discrimination described above are merely a natural side effect of the viral pandemic and quarantine. One should examine these events through the framework of states, organizations, and individuals with agency, attempting to actively use the pressures of the pandemic to enforce their own nationalist agenda. Put simply, the state of Pakistan and various similarly aligned organizations may be using the pandemic to further the construction of a homogeneous, nationalist Muslim state.

To analyze Pakistan and the COVID-19 pandemic through this framework, look to the concept of “nation-making” described by Mines & Lamb in Everyday Life in South Asia. The nation is an “imagined community” based upon the notion that people who share language, religion, or culture belong together. This sense of belonging and its component parts do not passively arise, but are instead actively constructed by those with the influence to do so: the state, influential organizations such as churches & temples, etc.[18] This is not merely an esoteric concept. The process of crafting a national identity is one with serious impacts on the daily lives of the people within the nation. With regards to Pakistan, it can often involve serious harm to citizens, as the state and other actors attempt to enforce an orthodox Muslim faith on religious minorities as part of its national vision.

The prevalence of Islam in the constructed national identity of Pakistan has of course been there since the beginning, as the state was initially conceptualized as a place for the Muslim population of British India. Its role in the ongoing construction of the Pakistani nation has only increased since then. Pakistan’s 1956 constitution declared it an “Islamic Republic,” while still enshrining minority religious rights, before that constitution was “abrogated by military rule” in 1958. In 1973, Islam was made the state religion, and in 1977 Islamic Law was instituted throughout the country.[19]

Today, it is clear that the political leadership of Pakistan is still intent on strengthening its own distinct national identity. As we see in Vox’s “How This Border Transformed a Subcontinent,” the leaders of both Pakistan and India are interested in continuing the division and conflict between their two nations. This includes elaborate rituals and marches at their mutual border.[11] Such division also exists within Pakistan, and it is not a stretch to say that it is also in the interest of Pakistani leadership to maintain the religious tensions within Pakistani society. Such conflict allows the state to more liberally impose its will on minorities without protest from the populace at large.

Persecution of Non-Shia Religious Minorities

Throughout Covid-19, Pakistan has experienced increased discrimination and targeting of religious minorities as deeply ingrained prejudices emerge at the forefront of pandemic relief. In recent years, there has been a surge of religiously-oriented hate crimes, including forced conversions, illegal acquisition of property, and desecration of non-Muslim sites of worship. While the right to religious freedom is included in the constitution of Pakistan, it is subjected to restrictions based upon "law, public order and morality", and is therefore far from absolute,[20] demonstrating the negative impact the legacy of Partition and the process of nation-building has had on the level of tolerance Pakistanis are able to direct towards their interfaith communities. [21] While it is important to note that these discriminatory events outlined below aren't necessarily commonplace across the country, and positive interfaith relationships do exist, they also demonstrate the reality that some individuals are unable to control their inner prejudice against the religious "other", even in a time of crisis. The ability of Coronavirus to heighten sociocultural inequalities and increase discrimination against marginalized groups is not simply a Pakistani problem,[22] however, and must be considered within a larger trend that is being seen across the global arena.

Access to Food Rations

Across Pakistan, reports have emerged of non-Muslims being denied access to food rations on the basis of their religion, particularly by Saylani Welfare Trust (SWT), an officially interfaith organization that is often the first point of contact for people who are struggling during the pandemic. On March 28 in Lyari, members of the Hindu community were turned away after ground workers saw their CNICs, a universal identity card carried by most Pakistani adults. Christians in Karachi's Korangi area have also been refused food by the same organization, and in a video posted online, a Christian women detailed her experience being denied food until she and other Christians had recited the kalima, the declaration of Islamic faith. In Lahore, at one of the food distribution centres, a temporary notice was posted, stating that non-Muslims should refrain from seeking to receive food rations there.[23]

Pakistan is particularly complicated when it comes to organizations providing interfaith assistance, as many private foundations, trusts and welfare-based groups are conducting relief response using funds gathered from zakat, the charitable donation that is a pillar of Islam. In many people's eyes, including influential clerics, as the money comes from Muslims, only Muslims are entitled to receive it. A pattern of religious figures enforcing their own prejudiced views and influencing grassroots workers in organizations such as SWT has emerged, with clerics instructing people on the ground to refrain from providing relief to non-Muslim individuals.[23]

Role of Social Media

Despite SWT's historically inclusive nature, it failed to enact an inquest into the incidents reported or sympathize with the victims who had been turned away by frontline workers who were operating counter to the stated mandate of the organization. Instead, it relied heavily on the power of social media to save face. Reaching out to a prominent Hindu activist to post pro-SWT content, the organization also filmed and posted videos of themselves distributing ration bags to the Hindu community.[23]

Social media itself has played a large role in highlighting the discrimination that is occurring across Pakistan. Twitter has proved to be a breeding ground for hatred, with a hashtag that translates to "religious obligation to reject Ahmadiyya belief" trending at the start on April 13, directly targeting the religious community and calling their faith heretic.[23]

Additional Challenges

Pakistani Christian Protests

Hindus and Pakistani Christians are both subjected to additional hurdles during Covid. At a time when being at home is necessarily to comply with social distancing efforts, reports of Hindu houses in the Punjab region being destroyed have surfaced.[20] Pakistani Christians, comprising only 2% of the population and yet being 75-80% of all sanitation workers, have been on the frontlines of the fight against Covid-19, often without the protective gear that has been deemed essential by health experts. Christians stationed in quarantine camps are at particular risk, as they often do far more than their required work, bringing food and necessities to people there due to the reluctance of doctors and other workers to get too close to those who are possibly infected. Not only are they routinely exposed to hazardous conditions, but they are subsequently kept away from their families, often receiving little recognition and experiencing wage delays. Despite Pakistan’s positionally as a Muslim state, part of the discrimination experienced by Christians harkens back to before Partition, when many converts to Christianity came from the Dalit caste, and were therefore seen as existing outside society. Sent to do the dirty, dangerous work in hospitals and camps that the others won’t do, even Christian lab techs, nurses and other healthcare workers are often not provided with the adequate tools they need to protect themselves from the virus when on the job.[24]

Government Actions

The government in Pakistan must account for minority concerns in their reactions to Covid-19, for both legitimacy and policy viability reasons. After facing continuous backlash from human rights organizations, there have been some increased efforts to remedy the situation, including the May establishment of the National Minority Commission. However, the commission has been called a half-hearted effort for failing to be established through parliamentary legislation, instead being created through a cabinet decision that deprives it of any power to enforce its edicts. Additionally, the Ahmadiyya community, arguably the most discriminated against minority, has been denied a voice in the commission further casting doubt over the legitimacy and lending credence to the perception that the government is simply posturing in its efforts.[20] The government further needs to take proactive steps to address the conflicts that have arisen between interfaith and faith-based organizations and improve their own avenues of assistance instead of relying heavily on biased NGOs. It is often seen in the non-profit domain that the mandates of some organizations struggle to fit into the desires of their donors, something that can be witnessed in Pakistan through zakat funded initiatives. The government in this case, similar to actions taken during other disasters across South Asia, has failed to take the lead and has instead allowed organizations with conflicting mandates to operate without oversight,[25]creating problems for non-Muslim Pakistanis. As the continuing trend of discrimination continues to spread across the nation, it appears as though it will only become further entrenched within the fabric of society, with targeting and cursing minorities becoming more important than contemplating the devastation Pakistan is experiencing from the virus.[20]

Social Media & Group Dynamics during COVID-19

The fight against COVID-19 in Pakistan has been met with some difficult challenges. Rumours and misinformation have been spreading by social media platforms, in which individuals advocate for numerous “bogus remedies, tales of magic cures and potentially hazardous medical advice”.[26] Families of loved ones who show symptoms of the coronavirus urge them not to seek medical help, on the basis of claims that “doctors are being paid by the World Health Organization (WHO) to falsely declare patients as coronavirus sufferers".[27] Siddhart Sehgal, a man living in India, said that his family “usually believes whatever they get on WhatsApp regarding the virus”.[26] While the consequences of such rumours could bring about catastrophic results for Pakistan, these conspiracy theories are menacingly similar to the ones that resulted in the spread of polio through Pakistan in 2019: “false rumours spread on social media saying the [polio] vaccine had triggered fainting spells— or even that it had killed dozens of children— and many families locked their doors to vaccinators or hid their children”.[28]

The popularity of such theories and rumours during times of unrest can be better understood only by recognizing the mechanisms of groupthink, and the nature of group dynamics within a community. The groupthink phenomenon has been defined as a “concurrence-seeking” mode of thinking that people engage in when they are involved in an in-group, which “interferes with adequate consideration of decision alternatives”, and which oftentimes (but not always) leads to poor decisions.[29] This, along with the a posteriori quality of a community’s shared cultural features, such as its ideology or religion, may show that most of the attributes that structure a society have been developed as a result of groupthink.[30] Therefore, the notions of caste, class, gender, etc. are culturally relative concepts that would not exist outside of their respective cultural contexts, meaning that these shared beliefs are learned (in the same way that rumours are learned).

In Louis Dumont’s book Homo Hierarchicus: The Caste System and Its Implications, the consequences of groupthink can be seen in the naturalization of Brahmin social power, and in the general acceptance of the caste system and its hierarchies. Dumont explains that caste hierarchy should be perceived “as purely a matter of religious values”.[31] Thus, the notions of high and low castes are socially constructed, and the fact that caste is still practiced in many South Asian communities hints to the collective but implicit decision made by group consensus to continue to practice such social hierarchies. Similarly, in her article “Anjali’s Alliance: Class Mobility in Urban India”, Sara Dickey argues that while one’s class can be determined by economic sources, it can also be determined from symbolic features, “from such cultural and social ‘capital’ as education, consumption habits, fashion and ways of speaking”.[32] In this particular community, Dickey argues, one’s class is not only based on their material assets, but it is also based on symbolic and culturally assigned notions of class. These examples from Dumont and Dickey illustrate the power and influence of groupthink, as these agreed upon cultural features were constructed by the community as a whole.

The WhatsApp helpline launched by the government of Pakistan to provide information to users about COVID-19.

The social media use of the internet age has become a breeding ground for rumours and misinformation during emergencies such as COVID-19, and its relevance to the groupthink phenomenon may illuminate the processes that generate discrimination against oppressed groups. Veena Das’ work “Official Narratives, Rumour, and the Social Production of Hate” makes the relevant observation that rumours are “conceived to spread”.[33] These images of contagion and infection that represent rumours also speak to the “transformation of language”, such that “instead of being a medium of communication, language becomes communicable, infectious”.[33] As such, the infectious nature of ideas and rumours about marginalised social groups may have further exacerbated the prejudice against them. Das’ claim that ideas can be ‘infectious’ comes at a time when the concept of "untouchability" still runs rampant throughout South Asia, including parts of Pakistan. Interestingly, the treatment towards members of lower castes is akin to how one would treat an individual who is afflicted with a contagious disease. Even though caste discrimination in Pakistan is widely believed to be nonexistent, discrimination against “chuhras”, or the "untouchable" Hindu caste that converted to Christianity, still persists.[34] Children are taught at a young age that the low castes are impure, and that to come in close contact with anything a chuhra has touched would mean to become polluted. Higher castes also segregate themselves from lower castes, and even drink from different water taps, for fear of pollution. The naturalisation of these caste differences is also a consequence of groupthink, as the community must have accepted these social groups as ‘normal’. Not only this, but the fatalities that resulted from the mistrust of healthcare workers in Pakistan and the 700 Iranians who lost their lives while ingesting methanol after “fake [COVID-19] remedies spread across social media” further demonstrates the damaging power of groupthink.[35]

To counteract the spread of misinformation during the pandemic, several countries have been taking action. Countries such as Singapore, China and South Korea have been enforcing criminal prosecutions related to the COVID-19 ‘infodemic’, which is “just as dangerous as the virus itself”, according to the WHO.[36] In Québec, fact-checking services such as the Rumour Detector are available to the public.[36] The WHO uses its existing network called EPI-WIN to track down misinformation in several languages, and also asks technology giants to “filter out false news and promote information from credible sources”.[36] Social media platforms such as Twitter have been checking accounts that are credible sources of information about COVID-19 and monitoring conversations to ensure that the keywords searched for on the virus provide access to reliable information.[36] The WHO has also launched a health alert on WhatsApp and a chatbot on Facebook Messenger to provide accurate information about the virus.[36] Sylvie Briand, Director of Infectious Hazards Management at WHO’s Health Emergencies Program acknowledged the spread of misinformation and rumours during outbreaks, but said that “with social media... this phenomenon is amplified, it goes faster and further, like the viruses that travel with people”.[37] According to Briand, fighting the spread of COVID-19 is half of the job, while the rest is “making sure people are informed to act appropriately” [37].

Medical Anthropology of Pakistan's Pandemic Response

Pakistan faces many hurdles in dealing with COVID-19. Some hurdles are shared with every other country in the world, some are shared with similar regions (for example, other parts of South Asia), and some are entirely unique to Pakistan.  One of these challenges is the contrast between public performative support and the lack of actual resources they receive.  This pattern is present everywhere in the world, but in Pakistan there have been some particularly dramatic examples involving police brutality against protesting doctors.  Another issue that is more specific Pakistan, healthcare workers there have faced attacks from ordinary citizens as well as the police, a pattern of behavior driven by a number of factors.  Among these factors the principle one is public distrust in authority, which stems both from the extra-rational belief patterns described by A.K. Ramanujan [38] and demonstrated in the case of Chandni bibi by Omer Aijazi,[39] and from the historical ramifications of colonialism, described by Inayat Ali[40].

Resources and support made available to healthcare workers

Like elsewhere in the world, experts, doctors, nurses, and other healthcare workers in Pakistan faced a public practical / emotional dichotomy, in which the prominent public display of praise and adulation they received was not matched by an equal measure of practical support; namely physical resources and cooperation from the public.

Early in the pandemic, the government and media loudly proclaimed their support for health care workers. They were to be paid bonus wages, and it was declared that health care workers who perished as a result of the pandemic would get the benefits normally reserved for the families of martyrs. [41] Healthcare workers were the subjects of public adulation to the extent that there were police parades for them and honour guards[42] stationed at hospitals as a symbol of respect and support.

However, just weeks later, when there were shortages of equipment, doctors requested additional protective equipment, given their high risk of infection and transmission. When the healthcare workers held a public protest demanding safety equipment, the same police who had paraded in their honour violently assaulted the healthcare workers.[43] Like in other parts of the world there was a gap between what was being performed, and what was being done, but in Pakistan the distinction was dramatically, violently apparent.

Assaults and violence against healthcare workers

In addition to the government’s failure to follow through on the promises of support implied by their public adulation of healthcare workers, so too did Pakistan's citizenry renege.

In multiple instances when hospitals followed standard operating procedures for coronavirus fatalities, which did not allow for the release of the body to the family, as that would be an infection risk, the victims' families, grief-stricken by the suddenness of the deaths of their loved ones and generally distrustful of government medical officers,[40] attacked hospitals and hospital workers. In some instances, the victims’ families accused hospital staff of lying about coronavirus cases in order to secure additional funding.[44][45] In many other countries, officials were accused of underreporting coronavirus deaths, but in Pakistan it seems to have gone the other way.

This happened so frequently that the government passed an ordinance imposing additional fines and penalties against those who assaulted healthcare workers or attacked hospitals, but the same bill mandated hospitals share more treatment details with patients and their relatives, which indicates that peoples’ concerns weren’t entirely without basis, and that hospitals had been operating with too aloof an attitude, and perhaps that the official procedures were too callous for the scenario.[46] Nonetheless, the violence and anger with which people reacted to coronavirus deaths was remarkable. Nusrat Chowdhury explains that prior to the study of epidemiology, the concept of contagion referred to social contagion; in which ideas and emotions were transmitted among people.[47] This concept might explain the prevalence of mob violence and paranoia in the coronavirus age, ideas and feelings, particularly negative and wrong ones, travel quickly in climates of heightened fear, a view shared by other authors.[40]

Public trust in science of healthcare

Aside from these rare violent incidents, Pakistan is facing the same pandemic-fatigue problem as the rest of the world. With increasing regularity, declaring the pandemic to be a hoax or to be over, Pakistani citizens are neglecting to wear their masks and to follow social distancing protocols.[48] The former reason, that people believe it to be a hoax, is particularly worrying in Pakistan's case given the public's distrust of healthcare.

There is a longstanding distrust of healthcare in Pakistan. Inayat Ali explains that this is attributable to a number of factors, including the historical inaccessibility of healthcare, and the legacy of government programs such as healthcare being administered against the interests of the people by agents of colonialism. According to Ali, during the year 2011 and subsequent years there was a persistent rumour that the Pakistani government's polio vaccination program had been a CIA plot to search the country for Osama Bin Laden.[40] The latter has left in Pakistan a resistance to medical explanations of health phenomenon, such as in the case of Chandni bibi, a woman who claims against medical logic to have been blinded by the 2005 earthquake in her region. Omer Aijazi, who interviewed Chandni bibi, states that there is an element in her insistence of resisting external control of her life and her narrative.[39] A.K. Ramanujan explains the propensity of South Asian people to hold both rational and irrational ideas, and also ties that tendency to a historical capacity to resist colonialism.[38] In Pakistan, many people have historically refused to allow their children to be vaccinated because of belief in disinformation, believing it to cause their children to become infertile or transgender, asking if the vaccine is halal or haram, or if the vaccine is manufactured in India, as part of a secret plan by India to render Pakistanis infertile, so that they could depopulate Pakistan and take it over.[49]

The Exacerbation of Gender Inequality Amidst COVID-19

Gender equality in Pakistan has seen great triumphs over the past few decades as feminism has paved the way for new ideology to be introduced and accepted by many in regards to policy and legal frameworks. Although women in Pakistan do face backlash for their ‘untraditional’ views and wishes for greater representation, support and services [50], many legal frameworks and ideologies are slowly becoming more imbedded in societal norms within Pakistani modern culture. These triumphs, however, do not mask deep-seated gender inequalities and it is clear that there is a lot more work to be done. Women are still not able to leave their home freely without public scrutiny in many regions [11] or be alone with a man whom is not family [11], are disproportionately affected by low income security [38], lack the same educational resources as men [39] and are still massively impacted by Gender-Based Violence (GBV) in their homes. It is clear that although women have been able to deviate from previous restrictions based on gender, many adversities are still present.

Impact on Gender Roles

Substantial empirical evidence produced by the United Nations (UN) agencies, the National Disaster Management Authority and civil society organizations (CSOs) highlight the disproportionate suffering of marginalized groups amidst various humanitarian crises due to inequality on the basis of gender in Pakistan [51]. This underscores the importance of incorporating a gender analysis into response measures and disaster preparations as these crises affect men and women very differently, with women often losing access to vital resources they have worked hard to earn over the course of decades [51]. Women in Pakistan are expected to be the primary caregiver of the household [52], forcing women out of their jobs and back into a care-taking role in which they are exposed to sick family members and must take on extra duties, keeping them from seeking financial security for themselves and their families [52]. As their household duties increase, women in Pakistan will feel serious impediments towards their efforts of empowerment [52]. It is clear that a gender-sensitive response to COVID-19 in Pakistan is at this time missing [39]. Many nuances regarding shifts in education as schools have closed, have failed to acknowledge the inability of Pakistani women to provide education for their children on their own as many are illiterate, don’t have computers in their homes, and aren’t able to have access to a smartphone [39]. This underscores a potential ripple effect beginning from the lack of appropriate response measures regarding present gender inequalities that will effect not only Pakistani children’s education, but also their subsequent success following the detrimental effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on the financial situations of these Pakistani families as their children may be delayed in their schooling as a result. In addition, although there are government economic relief packages available [53], they are online, and as mentioned, women lack the ability to access these resources as gender norms predispose women in Pakistan from gaining both adequate education and technological resources.

Pakistan based Urdu and Punjabi language poetess Safia Hayat with her mother

Contribution of Lockdown Conditions to Gender-Based Violence (GBV)

Statistics such as those taken from the 2017-2018 Pakistan Demographic and Health Survey indicate that a large percentage of women in Pakistan have experienced Gender-Based Violence since a young age and this percentage increases with marriage [51]. This country is ranked 6th on the list of the world’s most dangerous countries for women [54]. On top of such statistics is also a norm of GBV in which 42% of women were found to agree that the beating of one’s wife by a husband is justified in at least one out of six specified situations [51]. The exacerbation of GBV as a result of the COVID-19 lockdowns is prevalent globally [51], and the normalization of GBV in Pakistan is yet another contributing factor to further domestic violence already prevalent. Although previous to the COVID-19 outbreak there were a number of services and helplines geared towards helping Pakistani women experiencing GBV, these services have since stopped, and most women’s shelters lack the infrastructure to take in new individuals amidst new safety protocols [52]. These services were already inadequate prior to the COVID-19 outbreak [52], with reports of women having to call a number of times in order to reach an operator [53], or resorting to leaving a voicemail in which no one responded to [53]. GBV is aggravated in Pakistan as women are forced out of their jobs and into traditional familial caregiving roles in which they aren’t as accustomed to, yet expected to take on now that they are unemployed. This has caused much tension within the Pakistani household, with one woman reporting being beaten by her husband when asking for money for sanitary napkins [54], a product that she would usually source for herself from used second-hand clothing when out of the home for work [54]. Government officials have reported a 25% increase in domestic violence cases totalling 3,217 cases between March and May for the eastern Punjab province alone [54]. Issues with this are that police in Pakistan are generally insensitive to GBV as they view it as a ‘private dispute’ [54], discouraging victim reports.

Pakistani Women as Members of the Informal Labour Market

Pakistani women have reached great heights in regards to economic success and financial independence, however analyses [52] indicate that women-owned micro-enterprises are 8% more likely to lose their entire revenue during the pandemic than men-owned counterparts [52]. Concerns have been raised about potential losses of these gains made by women, with many women working in the informal sector [54]. Over a quarter of Pakistani women have been fired or suspended from their jobs. With these women then taking on much or all of the household caregiving, their economic opportunities prior to the pandemic will be greatly effected. These women suffer from low-income security, which comes with a lack of access to safety nets and social protections during a crisis [38], this is layered on to analyses stating that women working in informal labour are additionally the most impacted by domestic violence during COVID-19 as many of these women are forced back into their abusive homes [54].

An Opportunity to Re-evaluate

At this time, women represent only 5.5% of the COVID-19 committee members in Pakistan [51]. It is imperative that this time in history be seen as a learning opportunity that illuminates potential gaps in many spheres affecting women in Pakistan. Drawing attention to the importance of the continuation of programs developed specifically to aid women in their healthcare, professions, and families is essential as it distinguishes these programs as essential services that must remain in operation regardless of societal circumstance. In conjunction with these measures it is also essential to reflect upon the root of many problems women are facing amidst the pandemic. These interventions and support systems will not work if women in Pakistan continue to be largely illiterate and without access to technology in which they can use as tools to aid their children and themselves in further education when resources for assistance are limited.

Conflicting Interests of State and Religious Leaders

In light of the exigent need for harsh restrictions or drastic modifications to day-to-day religious practices which the imminent threat of uncontrollable community viral spread has rendered necessary, the emerging display of conflicting state and Islamist agendas has intensified. As these tensions continue to shape the lived experience of individuals as the pandemic unfolds, thorough examinations into localized hegemons of religious devotion and their intersections with political manifestations of Islamist doctrines are required to understand the power struggle between Pakistan's government and ulema following unsuccessful attempts to implement state-issued public health mandates.

State of Religious Restrictions

Islamic congregational prayers performed in the rural setting of Sindh Provence in Pakistan

Owing to the unfeasibility of observing proper social distancing measures within mosques that refuse to operate at reduced capacities, non-compliant or unregulated religious congregations threaten to serve as powerful vectors of viral transmission. This unfortunate reality was revealed in the devastating aftermath of the religious gathering of the Tableeghi Jamat missionary organization outside Lahore, which, having ignored repeated warnings from the medical community, spawned in excess of 2,682 cases—the largest single group of those infected in the country's outbreak so far. [55] In response, state authorities enforced quarantine measures for upwards of 20,000 individuals who attended the event and limited mosque gatherings to no more than five people.[56] This provoked a strong, unified reaction from an alliance of religious leaders across the Pakistani Muslim sectarian spectrum.[55] As this powerful coalition of several leading ulema jointly-declared they were unilaterally reopening mosques for congregational prayers, in defiance of government lockdown orders,[55] negotiations were forced between the ulema and state authorities, who then capitulated to the former’s demands for eased restrictions and permitted mosques to remain operational in accordance with the state’s 20-point plan.[55] In addition to standard physical-distancing protocols,[56] these points included prescriptions such as discouraging socializing or physical interaction within the mosque, barring the entry of the sick and elderly, and providing hand sanitizer to congregants.[55][57] Despite this, some have noted the immense unlikelihood of successfully enforcing these restrictions across Pakistan’s thousands of mosques[57]: in observing congregational prayer services across six major mosques in Islamabad, Al Jazeera reported varying levels of compliance with safety directives, noting frequent examples where congregants numbering in the hundreds assembled shoulder-to-shoulder with no safety precautions or face-masks in sight.[55] Given the immense individual and societal health risks posed by their refusal to abide by proper safety measures, why might these Islamic practitioners remain steadfast in their devotion to religious customs?

Role of Religion During Crisis

To answer this question, one must integrate individual practices and embodiments of Islamic doctrines into broader considerations of the distinct cultural, social, and political milieus under which they arise to generate crucial insights on disaster survivors.[39] The extent to which these spiritual notions are significant amongst Pakistani peoples is grounded in the country’s founding on Muslim nationalism, which presupposes Islam and Muslim identity are crucial to the State and the wider society, and therefore, the conception of the collective self.[55] Forwarding this line of thinking, we can draw from Aijazi’s ethnographic accounts of Chandni bibi’s embodiment of survival in the face of natural disaster to understand how spirituality and investment in taking care of one’s heart can serve as important avenues for navigating the bleak uncertainties of the future[39]: for Chandni, spiritual sustenance takes the form of reflective contemplation and steadfast devotion to daily rituals of prayers (namaz) asking for safety and healing as a means of cultivating inner peace.[39]

Given the unprecedented magnitude of disruption similarly caused by the pandemic, survivors are forced to confront compounding traumas in the varied forms of high death tolls, large-scale displacement, dwindling resources, and the decimation of livelihoods along with major sectors of economy. In witnessing the resultant rupture of “confidence in the permanence and stability of the physical and social worlds”[39]—and the implicit protections they ostensibly provided—the significance of religious reassurance becomes self-evident. An example of this is seen in Chandni’s embodiment of Sabar, the commonly-touted Islamic spiritual practice of remaining steadfast and not relinquishing hope in the face of dire circumstances.[39] Meaning patience in Arabic, Sabar is the working of the heart and spirit commonly evoked in popular Islamic narratives detailing devotees who overcame countless trials and tribulations through their unwavering commitment to their political and spiritual beliefs.[39] The ulema’s current response can thus be interpreted as yet another iteration of this longstanding tradition.

Also relevant to the current issue is the fact that congregational prayers are a fundamental pillar of Islam, interpreted by many as a mandatory requirement.[58] Alluding to this point, Hanif Jallandhri, a Pakistani religious leader who leads a network of more than 20,000 mosques and religious schools, tells Al Jazeera: "Essential services have been reopened, and offering prayers as part of a congregation is also an essential service.”[55] Evidently, when ingrained societal values and mores are organized around the shared sense that religious participation is essential to societal wellbeing, it becomes almost impossible to argue that mosques should be closed.[55] Conversely, by crippling religious institution and mosques with draconian restrictions, while essential services like groceries and businesses continue to operate at only marginally reduced-capacities, authorities run the risk of implying that religious aspects of daily-living are less important. [55] Ultimately, this problem of religious versus worldly concerns is not one which can be easily resolved.

Interests of Islamic Ulema

Despite establishing genuine survivor needs for drawing upon spiritual traditions for strength and perseverance during times of crisis, other underlying motives for the ulema’s staunch opposition must be examined. For example, critics contend that their objections have less to do with theological injunctions and more to do with their fear of dwindling charitable contributions[56]: since local mosques are important revenue sources for religious officials, and that the majority of donations are dependent on high levels of foot traffic, collection methods necessitate large congregations of people.[55] Others instead argue that the ulema’s reactions stem from efforts to protect their realm of influence against state infringements on internal religious affairs.[56] As well, perceived religious authority can be seen as a sought-after tool for leveraging potent social and political capital within a hyper-competitive, freelance space[55] where hundreds and thousands of religious leaders representing different mosques all vie for the lofty status of being the truly authentic representation of Islam.[58] Willingly submitting to the state’s religious restrictions, then, constitutes a failure to enshrine the foundational pillar of congregational prayer in daily practice, which is to cede the symbolic value of Islamic faith to others.[58] In this interpretation, the ulema’s obligations to protect the health of their communities is grossly outweighed by the risk losing public support from their core constituency.[57]

Reasons for Government Inaction

Despite the ulema’s more questionable intentions, Khan’s government remains reluctant in overriding their authority to implement stricter measures. Given the central place that Islam has grown to occupy in Pakistani society and politics[57], this is to be expected. Considering how the state draws directly on Islamic authority for political leverage, and is thereby beholden to the interests of Islamic actors[58], immense political pressure is placed on the State to balance their pandemic efforts against the interests of religious groups. Furthermore, the harsh, yet-necessary imposition of unilateral religious restrictions poses a volatile risk for triggering large-scale instability in the form of street protests[58], for which there is a strong historical precedent[57]: “at best, this would undermine the very social distancing that mosque closures would be meant to enforce. At worst, there could be violence—and threats to the state—at a moment when the government is consumed with curbing the pandemic.”[57] Nevertheless, the Pakistani state must draw from the wealth of Islamic traditions—as have the governments of other predominantly-Muslim countries—to find alternative sources of Islamic authority to navigate pandemic responses and inspire crucial support for public-health directives.[58]

Ideological Conflicts with the Biomedical Perspective

In light of the conflicts between the theistic basis of Islamist political thinking and the secularized, scientific reasoning of the medical community[56], strategies for reconciling the sharp dichotomy of these ideological frameworks within a congruous philosophical approach must be emphasized. According to Amma, a Qur’anic spiritual healer who practices non-institutionally-based Islamic rituals, spiritual illnesses should only be countered by spiritual healing, just as purely physical illnesses can only be healed through allopathic treatments.[59] By refusing to subscribe to ideologically monolithic interpretations of overbearing and intrusive religious traditions, and instead identifying potential sites of ideological fluidity, flexibility, and innovation in accordance with relevant social, economic, and political contexts, Amma is able to resist attempts by religious authorities to arbitrarily cement select textual traditions—such as attending congregational prayers as opposed to individual adherence to namaz as in the current case—as non-negotiable behaviours and identity markers; which are justified using narrow scriptural interpretations demanding moral and spiritual perfection.[59]

This nuanced approach is needed to navigate the fragmented landscape upon which segments of secularized and Islamist subcultures are poorly equipped for resolving conflicts with meaningful crosscurrents or mutually-intelligible intellectual exchanges.[56] Apparently, then, self-reflective criticisms must germinate from within religious political discussions to prevent undue Islamizing influences from wreaking havoc on matters of public health, to the detriment of all. This can closely follow Marsden’s observations of Chitral Muslims, who regularly challenge the pronouncements of the region’s ulema, in their continued struggle to demonstrate the inherent value of generating independent ideas and standards related to significant matters arising from the unpredictability of the modern world.[60] In critically engaging with their own sense of individuality against the influences of religious authority, Chitral Muslims adeptly characterize the complexity and diversity of living a Muslim life; thus forwarding the strong possibility for finding real solutions to societal ills through employing emotionally sensitive thought processes to reject harmful, absolute forms of spiritual and behavioural conformity.[60]


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