Here’s an anecdote that will explain to the world how Pakistanis are fighting the coronavirus pandemic. On Tuesday, I met a coronavirus-enlightened Uber driver in Lahore. He was wearing a face mask, regularly using hand sanitiser, encouraging his passengers to also do the same. He made rather compelling points on why people should stay home and how social distancing is the key to not catching the virus. At the end of the ride, he asked me which is the closest mosque where he could offer his Friday prayers?
Social distancing in Pakistan is good but when it comes to coronavirus jo Allah ki marzi.
Pakistan waiting for Godot
Like the rest of the world, coronavirus outbreak is a real crisis for Pakistan. Yet our current state is like that of Vladimir and Estragon from Samuel Beckett’s tragicomedy Waiting For Godot. We are waiting for the arrival of someone named Godot who might never arrive, or guess what, he might not even exist. But we are waiting for you Godot to help us.
As we wait for Godot, an unending and rather useless debate on lockdown and curfew continues in Pakistan. What is a lockdown and what is a curfew? Can a poor country like Pakistan afford a curfew? But with hundreds and thousands of lives at stake, can the government afford inaction? One set of governments, Sindh, Balochistan, and Gilgit-Baltistan follow a strict lockdown. While Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa along with Islamabad are following a token lockdown.
In the middle of this chaos, there is no respite for Pakistan from the spread of Coronavirus. More than 1,000 people have now tested Covid-19 positive and the suspected cases now stand at 7,736. The country has also reported eight deaths.
The closure of markets, shopping malls, restaurants and public transport is one step to break the chain of the virus but the continuing Jummah congregational prayers in mosques doesn’t help the cause. The churches and temples in Punjab and Sindh were voluntarily closed by the Hindu and Christian community leaders after an increase in Covid-19 cases. The government, fearing backlash, has not been able to ban people praying in mosques.
Pakistan never stops praying
The annual Tablighi Jamaat gathering brought 250,000 people from across 90 countries in Raiwind, a Lahore suburb, continued for a few days before it was called off. The result was that two men from Gaza were infected with coronavirus when they returned from Pakistan.
Twelve other participants of this Jamaat, from suburbs of Islamabad, have been found to be infected. Four others were found positive in Sindh. One Kyrgyzstan preacher of the Jammat was diagnosed in an Islamabad mosque, his 13 companions were quarantined and the mosque was locked down and disinfected. However, none of this has stopped the Tablighis from gathering, in Mardan, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, where hundreds of participants defied the law and continued to preach and pray.
One of the prominent leaders of the Tablighi Jamaat, Maulana Tariq Jameel, a close ally of Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan, could have been instrumental in stopping the main ijitima in Raiwind. After all, he is used to encouraging people to not shake hands and saying emotional prayers for PM Khan on national television. But sadly, a decree from the Maulana to influence his followers wasn’t something that government thought of.
The doubts that Pakistan’s first coronavirus victim, from Mardan may have exposed thousands of people to the disease is now becoming a reality. As many as 39 people who were in touch with the 50-year-old Saadat Khan have now tested positive. He had returned from a pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia and was welcomed by 2,000 people in his village, ten days later he tested positive and died. His relatives say that he was sick when he arrived but was not screened at the airport. Failure to screen people at the airports has been the biggest blunder of this government.
Where the President’s call goes in vain
Last Friday, despite a call from President of Pakistan Arif Alvi, encouraging people to offer Friday prayers at home, the Faisal mosque in Islamabad was flooded with people. This Friday won’t be any different. As Ruet-e-Halal Committee chairman Mufti Muneeb-ur-Rehman announced that despite the coronavirus outbreak, the mosques will remain open for worship. He called coronavirus a warning from Allah for reformation.
President Alvi is back with another request, asking Ulema to stop congregational prayers in mosques. Why should a President make such requests when he, through his government, has the power to stop these prayers in public interest?
There is a belief at the mass level that not praying in a mosque is akin to leaving Allah. There is a strong resistance to even the advisory against avoiding handshakes, with believers saying that it is a Sunnah (tradition). To those who advise them against visiting mosques the ‘believers’ pose this question: what else are you willing to leave just to save your life?
That’s not all. At PIMS hospital in Islamabad, two Covid-19 patients, who went missing for a couple of hours, returned after offering Friday prayers at a nearby mosque. Even closing down mosques is not proving effective. Now, how does one explain people in Karachi, gathering in large numbers, to pray outside a closed mosque in a lockdown?
You cannot blame the people for having stringent beliefs, when Pakistan as a State over the years has overly relied on religion, giving the people a false sense that only they are the true contractors of Islam. This inculcation of Holier than thou attitude has led Pakistan to a point where you have a population that is resistant to change or scientific reasoning. The argument that Saudi Arabia, Malaysia, Iran or Indonesia have all closed down mosques falls on deaf ears.
We hit a dead end when we reason that coronavirus has no religion, it will impact you and others regardless of your colour, religion or creed.
The need is to break the chain of stupidity. And the only way forward for the Pakistan government is to strictly close down mosques and stop people from ba-jamaat prayers and congregational religious activities, if at all it wants to deal with the storm that is coming Pakistan’s way.
The author is a freelance journalist from Pakistan. Her Twitter handle is @nailainayat. Views are personal.