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Stop Using Coronavirus Outbreak As An Excuse For Anti-Shia Bigotry

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Aabida Ali and Noreen Fatima discuss the anti-Shia sentiments being peddled by a section of social media amid the coronavirus outbreak. Scapegoating a persecuted religious minority group is unfair. The PTI government should be asked as to why quarantine facilities at the Taftan border were not up to the mark. 

The spread of coronavirus became well-known when the initial cases were detected in China, but some heads of the state continued to ignore the threat. US President Trump came under fire for his racist and xenophobic remarks where he termed the deadly disease a ‘Chinese virus’.

It is wrong to imply that the disease was a result of the habits or behaviours of a certain country or racial group. The virus affects people in a human to human contact, and has no link to a particular nationality, race, religion or sect.

Unfortunately, in Pakistan a segment of society and media have tried to target the pilgrims of the Shia community by blaming them for the spread of virus in the country and using that as an excuse to spew sectarian bigotry. This kind of narrative masks the reality of the nature of the spread of the pandemic and delays the response to contain it effectively.

By January, COVID-19 cases were reported beyond China in Australia, Malaysia, U.A.E, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Macau, U.S, Singapore, Vietnam, Nepal, India and Canada with more than 8000 cases and a death toll of 132.

By February the World Health Organisation had declared the COVID-19 as a global health emergency of international concern. By then, cases had also been reported in the U.K, Russia and Egypt and deaths reported in some other countries as well as a surge seen in Italy, Iran and South Korea.

By the 27th of February, the government of Pakistan had only suspended all flights from Iran since all concentration was on Iran and China while in reality the virus had already been reported in Europe and other countries around the globe. However, in Pakistan flights continued to land from other parts of the world.

Since the pandemic is global in nature, the spread in Pakistan too was through various channels. Arguably, not all returnees were checked properly at the airports since the first death of a coronavirus patient was a returning pilgrim in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa who showed symptoms after returning from Saudi Arabia. He attended a gathering in his honour which was attended by 2000 people, many of whom must have embraced him. Several attendees of that gathering were later tested positive for the virus.

The first case of coronavirus in Punjab was reported on March 15th, when a man who had arrived from the U.K on March 10th, tested positive. By the 16th of March, the husband of a woman who had recently returned from the U.S was diagnosed with COVID-19 in Islamabad.

Until the third week of March, congregational Friday prayers were being held across the country as the government had failed to convince clerics to issue a decree against mass prayers.

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The Prime Minister himself also vacillated on the decision of the country wide shut-down which only led to delay in curbing the movement of people which is essential to control the spread as demonstrated in the case of Wuhan.

In other parts of the country the virus also spread among the congregation of 150,000 members of the Tableeghi Jamaat in early March, where some attendees were tested positive upon reaching Islamabad. At least two Palestinians caught the virus and were tested positive once they reached Gaza.

All this time, instead of pressing the government for broader measures, the sections of the media were engaging in biased reporting of the spread of the virus from Taftan. However, the virus had already made inroads into the country from flights from Europe, US and then went to exponentially increase the number of cases in cities as there was no quarantine or follow up with passengers from other parts of the world.

Taftan, is a border town of Balochistan near Iran, and often the rest house there is used by pilgrims. Many of them who are poor and travel through roads for pilgrimage to Iran, found themselves caught unwittingly in a growing epidemic as the coronavirus spread indiscriminately across nations, races and borders.

The Balochistan government’s arrangements were insufficient at best and at worst harmful since they could further deteriorate the condition of travelers, particularly those who were heart patients or diabetic by exposing them to the virus in the squatter tent arrangements that they were kept in.

The conditions of Taftan ‘quarantine’ were squalid, with 5 people to each tent and no sanitizers, adequate toilet, washing or other facilities provided. The conditions were not even suitable for living, leave alone social distancing and meeting the basic requirements of quarantine.

The pilgrims had to endure two weeks of awful conditions which coupled with lack of proper testing facilities lead to spread of various diseases among those supposedly ‘quarantined’. How the health department could describe such arrangements as adequate is beyond comprehension.

The government of Balochistan knowing the number of Pakistani citizens across the border should have made adequate provisions as the health minister already knew about the nature of COVID-19 which the WHO had declared as a global health emergency by this time. This reflects the lack of state concern for its own citizens in the time of crisis.

During the two weeks of quarantine pilgrims kept posting videos from social media seeking help but our mainstream media was busy dealing with what they claim to be more “important issues”. Later, in the name of ethical reporting, media and the government put the blame on pilgrims, who could in no way have contained the contagion.

After two weeks of quarantine the pilgrims were tested negative and sent to their homes in Baluchistan and Sukkhur in Sindh. In Sukkhur, the pilgrims had to now endure a second period of quarantine where again the arrangements for medical help, food and basic provisions were inadequate.

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The recent episode reveals how the Taftan border has been neglected by the state despite hundreds of pilgrims crossing it on a monthly basis to visit holy places in Iran, and the constant threats of being attacked by terrorist groups.

It depicts the misplaced geopolitical priorities of the state which can invest money from our taxes on a flag lowering ceremony at Wagah Atari border on a daily basis while thousands of citizens on both sides of the border gather to cheer the soldiers who snort and stomp. A 45-minute-long parade to symbolize the rivalry between the two nuclear powers is a reminder that the lion’s share in budget is allocated to defense where as a paltry sum is kept for healthcare.

This nuclear armed state is unable to provide essential personal protective equipment (PPEs), basic quarantine facilities on the Taftan border, and virus testing kits even in the times of crises.

It also reveals our poor health infrastructure as Pakistan is among countries with lowest budgetary allocation on the health sector. Even now, some doctors and medical workers have not been paid and are being forced to work without essential equipment, compromising their safety.

This is not a surprise as the incumbent and all previous governments have failed to consider health as a basic human right. In the capital itself, there has been zero utilization of funds allocated for improvement of health facilities in the current budget.

The government of Pakistan is responsible for the welfare of all Pakistani citizens, and in emergency conditions it has a mandate to provide for the security, safety and well-being of its nationals regardless of their ethnic, linguistic, sectarian or religious background.

In the light of the novel nature of COVID-19, countries across the world have been grappling to contain the spread. With increased globalization, international travel, trade and movement of people it becomes challenging for the governments to take adequate and timely measures for control and yet those are the very actions that will be a matter of life and death for many.

This is particularly so for countries like Pakistan who have already failed to eliminate polio due to insufficient education, lack of investment in basic health and where concerns and policies related to public health featured more as an afterthought in the policies adopted by the government.l

Rather than scapegoating a particular community which has a history of being persecuted on basis of religious beliefs, otherwise one may be oblivious to the indiscriminate threat the virus poses to all humans. Humanitarian solidarity is the need of the hour.

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