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Saqlain Hassan
, researcher predoctoral of the project 'Public discourse' del Institute for Culture and Society

From the Pashtun warrior to the preacher, everyone needs good data

It is important to fight pandemic hoaxes, but in Pakistan, where the majority of the population is illiterate and does not believe the information from white people, you have to work twice as hard.

Fri, 15 May 2020 17:16:00 +0000 Published in Planeta Futuro (El País)

Pakistan, one of the most populous countries in the world at development , has so far recorded more than 34,000 confirmed cases of the new coronavirus, with more than 737 deaths. The most affected region is Punjab, with almost 12,000.

According to the media, the virus arrived in Pakistan from Iran through Shiite pilgrims (Islamic branch) who had traveled to Iran for a religious rite and, on their return, dispersed it throughout the different provinces of the country. Those who returned from Saudi Arabia after participating in the umrah (religious pilgrimage between Mecca and Medina) are also seen as responsible for the spread of the virus. The Islamic religious movement Tablighi Jamaat is also considered to be one of those responsible for the spread of the virus in the country, having held a mass event in Lahore (capital of the Pakistani region of Punjab).

To stop the spread of the virus to other regions, the government imposed a total lockdown in the country's main cities. Places of meeting such as schools, universities, religious centers, mosques and political venues have been closed down and access to them has been banned. However, the government not only has to deal with a deadly virus, but also with potentially dangerous ideas about the coronavirus condition.

Personally, I would differentiate four types of people with different ideas about the pandemic.

First there is the educated social class , who are aware of the risks and follow the measures recommended by the World Health Organization or local authorities. They prefer to stay at home to avoid contagion.

Then, we find the religious social class that believes that this coronavirus is a divine punishment. They consider that this pandemic will end as soon as we start praying and stop doing bad deeds. This group disregards the norms advised by the WHO and prefers to believe in divine mercy as the only solution.

Thirdly, there is a group of people who think that the virus does not exist and that it is the government itself that has created the panic in order to receive millions of dollars in aid from the WHO and international donors. They believe that, once the money arrives, the "supposed" coronavirus will disappear.

The four subject belong to the Pashtun ethnic group, originally from the border area between Pakistan and Afghanistan. The Pashtuns consider themselves to be brave warriors and do not believe that any virus can affect them, let alone kill them. In fact, it would be a disgrace for them to fear something that is not even visible.

In my village, a woman passed away days after returning from celebrating umrah in Saudi Arabia on March 17. Doctors diagnosed her with covid-19. Shortly after her death, some 11 people in her family were detected as positive for coronavirus. As result, the entire village was quarantined.

Many other villages, like mine, have been placed in isolation by local authorities to stop the spread of the virus. In this regard, the efforts of Prime Minister Imran Khan to facilitate quarantine should be appreciated. For example, medical teams are constantly visiting the confined villages and food, medicine and field hospitals are being offered to the poorest. In addition, on March 27, Khan presented a policy program providing 12,000 Pakistani rupees (about 66 euros) per month to all those in need and those unable to work because of the pandemic. Likewise, the country's wealthiest are sending donations. Political and religious parties are also working to provide food and medicine to the neediest people in the quarantined villages.

However, there is still a lot work to do with the Afghan refugees in Pakistan (about 1.4 million according to the UN refugee agency, UNHCR). According to friends in Timergara refugee camp, located in the district of KhyberPakhtunkhwa province, the government machinery and political parties are busy helping "their people" (Pakistanis) and have forgotten about the Afghans in the settlements. The local markets and bazaars that offered work and daily remuneration to the refugees are closed. Thus, there is a very high risk of shortage of food and medical supplies in these places, as the Government's attention is only focused on the Pakistanis.

To prevent infection, it would be necessary to increase the level of awareness of the population at the local level by informing them about the mortality of the virus. The majority of Pakistanis are illiterate (57% of those over 15 years of age, according to the UN) and do not believe in information from white people. The best strategy for the government would be to educate religious preachers and convince them to disseminate safety measures in mosques, as the majority of the population believes and accepts what is said in mosques. If the Government wants to address this issue, it must rely on religious figures but, to do so, it must educate them first.