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The coronavirus pandemic, clerics, and terrorism

The whole ongoing kerfuffle about how to combat the coronavirus pandemic is not unique to Pakistan. Even the developed world is groping its way through the fog of incomprehension, misconception and feeble, halting measures. In Pakistan, the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaaf (PTI) government led by Imran Khan has exhibited the kind of timid, half-hearted lockdowns that may end up falling between two stools: neither saving lives nor livelihoods. So far, a dreaded complacency may have kept in regarding the relatively low infections and deaths in Pakistan because of the pandemic. The experts and thinking souls fear the official statistics may not be reflecting the real level of infections or even fatalities as Pakistan does not have the kind of universal monitoring system or adequate healthcare facilities that could inspire confidence in official handouts.

Facts on the ground are pointing towards the looming dangers. Unlike some badly hit western countries such as Italy, Spain, the UK and US, where the curve of infections appears to be flattening if not dropping because of strict lockdowns and gearing up of their healthcare systems, Pakistan is witnessing a rapid upward trajectory of coronavirus infections, not from returning travellers as was believed to be the case (and source) of the spread initially, but from local transmission. The authorities have indicated 81 percent of cases have been caused by such local transmission. Given the inadequacy of our testing system, we simply do not know if there are asymptomatic potential infectors amongst us. The government has announced a Test, Trace and Quarantine (TTQ) policy, under which the federal government has provided thousands of names and addresses to the provinces to apply TTQ to the contacts of confirmed cases.

Meanwhile, a restless and needy populace is practicing the lockdowns and social distancing largely in the breach. The ‘concession’ to our clerics for holding Ramazan congregations in the mosques is being seen by medical experts as a mistake out of step with what a number of Muslim countries are doing to safeguard their people. One report says 80 percent of Punjab’s mosques are violating the Taraweeh and other congregations’ social distancing rules agreed with the government. The problem is that the clerics’ sense of entitlement since the General Ziaul Haq days and ability to hold any government hostage because of their street power causes weakness in the knees and spine of every government since then. Imran Khan’s government is no exception. It may even have not-so-secret sympathies with the clerics and their benighted ideas.

To illustrate such ideas, two examples should suffice. Lal Masjid’s Maulana Aziz continued to defy the restrictions on Friday prayer congregations until on April 24, 2020, the authorities finally found the courage to block the Masjid for the Friday congregation. Maulana Tariq Jamil, highly thought of by none other than Imran Khan himself, broke all records of stupidity during a prayer at the end of the Ehsaas Telethon presided over by the prime minister. He blamed our coronavirus troubles on the alleged shamelessness of our women in wearing revealing dress and called the media “liars”. Later, on a TV show, he apologised for the latter as a ‘slip of the tongue’ but retained a meaningful silence on the former. Condemnation from human, women and free media rights defenders followed, but this is unlikely to dent Maulana Tariq Jamil’s soaring fortunes. The state, particularly the deep state, continues to treat the clerics with kid gloves, holding them as a reserve army against the liberal, democratic, progressive forces and in case some fresh jihad recruitment might be needed.

China has shown the way a complete lockdown can relatively quickly scotch the spread of the coronavirus pandemic. But countries like Pakistan do not have China’s healthcare and social security systems to sustain people during strict lockdowns. Hence we have dithered and will probably end up with the worst of both worlds: loss of life and livelihoods. Medical experts’ warnings that a half-hearted or ‘soft’ lockdown will extract a higher cost in this regard have fallen on deaf official ears.

While Pakistan (and the world) have been distracted if not totally absorbed by the challenges thrown up by the coronavirus pandemic, the terrorists we thought were a thing of the past have quietly been attempting to revive their movement through a series of attacks and clashes with the military in erstwhile FATA. On April 26, 2020, two soldiers and a terrorist were killed in a gunfight in the Mirali subdivision of North Waziristan. On April 25, 2020, four soldiers were killed when terrorists ambushed a security patrol in Dattakhel tehsil of North Waziristan. The terrorists lost seven men in the ensuing clash. At least 12 security personnel have been killed in clashes and IED explosions in April 2020. This is the nightmare scenario of a resurgence of terrorist activity per se and taking advantage of the focus shifting to the pandemic that informed observers have been warning of.

Whatever the future of the world may look like once the coronavirus pandemic is hopefully over, unfettered, globalised capitalism cannot be allowed to rape nature at the expense of threatened and extinct species and the Earth itself. This development has put the future of mankind too at risk. There has to be a turn now to putting people first, profits second.

Rashed Rahman, "The coronavirus pandemic, clerics, and terrorism," Business Recorder. 2020-04-28.
Keywords: Social sciences , Coronavirus pandemic , Monitoring system , Healthcare systems , Street power , Lal masjid , Maulana Tariq Jamil , Pakistan , Imran Khan , Ziaul Haq PTI , UK , US , TTQ , FATA

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