In Pakistan’s fight against Coronavirus Disease, Religion might not be helping

In Pakistan’s fight against Coronavirus Disease, Religion might not be helping

Pakistan is entering its fifth week under lockdown to regulate the spread of the coronavirus. But as the Islamic holy month of Ramadan have started this past weekend, hundreds of thousands of people have been congregate in mosques nationwide to offer special prayers.

The government’s submission to demands from senior clerics and non secular political parties for mosque exemptions highlights that Pakistan’s fight against Covid-19 is more about managing political divides than saving lives.

As of Monday morning, the country of more than 200 million people had reported 13,300 confirmed cases and 280 deaths, according to a tally by government portal. That’s more than double the number of cases and deaths the country had on two weeks before.

Covid-19 Statistics in Pakistan on April 27, 2020. Graphic Source:

Despite this steady increase, the religious establishment has remained skeptical of the government’s pandemic response. Hardline clerics urged worshipers to defy restrictions first imposed in March and take in mosques in great numbers. Congregations attacked police officers deployed to enforce the lockdown. The onset of Ramadan — and therefore the promise of generous charitable contributions by worshipers to mosques as a part of holy month observances — spurred religious groups to accentuate pressure on the govt , with the latter caving to avoid the political fallout.

The Pakistan Medical Association has denounced the choice to allow congregations, saying that protocols agreed between the govt and non secular groups — including requirements for worshipers to stay six feet apart and complete ablutions at home — are unlikely to be implemented. Doctors, who have already threatened to steer off the work due to a scarcity of medical and protective equipment, say the health system won’t cope if the virus spreads any faster during Ramadan.

Prime Minister Imran Khan’s decision to accommodate clerics’ demands points to their political influence. Although religious political parties have rarely won quite 2% of the vote during elections, they need immense street power, and may whip religious sentiment and organize mass protests to destabilize governments.

A rescue worker sprays disinfectant in the courtyard of a mosque in an effort to contain the outbreak of the coronavirus ahead of the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan, in Rawalpindi, Pakistan. April 21, 2020. Image Source: AP

Historically, religious groups also maintain close links with Pakistan’s powerful military, a legacy of the anti-Soviet Afghan “jihad” within the 1980s. The military has previously mobilized religious groups to place pressure on civilian governments.

However, this time, the pandemic has revealed the limitations of the military’s control over such groups. The military supports a lockdown, and its inability to realize clerics’ buy-in will frustrate Khan’s administration, which has been left hospitable criticism for kowtowing to the religious establishment.

This will intensify civil-military tensions, already spiraling since the beginning of the coronavirus outbreak. The military was impatient with Khan’s initial reluctance to impose a national lockdown, and deployed troops to enforce provincial-level restrictions, forcing the government’s hand to require broader measures.

Since the beginning of April, the military has taken control of the national pandemic response, with a general officer sitting alongside the design minister at the helm of the National Command and Operations Centre, a coordinating body. On Friday, the military’s spokesman announced that each one the institution’s resources would be available for a “track, test and quarantine” strategy to contain the virus’s spread.

A man in Karachi, Pakistan, places stickers on the floor of a mosque. The idea is to spread people out while they pray. Image Source: AFP

The military’s interests in tackling the coronavirus are clear. A prolonged lockdown or the collapse of the creaking health infrastructure could lead on to rioting and widespread civil unrest, which the military would need to manage. This would distract from pressing strategic and security priorities, not least the unfolding social process in Afghanistan.

A poorly managed coronavirus response would even have a serious economic toll, which might impact a military budget already suffering from US President Donald Trump’s decision to chop Coalition Support Funds in 2018. The World Bank has predicted that Pakistan will fall under recession this year. Anticipating calls for greater health expenditure after the pandemic, the military knows that it will have to stabilize the economy to protect its interests.

The military also aims to centralize political decision-making to raised enable it to exercise behind-the-scenes control. Recent years have seen several attempts to weaken a 2010 constitutional amendment granting Pakistan’s four provinces greater autonomy. This consolidation has been upended by the pandemic, with provinces responding independently to the coronavirus threat.

Security personnel stand guard as Muslims queue maintaining social distancing before entering a mosque to offer Friday prayers in Lahore, Pakistan, on April 24. Image Source: Getty Images/AFP

Tensions are particularly high between Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) government and therefore the opposition Pakistan Peoples Party, which has long controlled the southern province of Sindh. Murad Ali Shah, Sindh’s chief minister, has been widely praised for moving quickly in March to impose a lockdown within the commercial capital Karachi and test pilgrims coming back from Iran. Khan has repeatedly mocked Shah’s approach, terming it an overreaction.

The PTI government’s laxity on lockdown rules for mosques will inflame tensions at provincial level. On Thursday, Sindh restricted late-night prayer attendance in mosques to 5 people. An apologetic Murad described his decision as “very difficult” — yet necessary — and argued that he wasn’t violating the government’s agreement with religious groups.

CM Murad knows that he’s not just tackling the coronavirus. He’s also navigating the power tussle between Pakistan’s government, military and religious groups that will determine the country’s fate — pandemic or not.

Courtesy: CNN

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