If there is any country outside the Americas and the Europe that badly needs help to fight COVID -19, it is Pakistan. This Sunni Muslim majority country proudly displays its nuclear status and its indispensability for peace in the Taliban ravaged Afghanistan but it lacks basic infrastructure, forget about financial and medical muscle, to handle the surge in the virus cases particularly from local transmission. But it is not helping its cause by practicing religious discrimination in its relief effort.
Till now, the government of Prime Minister Imran Khan Niazi has blamed its Shia Muslim subjects for its virus woes. Iranian cities like Qom, and Mashhad are home to Shia holy sites.
Thousands of Pakistani Shias were on pilgrimage to Iran when the virus broke out. Iran abandoned them in a hurry at the no-man area, notwithstanding the new bonhomie between Tehran and Islamabad, and Pakistan championing Iran's case for ending sanctions. And on reaching the border town of Taftan, the pilgrims felt equally let down.
"The catastrophic crisis has been created simply because of mismanagement. There was no logic in keeping the pilgrims for weeks at the Taftan quarantine camps as it was impossible to offer them essential medical facilities whatsoever there", Tariq Butt reported in the Karachi daily, The News International. The Special Assistant to Prime Minister on Health, Dr Zafar Mirza visited Taftan on Feb 28 and termed as "satisfactory" the arrangements "which hardly existed".
The Islamists are equally to be blamed for the flipside of Pakistan's fight against the virus. Giving social distancing concept a go-bye, religious congregations are continuing; mosques are open across Pakistan's most populous province of Punjab though Saudi Arabia and Iran have banned prayers in their holiest mosques, as Kunwar Khuldune Shahid wrote in The Spectator (April 1, 2020).
The virus did not spare the activists of Tableeghi Jamaat (an Islamic organisation cut in the missionary mode) which held its annual meeting in Lahore last month. Around 550 preachers some of them from Afghanistan, China, Indonesia, Nigeria and Tunisia, are currently in quarantine after a Chinese citizen tested positive. Yet, the Imran Khan government is unwilling to read the riot act. For reasons political.
Elahi's arch rival, Shahbaz Sharif, who heads the Nawaz Sharif's party, PML-N, also ticked off the police. Show respect to the Tableeghi Jamaat members, he told the law enforcement agencies in a clear indication of the grip of the religious right on Pakistan's mainstream parties.
Well, Pakistan needs to urgently prioritise its public health but Imran Khan Government is looking at short term palliatives like moratorium on multi-lateral loans with Foreign Minister Makhdoom Shah Mehmood Qureshi, promising to spend "the rescheduled amount on healthcare issues emerging from coronavirus pandemic. It is difficult to buy his assertion going by a report on the web site, www.persecution.org that chronicles and articulates the concerns of Christians across the globe.
Christian and Hindu families were on March 29 refused food aid by Saylani Welfare International Trust staffers who were distributing aid in Karachi in response to the COVID-19 crisis, says a post on the web site. Several families posted videos on social media testifying about what happened. "This is a discriminatory and shameful act," Father Cecil Paul told International Christian Concern (ICC). "Internationally, Christians are providing relief to the world. However, Christians in Pakistan experience faith-based hatred and are often discriminated against."
A Karachi date-lined dispatch appearing in Times of India (April 1, 2020) mirrored the same ground reality. Pakistan's Hindus and Christian minorities are not being given food supplies by authorities, "saying they are meant for the Muslims", the dispatch by a wire service said.
"Authorities are not helping us during the lock down, the ration is also not being provided to us because we are part of a minority community", a Hindu man was quoted as lamenting in Karachi.
Said another (in a video I saw on the social media): "We only hear that people in our neighborhood are receiving essential goods. My son drives the rickshaw. Due to the lockdown, all services have been suspended. He is sitting idle at home. We do not have anything to eat. We have no money. Even when we visit the ration distribution centers, the authorities assure us that they will send essential items in separate trucks but eventually they don't".In another video (on social media; I saw this too), a Christian also of Karachi was heard saying: "This is the second week of lockdown and we have no food at home. The officials only visit us to ask for votes. We don't even have money to buy food. Our daily living has been suspended due to the lock down. Nobody has asked us so far regarding the problems we are facing".
Widespread discrimination and intolerance on the basis of religion is not new to Christians, Hindus, Shias and Ahmedias in Pakistan. But persisting with the practice during a pandemic is a sad commentary on the health of a nation, which is the sixth most populous country in the world.