MAKE no mistake. Though it is receiving far less attention, this is no less, if not more, a shameful tragedy for Pakistan, than the attack on Malala Yousafzai. The facts speak for themselves: eight polio workers killed and several injured in the last three days in a chilling succession of attacks. One shot dead on Monday, with little sign of the carnage that was to come in the following days; five shot dead within a chillingly short span of time on Tuesday in seemingly coordinated incidents; a string of attacks yesterday, killing a worker and her driver, carried out by undeterred imitators or co-conspirators. The reported ages of those killed in these incidents vary, but a number of them were teenagers, and most were women. Their crime? Administering free medication to children at risk of polio, a crippling disease that no child in the world should have to suffer in 2012. These were not security forces engaged in a war against militants. They were not the officials of a government perceived to be America’s stooge. They were simply harmless citizens carrying out a service for their countrymen for a pittance and despite the threats to their safety.
How did politicians react? In Sindh, the president distributed awards at a ceremony in Karachi, the scene of many of the attacks, and the Awami Tehrik and supporters of MQM chief Altaf Hussain held rallies in support of their respective political causes. From other parties, too, including the ANP, the party in power in the province where the remaining attacks took place, there was relative silence on the issue. True, there was condemnation of the attacks in both houses of parliament, but was this enough? In the face of an incident that should have brought business-as-usual to a halt, those in power went about focusing on their planned tasks instead of calling off all events and registering strong public outrage and determination against the unjustifiable evil that Pakistan has become home to.
Perhaps the biggest tragedy of all is that Pakistan, one of only three nations where polio is still endemic, was beginning to see a slowdown in the spread of the virus. Down from 173 cases detected by this time last year, only 56 cases have been registered in 2012, a 68 per cent decline. The commitment of international donors, the WHO and the provincial and federal governments had begun to pay off. But the attack against a local polio worker and his WHO colleague in Karachi in July should have led to the establishment of a system in which no polio team goes out unprotected.
In the coming days, the authorities owe Pakistanis answers to several glaring questions. How did the security lapses take place; does the polio campaign have to do a better job of ensuring security, or do the police have to do a better job of providing it? Why are these attacks taking place now, even though polio vaccination has long been opposed by certain groups within Pakistan? Who was responsible? Were these coordinated or copycat attacks? And perhaps most important of all: what next? The WHO has asked for the campaign to be suspended in Pakistan, and until more dependable protection is put in place, that is the wisest course for both international donors and local administrations to take. But failing to resume the campaign as soon as possible will hand victory to those bent upon Pakistan’s destruction.
Three things must be done immediately. Those responsible should be found and punished. Second, a foolproof system to protect polio workers has to be devised and implemented. And third, if there was ever a moment that called for a coordinated response from clerics and politicians and the launching of a high-profile national awareness campaign in support of polio and against the worldview of those who violently oppose it, this is that moment. It is deeply unfortunate that the nation has barely recovered from the Malala incident when we have a new tragedy on our hands. But all Pakistan can do with these moments is capture them to try to turn the ship around.