Illustration by Abro
Illustration by Abro

A worried colleague at my office turned to another colleague and asked if it were okay for a Muslim to use hand sanitisers that contained alcohol. The second colleague took a step back from the inquirer and sardonically replied: “Were the Saudis using laal sharbat to disinfect the holy sites?” Later in the day, I saw the worried colleague washing his hands with an alcohol-based sanitiser. 

Personally, I did not feel any annoyance towards him. There are many like him whose minds have been bombarded with numerous, often contradictory, ideas about faith and morality. According to Andrew Newberg, the director of Research at Philadelphia’s Thomas Jefferson University, overtly religious people “have more tissue in the frontal lobes, or regions of the brain associated with attention and reward” (Scientific American Mind, 2012). Therefore, they are what they are not only due to doctrinal reasons but also due to a physiological variance.

In societies that have been hardwired to understand life through the lens of faith alone, it is a challenge for the state and government to impose certain restrictions during pandemics. For example, how to tell people not to gather at mosques or churches?

A scientific explanation alone does not cut it. That’s why one often sees governments utilise clerics and priests in such societies to wrap the scientific rationale in theological justifications. 

The March 14 issue of The Guardian reports that a cleric of a major mosque in conservative Kuwait changed certain words of the azaan, the Muslim call to prayer: instead of inviting people to come pray at the mosque, he asked them to stay and pray at home. The Covid-19 virus pandemic was the reason.

In societies hardwired to understand life through the lens of faith alone, it is a challenge for the state and government to impose certain restrictions during pandemics

Thousands of miles away, in the otherwise constitutionally secular US, newspaper reports suggest that instructions to the people by the authorities to avoid attending Sunday church services in the so-called ‘Bible belt states’, have increased anxiety levels in regular churchgoers.

On March 12, Newsweek reports that, as a response, a popular Christian evangelist, Kenneth Copeland, appeared on TV and asked believers to touch their TV screens to “receive the healing of Jesus.”

In India, a country recently in the grip of Hindutva nationalism, a Hindu organisation invited fellow Hindus to a ‘party’ where cow urine was served to the guests as a serum against Covid-19.

Psychologists believe that a crisis that may restrict people from engaging with their faith in a normal manner can also cause anxiety within the caretakers of faith — they may become more brazenly exhibitionistic to remain relevant or to ‘save faith’ from eroding.

On March 16, a video clip of a Muslim cleric in Pakistan went viral in which the cleric was inviting people to a large rally and claiming that “God will never allow anyone at the rally to be infected by the virus.”

To secularists, and even moderate believers, such acts may seem bizarre. Yet, these acts are not emitting from the lunatic fringes of society as such. They are taking place within mainstream segments that have been hardwired to understand reality from a religious point of view — or rather, from their particular religious point of view.

At the same time, there are numerous believers in Muslim, Christian and Hindu societies who do not see any dichotomy between faith and science. In fact, they maintain that their respective faiths are flexible enough to better harness science. 

Then there are the usual conspiracy theorists. Once relegated to the confines of the so-called lunatic fringe, the mushrooming of social media outlets, in the last 20 years or so, has lobbed their ideas and claims into mainstream discourses.

One of the stickiest conspiracy theories about the outbreak of Covid-19 doing the rounds is that the virus is in fact man-made and/or it is a ‘biological weapon’ gone astray or — worse — it has been deliberately deployed by China or the US or even that it has been spread to enrich pharmaceutical companies.

There is not an iota of evidence to substantiate these claims. But conspiracy theorists do not deal in evidence,

only in connecting disparate dots which may make sense in minds plagued by fear and uncertainty.

Viruses have been around for millions of years. Humans have continued to develop antibodies to fight them through the natural evolutionary process or by developing vaccines which introduce new antibodies in the system to ward off what virologists call ‘novel viruses’.

The dreaded Covid-19 is one such novel virus. It’s a ‘flu virus’ but it isn’t the first, nor will it be the last. There have been at least six flu or influenza pandemics in the past. There may have been more, but scientists so far have been able to trace just six in the last century and a half.

These include the so-called ‘Asiatic flu’ pandemic of 1889 which killed over a million people. Then there was the horrific 1918 influenza pandemic which is said to have killed up to 50 million people. There were flu pandemics in 1957 (one million deaths) and 1968 (more than a million deaths). The world then experienced lesser flu pandemics in 1997 and 2009 (bird flu and swine flu).

Virologists trace the viruses of each of these pandemics to infected birds who transferred the virus to a mammalian animal before it entered the human body. Bird viruses are largely unable to stick to human cells and, when they do, are often slain by human antibodies.

However, sometimes, through the evolutionary mutation process, a flu virus from a bird manages to stick to a cell of a mammal. There, it further mutates and is then able to stick more easily to human cells. Further mutations help it fight off human antibodies rendering them obsolete, and this is when the virus becomes ‘novel’.

The natural development of new antibodies, or antibodies triggered through a vaccine, are the only means to neutralise it.

Now coming back to the conspiracy theories. According to British virologist Professor John Oxford, when the 1918 flu pandemic began to kill thousands of people, many in Britain claimed that the pandemic was being caused by biological weapons developed by Germany. Of course, those claiming this conveniently ignored the fact that an equal number of Germans too were dying from the same outbreak.

The Covid-19 outbreak has been traced back to an animal and seafood market in Wuhan, China. An infected bat infected a pangolin from which a human handler caught the mutating virus. Many outside China have demanded that the Chinese stop eating ‘strange animals’.

But do they really? Yes, some do. Why?

According to Frederick J. Simoons in Food in China: A Cultural and Historical Inquiry, China has a history of eating rats, snakes and dogs during times of famine. The practice receded in the early 20th century, but returned when Mao Zedong’s radical economic policies in the late 1950s triggered widespread famines that wiped out food resources in the Chinese countryside.

The hungry were reduced to eating rats, snakes, cats, dogs, etc. But even after the famines receded in the late 1970s, the practice of getting meat from unusual sources continued in some quarters.

Nevertheless, shops dealing in ‘unusual meat’, like the one in Wuhan, are now likely to be closed down for good.

Published in Dawn, EOS, March 22nd, 2020