Limiting the spread

April 02, 2020

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WHERE containment of the spread of Covid-19 is concerned, it is essential that decisions at the top are taken with prudence and firmness. Any dithering or lack of direction can result in the situation getting out of control with an explosion of cases. Considering our creaking healthcare system, this is not a risk Pakistan can afford to take. Where mismanagement of the crisis is concerned, mistakes were quite obviously made while handling the zaireen returning from Iran, which has been ravaged by the virus. The pilgrims were housed in inadequate conditions in Taftan, and the lack of proper facilities to screen and accommodate them is said to have led to the spread of the contagion in this country. However, another major administrative lapse that has affected the battle against Covid-19 has been the Punjab government’s handling of the Tableeghi Jamaat’s grand ijtima in Raiwind held in the middle of March, when coronavirus cases had already been reported in Pakistan.

The Tableeghi Jamaat’s ijtima is no small event. Figures in the media say around 250,000 people had gathered in Raiwind. At a time when ‘social distancing’ and ‘lockdowns’ are buzzwords in the effort to stop the spread of the contagion, the congregation was a recipe for disaster. The Punjab government had asked the Tableeghi Jamaat to postpone the event, but the request was ignored. It took heavy showers in the area for the Jamaat’s hierarchy to cancel the event after it had begun, but by then the damage had already been done. While the Punjab administration erred by allowing the event to go ahead in the first place, things were further complicated when Tableeghi preachers were allowed to spread throughout the country. Cases connected to its members have been reported across Pakistan, as well as other parts of the world. In fact, it is believed that Covid-19 was carried to Gaza by two preachers who had been to Raiwind.

There are lessons that can be learnt from this fiasco. Firstly, where matters of public health are concerned, the state must be gentle but firm. The Punjab government should have clearly communicated to the Tableeghi leadership that letting the ijtima go ahead would create a health crisis on a national scale. Bringing in senior clerics to communicate the message may have helped. Secondly, what the state needs to do now is limit all religious congregations, particularly those of Friday prayers. Scholars of all sects have backed the call for a suspension on congregational prayers, and even the Grand Mosque in Makkah — Islam’s holiest site — has been put off limits to believers. Therefore, overzealous clerics must not be allowed to challenge the writ of the state, and the Covid-19 crisis should be prevented from snowballing further; the ban on congregational prayers must be enforced by the centre as well as all provincial administrations as long as the crisis lasts.

Published in Dawn, April 2nd, 2020