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Coronavirus, conspiracies, and Pakistanis: recipe for disaster

Coronavirus, conspiracies, and Pakistanis: recipe for disaster

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Author: Hassan Sohail

Pakistan’s deeply conservative society, with its penchant for right-wing conspiracy theories, is squandering the efforts of healthcare workers and government officials to contain the virus. 

Have you heard the corona is manufactured on purpose in some lab? Or have you heard hospitals are being handsomely paid to declare anyone corona patient and the media has cranked up the corona threat – it’s merely a flu! Apart from that, you must have heard this virus is nothing but a global conspiracy by Judeo-Christians to extirpate Islam.

A sizeable population of the country has accepted and even begun to propagate these unsubstantiated, outlandish and at times harmful theories.

This bizarre outlook is not something new; after all, 9/11 attacks are still thought to have been staged and Benazir Bhutto’s assassination was claimed to be plotted by her spouse, Asif Ali Zardari. The former was debunked by independent researchers and experts (Popular Mechanics). And the latter was shot down in flames by Heraldo Munoz, the head of the UN commission to investigate the ex-Prime Minister’s murder (The World).

Pakistan Deals With A Crisis On Two Fronts

In mid-February, World Health Organization labelled the misinformation around the COVID-19 as “infodemic” (BBC). It also declared the “infodemic is just as dangerous as the virus itself” (The News).

In Pakistan, however, fact-checking remains an alien concept and conservative Urdu dailies keep peddling fringe conspiracy theories. Due to this misinformation, the masses have turned skeptical and started questioning both the very existence and the severity of the virus – which is the last thing Pakistan needed in this fight against COVID-19.

During these testing times where people are desperate to find a way out, the spread of misinformation has aggravated an already delicate situation. Take Iran for instance, where a rumour about alcohol consumption being a cure for the coronavirus went viral and led to the deaths of more than 700 people due to alcohol poisoning (Slate).

Pakistan is a similar case, where we not only have to grapple with the impact of COVID-19 but also have to debunk bizarre corona-related misinformation and conspiracy theories.

The popular yet ill-informed notion in a significant section of Pakistan is that the “intensity of corona is not as bad as the media shows”. To back up this claim people cited explanations ranging from Pakistan’s surprisingly low death rate to superficial strong immunity, and banked on hot weather to destroy the virus.

Panic Spreads Despite Evidence to the Contrary

On the contrary, numerous studies explicitly stated hot weather cannot end the novel coronavirus, though it may slow the transmission of the virus (Statesman). Likewise, WHO has further invalidated the warm weather theory by stating, “you can catch COVID-19, no matter how sunny or hot the weather is (WHO). Also, there are several studies indicating novel coronavirus could survive up to 92 degrees Celsius (Al Arabiya).

The less virulent strain of the coronavirus in Pakistan mislead the people into believing, “they have some kind of strong immunity against this virus” (The News). This was soon quashed by PM Imran Khan himself: “I read often on social media that Allah has created Pakistanis in a way that corona won’t affect them. Please don’t delude yourselves into thinking like this. Corona won’t spare anyone” (Dawn).

However, the relatively low number of Covid-19 deaths in Pakistan – despite having rickety health infrastructure coupled with highly ineffective lockdowns and dense population – has puzzled health experts (Al-Jazeera). According to official data, Pakistan death rate per million is much lower (20 per million as of July 9) as compared to US and UK (388 and 657 per million respectively). Currently, our case fatality rate stands at 2 percent, in contrast with a global average of 5.2 percent (Statista).

Several theories surfaced ranging from highly convincing to tenuous: from warmer weather declared as a deterrent for the virus (which Brazil’s experience negates) and the tuberculosis vaccine Bacillus Calmette-Guerin (BCG) called a silver bullet against the COVID-19 (though the WHO flatly rejected it) to claims of the younger population having a better immune response plus the virus belonging to a weaker strain. And lastly, Pakistan’s dismal testing per day. WHO recommends 50,000 daily tests; Pakistan is conducting not even half of those, despite possessing the capacity for 71,000 tests per day (Geo news).

Moreover, there are also a significant number of people who believe, “in a bid to get funding and aid by the WHO and foreign governments respectively, doctors are testing and declaring everyone corona patients – even those who have other diseases – plus they are purposefully reporting an inflated number of deaths. And the government is encouraging all of it.”

In reality, people who buy these half-baked theories are uninformed. They depend on WhatsApp forwards, unreliable social media posts, conspiracy-mongers, and right-wing media outlets as their source of information. Consequently, more than half of the Pakistanis believe the COVID-19 threat is an exaggerated one (Samaa).

The Psychological Need for Something Concrete

Professor Karen Douglas, social psychology instructor at the University of Kent, explained the following: “psychological research suggests that people are drawn to conspiracy theories to satisfy unmet psychological needs, such as the need for knowledge and certainty.”

“Many people have a strong mistrust of science and experts,” she added. “Many people also object to restrictions of their personal freedoms and do not like being instructed what to do. I think this is why we see a lot of conspiracy theories in these areas” (TRT World).

Coming back to those claims, that was initially propagated by American conservative politicians and pundits dishing out selective facts and unsubstantiated claims.These half-truths had a snowballing effect in Pakistan. The country’s conservative sections employed their machinery to peddle these viewpoints.

One can ascertain their reach, as PPP and PTI leader, Nabil Gabol and Khurram Sher Zaman respectively, echoed the same views of government overstating the death toll (The News). The mounting evidence strongly suggested an undercount, with covered up corona-related fatalities.

Due to these wild theories, people are scared of the hospitals, fearing they might end up picking up the virus or being declared covid-19 positive or even given poisonous injections by the doctors. These fears are exacerbated by the lack of understanding about the virus. Hence most people tend to believe, “tests are botched and whoever shows COVID-19 symptoms has the virus and is likely to test positive.” 

How Misinformation Caused Havoc

They have overlooked two things; every 1 in 5 corona-positive case may go undetected by testing kits due to PCR-based tests for COVID-19 having a false negative rate of up to thirty percent (The Guardian). Second, asymptomatic cases – the ones who are infected by the virus but don’t show any symptom or feel sick and can infect others – are on a rise in Pakistan. In Lahore alone, 670,800 may be infected with the coronavirus – all are asymptomatic (Dawn).

The net result: a social stigma was engineered by the fear-mongers around this disease, despite the survival rate of 98% (Tribune). This acted as a catalyst – families have forsaken their folks due to fear of the virus and people prefer to suffer agony and die in their homes rather than go to the hospitals.

Then there are some people who are in denial – they argue over the existence of the novel coronavirus and even negate its existence. They reckon coronavirus has been concocted to camouflage the initiation of the new world order or is a scheme set into motion by super-rich Bill Gates and mega-pharmaceutical companies to sell their vaccines which contain microchips to control humanity and make men impotent (BBC). This sounds completely unreasonable; however, they took it as gospel truth.

To exacerbate the problem, religious fervour was added to the mix by influential clerics who did the following and more: declared it a grand conspiracy to shut down the mosques, downplayed the severity of the virus, accused the doctors of fraud (Naya Daur). and last but not least, turning Jews and Ahamdis into scapegoats as is typical.

We have 1 in 3 Pakistanis who believe at least one conspiracy theory related to the coronavirus (Newsweek). Merely 3% of the compatriots have clear views about the virus (Geo).

All in all, people have a special knack for sharing information without confirming its validity first. The concept of fact-checking was initially given by the Quran itself, “Believers, if an evil-doer brings you news, ascertain the correctness of the report fully, lest you unwittingly harm others, and then regret what you have done,” (49:6)


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