By Bina Shah
THE other night I listened to Lesley Hazleton, known for her books on the intersection between religion and politics, in a debate on the role of religion and science in a post-pandemic world. The theme of the debate was couched in a question: will science be the new religion in a post-pandemic world? The discussion explored many ideas related to science, religion, faith, and the global response to Covid-19.
One of the first things that Lesley Hazleton brought up was how many Muslims refuse to wear masks or practice social distancing, because they believe their faith is so strong that Allah will protect them from catching the virus. She was unequivocal in denouncing their actions as going completely against the teachings of Islam which require us to behave with responsibility and care towards our fellow human beings.
I recognised the attitude of many Pakistanis towards Covid safety precautions in her words. Some of them are so confident of God’s protection that they don’t even believe the coronavirus exists. Others believe that those who are taking precautions suffer from a deficiency of faith and are allowing fear to dominate them. Many flocked to mosques and congregational prayers as soon as restrictions were lifted because they believed they were being deprived of the thing that would give them the most protection from worldly harm. All of this, Lesley Hazleton says, is “performative faith” — meant not for the Creator, but to impress your fellow man.
Faith has always been a double-edged sword in Pakistan. On the one hand it steers us towards positive action, charity and generosity, and piety. On the other, we fall back on fatalism and helplessness when overtaken by problems or calamities over which we feel we have no control. Problems which could be solved by forethought, planning and methodical implementation — individually or as a group, administration or an entire government — are labelled as God’s will when human lives are needlessly lost, as in the recent PIA plane crash, or our response to the coronavirus pandemic.
The interplay of religion and politics in Pakistan is why we don’t listen to the science which tells us how to protect ourselves from Covid-19. At first our perception of faith made us arrogant, as Lesley Hazleton observed: we should be so strong in our religious belief that God will protect us that we have no need of changing our behaviour. And our politics presented us with the false binary between saving lives and saving the economy, working hard to convince us that there could be no workable balance between the two. These two viewpoints combined resulted in the situation we find ourselves in today: a surging infection rate, an overstressed healthcare system, and a state of helplessness about both.
A Pakistani-origin infectious disease expert at the University of Maryland, Dr Faheem Younis, has written about the missing ingredient in our national response to Covid-19: putting medical experts on air every night to deliver a briefing about the pandemic’s progress in the nation, and to answer questions from the public about the disease.
The government can work with the media to make this happen and increase the people’s faith in the government this time around, allowing for myth-busting and the dissemination of correct information on a nation-wide scale. And including the element of faith, but in a way that supports the science, not opposes it, could drive the message home to those for whom faith is a priority. (This was the same way the Pakistan Army convinced the nation to support its fight against terrorism.)
There are two strategies which the world’s scientists and epidemiologists have identified as our way out of lockdowns and the illness itself: (1) test, track, and isolate, which is what the government needs to do, and (2) face masks, handwashing and social distancing, which is what the people need to do. In fact, more studies are emerging that face masks may be the single most effective protection against the disease, whose dominant route of transmission is airborne. How to ensure compliance among those who still think this is not a reality?
As in any war, the psychological battle is as important as the physical one. We need smart messaging, not just smart lockdowns, that works with our Pakistani psychology and uses some of that performative faith to our advantage. Instead of thinking of religion and science as rivals, let’s declare everyone who takes precautions against the virus to be following the tenets of the faith that direct us to care for one another. A TV spot showing Pakistani celebrities wearing face masks accompanied by the directive that saving one life is like saving all of humanity might convince citizens to do the same. We’ll have to harness our national characteristics of faith, passion and enthusiasm in the right way if we want to even make a dent in the battle that lies ahead.
BinaShah is the author of Before She Sleeps.
Original Headline: Smart messaging
Source:The Dawn, Pakistan
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