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Pakistan In Delicate Balance With Coronavirus Lockdown Amid Fears Of Mass Resistance

A young boy sells face masks on a stick in Karachi.
A young boy sells face masks on a stick in Karachi.

With Pakistan under an unpopular lockdown aimed at fighting the coronavirus pandemic raging around the world, a large portion of the country's devout and poverty-stricken people are resisting limits on physical and social contacts and their mobility.

This large opposition to such things as the closure of businesses and places of worship has many concerned that it could result in upheaval in the religiously conservative and economically fragile country of some 220 million people.

That worry has led many to sympathize with Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan's opposition to a strict national lockdown in a country where about one-quarter of its people earn only 300 rupees (roughly $2) per day.

Which is likely why his government is taking measures to ease restrictions.

"We are going to resume key sectors [of the economy] that employs millions," Information Minister Firdous Ashiq Awan said on April 10.

That announcement comes a few days after the government decided to allow people in the agriculture sector to go back to their jobs and for construction firms -- including cement and steel-making companies -- to resume their work by April 14.

Awan said retail and transport sectors could be the next to come out of the lockdown -- announced about three weeks ago -- despite the number of infections climbing to more than 4,800 with 71 deaths as of April 11 and predictions the numbers could get much worse in a country where little testing has been done.

But concern about mass discontent in Pakistan and the problems that could cause for the government was no doubt a reason for an easing of the lockdown.

There are three major factors that make Pakistan's lockdown difficult to enforce -- a strained economy with a large number of people living in poverty, the strong social ties and traditions in the country, and the devout religious beliefs in large segments of the population.

Economic Fallout

One of the hardest-hit segments of Pakistani society are the daily workers and self-employed who have not only lost their daily earnings to feed their families but also cannot pay rents, utility bills, school fees, or medical expenses.

Umar Zaman, 50, and his 22-year-old son Wahid Zaman, are among the hundreds of daily wage laborers who roam the streets of Islamabad looking for daily or short-term jobs.

Umar told RFE/RL that his 14-member family depends solely on the wages that he and his eldest son earn.

He added that they cannot afford the road toll to travel to their native town in the Mohmand district, roughly 200 kilometers from Islamabad, as drivers are charging five times more for the journey than usual due to the lockdown.

Umar said he fears "the looming hunger more than the coronavirus."

Volunteers distribute protective face masks to people on a road during a partial lockdown in the Punjabi city of Multan.
Volunteers distribute protective face masks to people on a road during a partial lockdown in the Punjabi city of Multan.

Such sentiments are one of the main reasons Khan has not enforced a strict lockdown in Pakistan and is instead easing it.

While Khan's decision to allow construction firms to resume operations was welcomed by many who believe this will kickstart economic activity and help generate jobs for daily wagers like the Zamans, others criticized it, arguing it will increase social contacts that will likely spread the coronavirus.

Apart from laborers, the closure of major cities has also caused serious damage for farmers whose crops are ready but who cannot hire people to bring in the harvest.

Price Swings

In the Swat district, the per kilogram rate of tomatoes has dropped to 30 rupees ($0.20) from a normal price of between 100 and 120 rupees ($0.67-$0.80) due to farmers' inability to export their produce to cities such as Peshawar and Islamabad, causing a glut on local markets.

Conversely, the cost of some products not produced locally that would normally be brought from other regions of Pakistan have skyrocketed.

And daily staples such as sugar and flour have seen huge price increases due to hoarding as well as bans or prohibitive costs on interdistrict and interprovince transport.

With the Islamic fasting holiday of Ramadan beginning in Pakistan on April 25, food prices will rise at a time when the consumption of food also increases (due mostly to the huge post-sundown feasts).

A worker sprays sanitizer on the hands of a man lining up to buy groceries from a government-subsidized store during a lockdown in Karachi.
A worker sprays sanitizer on the hands of a man lining up to buy groceries from a government-subsidized store during a lockdown in Karachi.

But with more people out of work or making less money because of the lockdown, there is a worry of widespread discontent leading people to reject the lockdown and return to their jobs.

In an effort to perhaps stave off widespread financial problems, Khan last week launched a 144 billion rupee ($860 million) plan to distribute some 12,000 rupees (about $90) for each of the next four months to around 120 million Pakistanis most affected by the COVID-19 lockdown.

But critics have charged that political affiliations, nepotism, corruption, and mismanagement of the funds could result in a backlash among people if they don't receive the allotted aid.

Strong Social Fabric

Other factors putting pressure on the lockdown are Pakistan's strong social ties and traditions, which pose major hurdles to restrictions on social and physical contacts.

Funerals, for example, are occasions in which everyone's participation is a must -- less for religious but more for social and cultural reasons.

If a politician fails to attend the funeral of someone in his constituency, he/she will risk losing many votes. That is why, despite calls for limits on social contacts, political leaders largely still attend funerals.

Marriage ceremonies and celebrations -- often very large affairs -- have already been banned in cities, but people are still arranging weddings and parties and inviting people to them in rural areas.

Security personnel stand guard as a few worshippers offer Friday Prayers outside a closed mosque during a lockdown in Peshawar on April 10.
Security personnel stand guard as a few worshippers offer Friday Prayers outside a closed mosque during a lockdown in Peshawar on April 10.

The upcoming Eid al-Fitr festival, which marks the end of Ramadan in late May, could prove another challenge for Pakistani officials to restrict social contacts.

Eid is marked with a congregational prayer followed by warm embraces and handshakes. Restricting people from celebrating this annual festival will be difficult, if not impossible.

Religious (Dis)belief

In one act of defiance, hundreds of worshippers manhandled a group of police officers that tried to stop them from attending Friday Prayers at a mosque in the Liaqatabad part of Karachi, the capital of Sindh Province, on March 3.

Unlike Pakistan's other three provinces, the Sindh government imposed a strict lockdown on society, requiring people to not attend Friday Prayers.

Pakistan's first coronavirus case was reported in Karachi on March 18, and the number of infected in the province has since risen to about 1,318 people.

In the Pakistani capital, Islamabad, police arrested a radical cleric and six others for disobeying a government order on religious activities.

Maulana Abdul Aziz, the former administrator of the Islamabad Lal Masjid, or Red Mosque, flouted the official ban on Friday Prayers designed to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

Pakistani cleric Maulana Abdul Aziz (file photo)
Pakistani cleric Maulana Abdul Aziz (file photo)

The firebrand cleric was the focus of attention in July 2007 when some of his extremist students took several women hostage after accusing them of prostitution.

Pakistani security forces had to conduct a bloody operation to resolve the situation inside the mosque. Abdul Aziz was arrested while trying to escape wearing a burqa but was acquitted of charges two years later.

In yet another alarming development, more than 100,000 members of the missionary Tablighi Jamaat gathered in Pakistan's eastern city of Lahore, ignoring government appeals to follow regulations against large events in an effort to ward off the deadly virus.

The gathering also included 3,000 foreigners from 40 countries and the five-day annual congregation, which attracts group members from across Pakistan and the world, was later curtailed by the Tablighi leaders who cited rainy weather.

Since then, more than 1,000 members of the missionary group -- including citizens from Iran, Malaysia, Indonesia, Nigeria, and Kyrgyzstan -- have been quarantined for having coronavirus symptoms.

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Although the top leaders of the missionary group have issued clear directives to their millions of followers across Pakistan to follow the precautionary measures recommended by the government, the majority of them -- particularly in rural areas -- still do not accept the tough restrictions.

"I pray five times a day and each time I wash my hands and face. The rest is God's will," said Mohammad Shakil Khan, from the Karak district in northwestern Pakistan.

Shakil Khan, who had attended the March 13 Tablighi Jamaat meeting in Lahore, said he does not think a face mask will save him from God's fate for him.

"He is the creator and the rest is his creation," he said. "Whatever happens to the creation, happens with his will."

That follows the Tablighi Jamaat motto, which says: "To believe that only God does everything, and the creation (humans) have no power to do anything [without the will of God]."

Many who are not members of Tablighi Jamaat or any other religious group equally ignore the warnings.

While the government has somehow managed to shut down major cities, people in smaller towns regularly visit the markets while the rural population is attending religious prayers as usual.

One positive aspect of the situation is that most religious political party leaders have acknowledged that the coronavirus is a serious threat and urged their followers to restrict themselves from normal social activities.

In interviews with RFE/RL, the leaders of Pakistan's two mainstream religious parties, Jamiat Ulema e-Islam and Jamaat e-Islami Maulana Fazlur Rahman/Siraj ul-Haq appealed to their party members and all Pakistanis to stay home and follow all official precautionary measures against the spread of the coronavirus.

Alarming Report

A big concern for officials is the month of Ramadan, when Muslims dedicate much of their time to worshipping in mosques. Restricting people to their homes during the holiday will be a challenge for authorities.

As the number of COVID-19 infections increases in Pakistan as more tests are conducted, the country is still far from enforcing the strict measures needed to stop the virus from spreading.

Equally alarming is a recent report by the National Health Services Regulations Ministry presented to the Supreme Court that states the number of COVID-19 cases in Pakistan is expected to rise to some 50,000 by the time Ramadan begins on April 25.

Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan (file photo)
Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan (file photo)

Whatever the scope and nature of the lockdown, the government has proven unable to provide financial relief to idled day laborers and the self-employed class. It has likewise been unable to fully stop the devout from worshipping or prevent social gatherings like funerals and weddings from being held.

If the recent easing of restrictions continues, Khan may prevent social backlash from occurring but risks allowing the coronavirus to ravage Pakistan as it has neighboring Iran.

The government must strike a delicate balance of how much "cure" to apply to the COVID-19 problem in a country known for its volatility and strife among its incredibly diverse political, religious, and social factions.