Polio, Bin Laden, and The Price of Hypernationalism

Polio drops being delivered under armed guard

Dr Shakil Afridi is facing renewed legal trouble after the tribunal hearing his appeal was dissolved a few weeks ago. You will recall that the doctor was not arrested and convicted of helping the CIA locate Osama bin Laden, the international terrorist who ISI was definitely not hiding. While he waits to find out whether any new tribunal will hear his appeal, though, he is once again in the news, this time taking the blame for the nation’s growing polio epidemic.

According to a recent report, parents are refusing to allow their children to receive polio drops not because of jihadi terrorists who have killed dozens of polio workers and the fact that polio vaccination campaigns are actually being postponed due to the state’s inability to provide security against pro-polio terrorists. No, they are supposedly refusing to protect their children from polio because they are mad at Shakil Afridi.

However, health officials had been pointing out since long that the COMNET Programme was not delivering since the disclosure of the dirty role played by Dr Shakil Afridi in Abbottabad due to his fake vaccination campaign aimed at tracking down al-Qaeda head Osama bin Laden. […] Polio vaccination has been made controversial in the country in general and in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Fata in particular due to the role of Dr Shakil Afridi for conducting the fake vaccination campaign in Abbottabad to help CIA trace Osama bin Laden.

While I do think it’s more likely that people are actually afraid of terrorists than Shakil Afridi, there is no doubt that Shakil Afridi’s operation has hurt polio campaign in Pakistan. But the question should be asked, why? I think the reason has more to do with the perception that has been created than the reality. What has been termed in the media as a ‘fake vaccination campaign’ was actually a real vaccination campaign. He was a real doctor delivering real medicine. What was fake was the reason for the campaign. So it’s not actually correct to call it a fake vaccination campaign. Rather it should be said that the vaccination campaign was used as a cover for locating a terrorist.

By creating the perception that Shakil Afridi had done something wrong, those responsible for this narrative have themselves created the environment in which vaccination campaigns are treated with suspicion. Imagine if Shakil Afridi had been exposed as an ISI asset whose vaccination campaign was being used to uncover RAW agents. Polio would be banished from Pakistan for eternity!

If public perception of Shakil Afridi had been managed to show him as a hero of Pakistan who was working to discover the terrorist mastermind who was responsible for the deaths of tens of thousands of innocents, we might not be facing international travel restrictions and worse – the spread of an easily prevented disease among our own children.

Instead, the reaction to Shakil Afridi’s campaign was emotional and hypernationalist. He was deemed a traitor and everything he stood for, including vaccinating children, has been called into doubt also. This is not an excuse for his actions. The CIA and Shakil Afridi deserve to be condemned for their reckless behavior in a manner whose outcome could be easily predicted. But we must take responsibility for our own role in the entire sordid affair. After all, we chose to make it a case of emotional hypernationalism, and now it is we who are paying the price.

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