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.

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Miracle or Hoax? Why not try reason…

Flying horse in Saudi Arabia

“Miracle or Hoax?” That was the headline of Dunya News that reported the viral video supposedly showing a black horse flying in circles above Jeddah. At least this reporting floated the possibility that the video is not authentic, but it is only the latest example of reporting ‘miracles’ at the expense of rational thinking.

Who can forget Agha Waqar’s ‘water kit’ from a few years ago. Media spread the report of this miraculous invention without the least amount of critical thinking, only to have it soundly disproven by actual scientists. Same is true for HAARP which was projected by media as America’s weather controlling weapon. Once again, the claim was proven to be a hoax.

Some will term such hoaxes as harmless entertainment, but actually they are very dangerous. When media projects scientifically unsound stories such as reports of flying horses and water cars, the people become conditioned to accept anything no matter how ridiculous. This conditioning bears dangerous fruit when exploited by extremists who tell people that polio vaccine is ‘dangerous to health and against Islam’.

Dunya’s report on the flying horse viral video tries to keep a balance by noting that some people do not believe the video is authentic and that ‘there is a shop in Jeddah that sells horse-shaped balloons for children’, but in the case of supposed miracles especially, is ‘balance’ really necessary? Shouldn’t the burden of proof fall on the person claiming a miracle?

Time and again we allow ourselves to be duped by hoaxes that denigrate Pakistan in the eyes of the world. Instead of spreading this kind of sensational stories, media could be promoting science and reason, explaining the health benefits of vaccines and debunking hoaxes. This would strengthen the nation by building strong critical thinking skills that would help us solve our present problems like polio epidemic and avoid future problems as well.

Vaccination Counters At Airports? Government Incompetence On Display

Polio vaccination

Due to the failure of the government and military to protect health workers, Pakistan has taken one step closer to status as a global pariah. This week, the World Health Organisation has recommended placing global travel restrictions on all Pakistanis due to legitimate fears of spreading the deadly polio virus which was previously eliminated in almost the entire world. In response, the government has announced that it will establish mandatory immunisation counters on all airports, border crossings and seaports. This is foolishness that calls into question whether the government has any idea what it is doing.

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Chappals and Child Brides

Paul Smith Peshawari Chappal

The outrage over news that a British fashion designer is selling a £300 (Rs50,000) peshawari chappal has raised the national blood pressure to dangerous heights. Not due to fears of inflation in the shoe sector, but because the British designer is selling the shoe under the name…’Robert’. Pakistan, the birthplace and spiritual home of the design is swept under the rug and ignored, as if it were something to be ashamed of. While the outrage over this very real slight is understandable, we should also be taking the moment to reflect on why Pakistan was not highlighted as part of the designer’s marketing campaign. To find the answer, we must start by thinking about not what Pakistan is, but how we are perceived by the rest of the world.

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Dr Afridi’s effect on polio eradication

Polio drops given to a child

With the story going through so many changes so quickly, the truth about Dr Afridi’s case is cloudier than ever. One thing is clear, though – Dr Afridi did engage in one indefensible act: Using a critical healthcare programme as cover for his activities. Unfortunately, in expressing concern about Afridi’s willingness to risk the credibility of his work, we are forgetting that even this is part of the real threat to healthcare in the country – extremism and conspiracy theories.

It is widely accepted that Dr Afridi was running a fake polio vaccination campaign. What is not clear at this time is whether the polio vaccines were fake, or just the programme he claimed to be part of. This matters quite a deal – what prevents polio is the vaccine, not the programme. If the vaccines were real, the doctor could at least be forgiven for improving prevention, even if under false circumstances.

The real threat to polio prevention programmes, though, is not that people are concerned that they are being given treatments that won’t work – it’s that they believe these treatments are part of a dangerous conspiracy against them. And they didn’t get this idea from Dr Afridi, they got it from extremists.

Underlying those factors [preventing polio eradication], however, is an intense mistrust among some Pakistanis for the vaccines and the people who supply and administer them. Radical clerics seed rumors that vaccines are un-Islamic because they are made from substances derived from pigs, or that they cause infertility. Some clerics try to convince parents that polio vaccines are made from the urine of Satan.

The reluctance by some Pakistanis to trust polio vaccination programs is also driven by a belief that the U.S. is behind the campaigns. Anti-American sentiments are more fervent than ever in the country, stoked this year by the case of CIA contractor Raymond Davis, who shot to death two Pakistanis in Lahore in January, as well as by President Obama’s decision to not inform Pakistani leaders in advance about the U.S. operation against Osama bin Laden in the city of Abbottabad in May.

Before anyone had ever heard of Dr Afridi, they were already being told not to accept polio vaccines because of crazy conspiracy theories being spread by extremist Imams. Dr Afridi’s acts will be used by extremists to play to the irrational fears they have already planted, but Dr Afridi is not the source of the mistrust of polio vaccine.

Using a critical health care programme as cover for his activities was wrong – even prominent Americans are saying it was a mistake. But whether Dr Afridi is punished or not for this mistake, Pakistan will continue to be plagued by a disease wiped out in the developed world not because of Dr Afridi – not even because of the CIA. Our children will continue to die unnecessarily until we are willing to eradicate the plague of extremism that allows polio to spread. Until then, Dr Afridi is just a distraction.