— By Rubba Al-Kafaji, Suhayb Ali and Jaynab Akhtar—
The Islamic Republic of Pakistan hosts a predominantly Muslim population (96%) , and is home to hundreds of mosques, some of which are regarded as among the largest in the world. Pakistan is a country defined by its religious identity, and the effects of COVID-19 are felt on a congregational level. As the government encourages preventive measures, the presence of the virus is reshaping the country’s socio-religious practices.
Efforts to slow the spread of the virus have been contentious, with the provincial government of Sindh restricting mosque attendance to five people, limiting funerals, and canceling religious festivals . The province also instituted a three-hour lockdown to decrease the number of people that continued to assemble to offer prayers. In Punjab however, mosques remain open and clerics seem determined to keep it that way  , with many of its citizens feeling that fear of the coronavirus wanes in the face of religious obligations. Some imams claim the virus is punishment for sin, and that now is the time for increased prayer; the faithful equate praying in mosques to sustenance for life itself.
Religion and everyday life are intertwined in Pakistan, and separating the two can be difficult in the face of a pandemic. In an attempt to come to terms with how COVID-19 is altering their lives, many Muslims are downplaying its severity and continue to congregate. Mosques function as places for socializing as much as they do for worship, and religious festivals and even funerals can bring entire communities together. Their absence is felt in uncertain times such as these.
Nations around the world are enforcing social distancing measures to contain the spread of COVID-19. Many Muslim-majority countries have closed their mosques, but Pakistan has had less success in this regard. Clerics and citizens alike continue congregating for Friday prayers in order to maintain religious obligations and a sense of community.
Despite this, social change in the context of the coronavirus has been inevitable. Pakistan continues to face low health literacy during this pandemic because a large number of Muslims have relied on the advice of religious leaders instead . Muslims have turned to religion as a way to combat the virus, rather than listening to recommendations to social distance. In order to attain good deeds, communities are gathering together to donate food to the needy, as they are in keeping with the idea that “generosity will spread faster than the virus.” This heavy reliance on religious advice rather than medical advice is risking the spread of COVID19 because it encourages neglecting the practice of prevention methods in hopes that faith will end the pandemic instead.
People in Pakistan have had difficulty building health literacy because sources of information on health are limited. Schools and other educational institutions have been shut down, which served a vital resource for obtaining information on COVID19. Instead, this information has been administered online primarily through social media campaigns and news that urges communities to take precautions against the virus and share preventative measures. However, this outreach method has been unsuccessful for populations lacking adequate resources to obtain this information, leaving them uninformed about the dangers of COVID-19. For example, the 3.7 million people living at the Federal Administered Tribal Area are uneducated on COVID-19 prevention methods due to the lack of internet access . This has caused people to neglect practices like social distancing because they aren’t aware of how persistent the virus has become in other areas. This issue isn’t just contained to the Federal Administered Tribal Area, but also for 77.8% of the population who lack internet access . 39 percent of people in Pakistan live in poverty, so luxuries like computers are highly unobtainable for a large chunk of the population. These issues about health educational access leave communities vulnerable to coronavirus. If infected, they will not recognize the symptoms and won’t know where to seek medical help.
Covid19 has further created barriers to developing health literacy in Pakistani communities. Workers orchestrating quarantine facilities exhibit poor health literacy, and as a result, coronavirus has rampantly spread among Pakistani communities. Workers are uneducated on how to properly quarantine patients and limit the spread of COVID19. In these facilities, workers are failing to isolate patients and have been requiring people to stay in overcrowded tents . They also neglected to test patients who exhibited symptoms of the virus and kept them near healthy patients.
Keeping patients nearby puts patients who don’t carry the virus at risk of catching it from people who do. Workers failed to understand the importance of social distancing and allowed patients to leave the camps during quarantine. Rather than preventing the spread of COVID-19, their quarantine techniques encourage it. Public health experts warn that quarantining conditions at facilities are being executed improperly so quarantining at home is a safer choice . Patients note that the workers were so unprepared that “No guidelines were issued for how those in quarantine could protect themselves from getting the disease” are left to return home without any knowledge on how to protect themselves nor their family, and also risk carrying the virus. Improper health literacy training is putting communities at risk, as well as the workers themselves. People who exhibit low health literacy refrain from listening to medical advice.
Pakistan is a country defined by its religious identity, and the effects of COVID-19 are felt throughout the communities. The government restricted numerous religious activities which are a crucial part of the sociological culture of Pakistan. Religion and everyday life go hand to hand for the citizens of Pakistan. With the shutting down of other social institutions such as schools and colleges, the lack of vital information regarding the crisis have been increasing the consequences of the crisis. The closing of such social institutions has played a large impact on the people of Pakistan.
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