It’s Not the Needle They’re Afraid of

Feelings against vaccines have become a more prevalent sentiment among many people around the world. Conspiracy theories against getting vaccines have proven to be especially detrimental to people in Pakistan. 

Polio, a highly infectious disease that mostly affects children aged 5 and under, has been eliminated around the world except in 3 countries, Nigeria, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, where it is still rampant. Pakistan was close to eradicating polio until a major anti-vaccination movement began, which set them back. In mosques, they asked parents not to get their children vaccinated because of conspiracy theories about the vaccine, which contributed to the spread of these ideas. Some parents have heard that these vaccines were poisoning children, which has stopped many people from giving the vaccine to their children. Others distrust the vaccine because it was sent from America, and one mother, Hansa Bibi said about the vaccine that “They put ingredients [forbidden in Islam] in the vaccine to sterilise the Muslim population. They put things in this that are making all the children vomit.” Many other parents and Pakistani citizens express sentiments similar to the one of Hansa Bibi, and not only is social media spreading these ideas more rapidly, but religious clerics have also been key in the dissemination of these ideas.

 These feelings run so deeply in some communities and are even manifested as violence. For example, a hospital was burned down by residents who were angered after many parents brought their children to hospitals. These children were brought to the hospital because of claims that their children got sick because of the polio vaccine. The government arrested key figures involved in this incident but the damage was already done. Many parents became worried for their children’s safety in regards to the vaccine whereas they previously had not been. These fears led to attacks on workers who were administering vaccines, and police officers guarding the polio workers, some of whom died.

These attacks caused the government to pause any campaigning for the vaccine, which caused the number of polio cases to rise more than it had in years, as can be seen in the chart below.

   As with polio similar anti-vaccination sentiments are spreading throughout Pakistan about the coronavirus vaccine. This could prove to affect not only Pakistan but the world’s progress to stop or slow down the pandemic.  

Many people in Pakistan are skeptical about the COVID vaccine, and express similar fears about this vaccine as with the polio vaccine. When one doctor, Mohsin Ali, was recounting questions that he has received about the vaccine and people’s hesitancy about it he said: “Is this going to take away my reproductive ability? Is this going to kill me? Is there any 5G chip in this? And, is there a conspiracy to control people en masse? I get many questions like this. I try to answer them with logic and on the level of the individual asking them. Some still refuse.”

For this vaccine to be productive and for the coronavirus to be managed well it relies on people following restrictions and for people to eventually get the vaccine. Already around 37% of people in Pakistan said they would not get the vaccine. This is particularly worrying because there are experiences of people who got the disease and when they were brought to multiple hospitals they were turned away. One man, Iqbal Shaheen, was told that he could bring his father to a private hospital, but he was not able to afford that level of care. He had to bring his father home where he eventually died. He said “The poor cannot afford to be sick. Without political connections, a coronavirus patient cannot get admitted at a public hospital, while paying a private hospital’s bills is unthinkable.” 

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Despite the spread of conspiracy theories through the media, there is hope for Pakistan to counteract these theories. Due to the fear that many have about the West, Pakistan has been testing Chinese vaccines, hoping that more people would be willing to get them. Thousands of people volunteered to get the vaccine from China, despite what they heard on the media or from their family. After they saw no major side effects from the vaccine their family members were more willing to get the vaccine as well. These experiences could be what Pakistan needs to convince more people that the conspiracy theories are false. As is evident with the COVID-19 pandemic we cannot predict what communicable diseases can arise and have devastating effects. In order to control them fears about vaccines need to be handled; otherwise it will only make diseases harder to control. 

The Persecuted Minority in Afghanistan

The Hazaras are a Persian- speaking ethnic minority group that generally lives in central Afghanistan. They are the third largest ethnic group in Afghanistan and are a significant minority group in neighboring Pakistan. Although there is no national census in Afghanistan, it is believed that the Hazaras make up roughly 10 to 20 percent of the country’s 35 million people. 

Many academics and political scientists claim that the Hazaras are descendants of Mongol soldiers who came to Afghanistan with Genghis Khan’s army in the 13th century; this is also the most accepted theory about their descent. 

The majority of Hazaras live in Hazarajat, which is located in the rugged central mountainous core of Afghanistan with an area of approximately 50,000 square kilometers, with others living in the Badakhshan mountains. Hazaras speak a dialect of Dari called Hazaraji. Within Afghan culture, Hazaras are famous for their music and poetry and the proverbs from which their poetry stems. The poetry and music are mainly folkloric having been passed down orally through the generations. 

Systematic decrimination, as well as targeted violence and the resulting displacement, has deprived the Hazara community of much of their standing in the social hierarchy of modern Afghanistan. In Afghanistan, the Hazara people are the third-largest ethnic group after Pashtuns and Tajiks, but as a result of discrimination and segregationist policies by many different Afghan rulers, the Hazara people have remained one of the most underdeveloped groups, politically, economically and socially in the country. They are considered as one of the most oppressed ethnic groups in Afghanistan, and the persecution of them dates back decades. 

Most of the Hazaras are Shite Muslims, who are considered as the heretics by the Taliban and the Islamic State, which are two Sunni Muslim groups. The Hazaras have been persecuted since Afghanistan’s Pashtun emir targeted Hazaras for mass killings and forced removals in the late 19th century, and some people were sold as slaves. Until the 1890s, the Hazara people were autonomous and in full control of all areas within Hazarajat. However, after the 1890s, they were ruthlessly subjugated, at the behest of the Sunni king Abdur Rahman Khan, who issued a religious decree declaring Shias to be infidels and thus legitimate targets in war. It was not until 1923 that Hazara slavery was abolished, but still the community were excluded from contributing to and benefiting from the development of Afghanistan and were not viewed as equal citizens.

The Hazaras are still under continued attacks from two terrorist groups, the Taliban and ISIS, and both of them are Sunni Islamic fundamentalist organizations. More recently, hundreds of Hazara families have been forced to flee from their homeland during Taliban attacks against the government forces. Hadi Noorzad, a Hazara from the Jaghori district in Ghazni, said he and his neighbors fled a Taliban assault that had killed 50 people, including his 22-year-old cousin. Many families returned after government security forces retook the area, Mr. Noorzad said, but they still live in fear. “The Taliban believes Hazaras are not Muslims, so it is fine to kill Hazaras,” he said.

 Over the past years, many Hazaras have been killed in suicide bombings, and most of the killings were claimed by ISIS. In March 2018, a suicide bomber killed 33 people in a Hazara area of Kabul on Nowruz, a Persian New Year holiday celebrated by Hazaras. In September, an Islamic State suicide bomber killed up to 30 people at a Hazara wrestling club in Kabul. A second bomber killed 26 more, including journalists reporting on the first bombing. In 2017, the Shite Muslim mosque in Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan, was shattered by a suicide bomber who killed four people, including a Hazara community leader who had built the mosque. Haji Khalil Dare Sufi, an elder at Al Zahra mosque, said that the Hazaras would never give up the weapons to defend themselves. Sufi also said that many Hazaras do not trust the Afghan government or security forces to protect them. “We are a vulnerable people—- a very soft target for the Taliban and Daesh,” he said, using the Arabic acronym for ISIS. 

Since US forces invaded Afghanistan and overthrew the Taliban, the situation of the Hazaras has been considerably improved.  Hazaras are one of the national ethnic minorities recognized in the new Afghan Constitution and have been given full right to Afghan citizenship. Only two Hazaras gained seats in President Hamid Karzai’s initial cabinet, and the only representative of their main political party, Hizb-e Wahdat, gained the position of vice president. But in the most recent parliamentary election Hazaras (who make up around 9 per cent of the population) gained 25 percent of seats. However, Hazaras still face persistent discrimination in many areas of the country.

The current Afghan leadership does have a chance to get Afghanistan out of the cycle of violence and terror, but it needs to listen to the demands of all its citizens, including the oppressed minorities like the Hazaras. Unless the Taliban agree to be a part of the democratic political structure in Kabul or there is foreign intervention from countries like the US, any overtures shown by the radical group toward the Hazara minority community will be hollow. Only then there would be a plan that could pave the way out for peace and stability for Afghanistan.