WITHOUT a doubt, the novel coronavirus has affected routine life around the globe like few events in modern history. In a globalised world few countries are left unaffected, with over 180,000 people infected and more than 7,000 fatalities.
Countries and cities around the world are opting for lockdown to stop the spread of the contagion, as this is being seen as the best method to prevent more infections. Schools, offices and commercial centres around the world — including in Pakistan — are closed or in the process of shutting down, while large gatherings are being discouraged.
Read: Tweaking the Azaan and other measures Muslim countries have taken to combat the virus
Keeping these developments in mind, the issue of congregational prayers needs serious attention, with the state, ulema and common people all playing their part to adjust religious rituals in order to curb the spread of COVID-19.
In Pakistan, as elsewhere around the Muslim world, hundreds of people attend daily prayers at large neighbourhood mosques. This number is in the thousands during Friday prayers, especially in the larger mosques. Considering the fact that worshippers are in such close proximity during daily prayers in mosques, it is incumbent on religious leaders and the state to come up with a strategy that protects people’s health and lives until the threat of the virus subsides.
There have been various suggestions. For example, the Pakistan Ulema Council has issued a fatwa calling for all political and religious gatherings to be postponed, Friday prayers to be shortened, and prayers to be held in open spaces etc. However, the Punjab chief minister assured a delegation of clerics on Monday that mosques would not be closed in the country’s most populous province. Considering the severity of the situation, the state must understand the risk to religious congregations, including those who gather in places of worship.
The state can review how other Muslim countries are dealing with the crisis. Egypt, Iran and Oman have all suspended Friday prayers while the UAE has temporarily shuttered all places of worship. The Saudi government, too, has stopped congregational prayers in its mosques while placing curbs on umrah. In fact, images of the Holy Kaaba without people performing the tawaf around it have brought home the severity of the crisis.
If such stringent measures have been taken in Islam’s holiest sites, then the authorities here should have no qualms about altering daily routines temporarily to keep people healthy and possibly save lives. At the very least, the ulema in Pakistan must consider temporarily limiting the number of daily worshippers in mosques and suspending congregational prayers on Friday, in keeping with the example of other Muslim states in these trying times.
Decisions need to be taken rationally, not emotionally, which is why religious scholars and the government must come up with a plan to address issues of public worship during the virus pandemic without further delay.
Rampant child abuse
EACH year, the child protection advocacy group Sahil announces its findings on the scale of the abuse that children endure in this country; the data is collected by looking into newspaper reports on the sexual abuse of children (including rape and attempted rape), child marriage, and abducted and missing children. In its most recent statement, foraging through 84 newspapers, Sahil noted that a disturbing 2,846 cases were reported across the country in the previous year. In other words, approximately eight children were subjected to abuse each day of 2019, with more than half being girls (54pc). Prior to that, the figure was even higher at a staggering 3,832 in 2018 — the same year the body of young Zainab Ansari was found in a garbage heap in Kasur; she had been brutally raped and murdered by her captor. The incident sparked protests and demands for accountability across the country. To some degree, it also changed the way we think about the issue of sexual abuse of children, and finally led to the passage of the Zainab Alert, Response and Recovery Bill by the National Assembly and the Senate in recent weeks. While these figures may send a chill down the spine, they are likely only scratching the surface, as many other cases go unreported. It is only in recent years that a culture of talking about sexual abuse and exploitation has been encouraged in Pakistan, and that too only in certain sections of society. Many other stories will never see the light of day. It may even shock the more naive and insulated amongst us to learn about the exact scale of the problem, or about the capacity for evil in ‘ordinary’ people.
Children are one of the most vulnerable groups in any society, lacking the vocabulary, clear understanding, and often the support they need to confront their abusers. From a young age, they are taught not to question authority — the adults in their midst — and often suffer alone, suppressing whatever horrors they are made to endure in silence. Many abusers are from within the family, or close to the family members, earning and abusing their trust. In Sahil’s most recent data, the majority of children that were subjected to abuse were between the ages of six and 15, but there were some even under the age of one. Let the horror of that figure sink in.
COVID-19 & prisoners
IDEALLY, a prison population should be easier to isolate than the general population because its interaction with the outside world is limited and can be further restricted. The Sindh government has taken a number of steps to ensure ‘social distancing’ to prevent community transmission of COVID-19. However, the provincial prison authorities have a considerable challenge on their hands. As reported in this paper, the risk is not from visitors who communicate with the inmates across a glass partition, meaning there is no physical contact between them. The story also quoted IGP Prisons, Sindh, as saying that among other measures, he has suggested that where possible trial proceedings should be conducted via video link. This would address the risk of prisoners being brought to court in vans so inadequate in number that inmates often end up being packed together like sardines.
However, the vulnerability lies in the fact that jail staff come into regular contact with those behind bars. Unless they take proper precautions before they do so, it could ravage the prison population. Jails in Pakistan are shockingly overcrowded. According to a report presented in November last year to the Supreme Court, there are 114 prisons across the country with 77,275 inmates against a combined capacity of 57,742. At the same time, onsite medical facilities are less than satisfactory. About half the sanctioned posts for jail medical staff are lying vacant, and medical equipment and ambulances are in short supply. This makes for an environment highly conducive to the spread of disease. As per recent data collected by an Islamabad High Court-appointed commission, close to 2,400 prisoners already suffer from chronic, contagious diseases such as hepatitis, HIV and tuberculosis. It is therefore vital that preventive measures be put in place immediately such as releasing low-risk prisoners who are over 65 years of age, minors, petty offenders and those with existing serious illnesses. By definition, a prison population is a hostage group and the coronavirus could wreak havoc behind bars.