COVID-19 intensifies religious discrimination in Pakistan
Volunteers distribute free food rations to daily wage workers and others amid COVID-19 pandemic. Photo: The Diplomat
In Pakistan, the climate of terror and violence that ethnic and religious minorities face has remained relatively unaltered in recent years. However, COVID-19 has exacerbated the detrimental situation of religious minorities in Pakistan, even if one would think that a global pandemic would bring society together (Mirza, 2020a). Indeed, in Pakistan, there are numerous pieces of evidence of COVID-19 having the effect of compromising the rights of religious minorities, ultimately leading to abuses of the latter (Kelly, 2020).
Religious minorities in Pakistan have been facing rampant discrimination amid the COVID-19 pandemic, from referring to the virus as “the Shia virus” to requiring Christians to recite the kalima to receive free food rations (Mirza, 2020a). The COVID-19 pandemic, which has resulted in over 950.000 total cases and over 22.000 deaths in Pakistan (Worldometers, n.d.), has shown that the country’s need to provide equal treatment to minorities is more pressing than ever (Joshi R. & Joshi E, 2020).
Accordingly, this article highlights several incidents that portray how the situation of Pakistan’s minority groups has deteriorated dramatically.
Referring to COVID-19 as “the Shia virus.”
On the 1st and 2nd of April 2020, a conversation went viral across Whatsapp groups in Quetta, Pakistan. The participants blamed Hazara Shias for “going to Iran and bringing viruses to Pakistan” (Mirza, 2020b). This was plausible across Pakistani society because many Pakistanis regularly move in-between Iran and Pakistani, especially Shia pilgrims, traders and tourists (Mirza, 2020b).
In the conversation, one of the speakers claimed that Hazara Shias were infecting other people, telling all his friends that if a Shia came into their office, they should inform that “the office is closed” (Mirza, 2020b). Also, a coordinated campaign on Twitter in which people referred to COVID-19 as the “Shia virus” spread rapidly (Mirza, 2020a).
Shia community specifically targeted by quarantine measures
Before any formal nationwide lockdown, the public authorities in Balochistan began to declare measures explicitly targeting and restricting the movements of Hazara Shias (2020b). Because the province of Balochistan shares a border with Iran, its provincial government established quarantine camps for Shia pilgrims returning from Iran (Mirza, 2020b). However, the conditions in the camp were not liveable: there was no real housing, no bathrooms, towels or blankets (Ellis-Petersen & Baloch, 2020). Mohammed Bakir, who was held in this camp for two weeks, described the camp as “no more than a prison, the dirtiest place I have ever stayed in my life” (Ellis-Petersen & Baloch, 2020).
Nonetheless, this is not the only instance of the Shia community being targeted explicitly by quarantine measures. On the 12th of March 2020, the Inspector General of Police in Balochistan explicitly stated that “staff belonging to the Hazara tribe” should be immediately sent home to prevent the outbreak of COVID-19, implying that they were the carriers of the virus (Changezi, 2020). Many other incidents of targeted discrimination go unnoticed because they are not reported. According to Aman (2020), a prominent activist from the Hazara community, Shia Hazaras are clearly experiencing discriminatory treatment when they are sent on leave, impeding them from attending to their jobs while other colleagues practice their duty regularly.
Denial of food rations to Hindus and Christians
On the 28th of March 2020, members of the Hindu community were denied food ration bags in Karachi by one of the leading welfare organisations in the area, Saylani Welfare Trust (Digital Desk, 2020). The NGO, established in Karachi to aid homeless and seasonal workers, refused to provide food aid to Hindus because “the aid was reserved for Muslims alone” (Hindustan Times, 2020). Vishal Anand, founder and chairman of the Hindu Youth Council, stated that “when they saw our CNIC [identity cards], they refused to give the ration bags, saying it’s not for Hindus” (Mirza, 2020a).
By the same token, Christians confirmed that the same organisation denied them food unless they recited the kalima, a declaration of Islamic faith (Mirza, 2020a).
Against this background, Mirza (2020a), a news writer in The Diplomat, correctly links such discriminatory practices to the fact that even though these philanthropic organisations are operationally diverse and usually offer food to thousands of people regardless of their faith, the presence of local religious clerics has an unavoidable influence on the volunteers that are on the ground, who can eventually act in complete opposition to the organisation’s vision and ideology.
Women in Pakistan face more domestic violence during the COVID-19 outbreak
COVID-19 has further exacerbated Pakistan’s appalling situation for women and girls (Bano & Waqar, 2020). According to news reports released by the Punjab Safe City Authority (PSCA), domestic abuse and gender-based violence increased during the lockdown (Warraich, 2020). Hostility and violent behaviour towards women inside Pakistani households have escalated as a result of enforced immobility and the worsening of economic activity (Mahar, 2020).
Moreover, women are remarkably more exposed to COVID-19, given that, according to the Pakistan Bureau of Statistics, 80% of the employees in the health sector in Pakistan are women (Bano & Wagar, 2020). This has led women to work even when they are sick in many circumstances (Bano & Wagar, 2020).
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