Is the coronavirus an expression of God’s wrath, a punishment for our sins or, as some of us believers like to think, merely another sign that He is testing us? I’ll address later the godless anthem that insists this epidemic is about nature healing itself, because matters of God are urgent and they might be getting us killed at the moment.
Until a few years ago, Fridays in Pakistan were an occasion to remember God’s grandeur and His kindness, as well as the terror exacted in His name. We used to get together in mosques for weekly prayers, and regularly mosques used to get blown up. Security guards were posted at the entrances, and the terrorists were hunted down or made peace with. But the mosques were never shut down.
And so last month, as the first Friday after the coronavirus’s arrival in Pakistan approached, the government dithered: Can you close the mosques during an outbreak? You can shut down McDonald’s — yes, even home deliveries — but the mosques? Wouldn’t that be like declaring war on God?
Is this epidemic just a test?
But maybe it’s God who has declared a war on us? Or is this epidemic just a test? How can anyone be sure?
The first wave of coronavirus cases arrived in Pakistan in early March with pilgrims returning from Muslim holy sites in Iran and Iraq. Pakistan’s largest missionary organisation, Tablighi Jamaat, went ahead anyway with its annual gathering in early April, bringing together more than 100,000 people near Lahore, a major city in the northeast.
The government then had to quarantine more than 20,000 attendees, and it is still trying to track down many more across the country. Two participants brought the virus back to Gaza. I have not heard of Pakistan or any other country sending anything else to Gaza recently.
On the issue of shutting down the mosques, at first the government appealed to religious scholars for guidance. It didn’t really need to. Prayers had already been suspended at the holiest of mosques in Saudi Arabia. Many other Muslim countries had closed theirs.
But Prime Minister Imran Khan and his team say they worry about the economic suffering that a complete lockdown would bring — and while they do that we all keep waiting for proper guidance on the subject of mosques.
The poor don’t have anywhere to turn. Mosques are Pakistan’s only social centres, except for the clubs of the very rich and some parks for the middle class...Mosques could have been used to disseminate health tips and distribute food to the needy, or as quarantine centres and temporary hospitals.
Three wise men appeared on television at one point to give their counsel about Friday sermons and other religious congregations. They laid out absurd criteria for attending prayers: If you have the coronavirus, or are above age 50, don’t go. But how is anyone to know if they have the virus until they get tested, and almost no one in this country can get tested?
Some provincial authorities, alarmed at the vagueness of the central government’s directives, have taken matters into their own hands. The government of Sindh Province, where Karachi is, ordered various restrictions in late March. The local police force, despite meagre resources, has done a reasonably good job of ensuring that everything except for food stores and pharmacies remains shut.
Sindh has stopped shy of shutting down mosques, but it has ordered a curfew designed to prevent people from going to Friday prayers. Many worshippers still turn up. The Sindh government filed cases against some mosques for violating its orders, but then retracted them. On Friday, April 10, several police officers were assaulted in Karachi while trying to stop public prayers.
How lockdown affects the poor and hungry
While Imran Khan’s government still can’t seem to decide whether to be more afraid of the coronavirus or the men of God, more and more people throughout the country, seeing the number of infections multiply, are no longer going out to pray.
But they continue to come out for something that may be greater than God Himself: their daily bread. In Pakistan, the economy, that rickety firmament of our existence, may be spreading disease more so even than is religion.
I have lived in Karachi for half of my life, and the city can’t stay under lockdown for even three days because millions of people here won’t have enough food in their homes if they don’t go out to earn a few rupees. When you can’t trust the government to deliver the food you need, you have to defy lockdowns and step outside, and leave the rest to God. You can challenge even a testy God, but you can’t say no to hungry children.
The rich have always been in awe of the resilience of the poor, as they pay them monthly wages that are a fraction of the bill for their own three-year-old’s birthday party. What the rich worry about is that if the poor really starve, the poor will come for them to try to eat them.
People of no faith who lose no opportunity to rub science in the faces of believers are gloating at the pictures of a deserted Great Mosque of Makkah and a deserted Western Wall in Jerusalem, and are asking, Where is your God now?
The questions they get from believers are equally valid: Where are your Ubers and AirBnBs? Where is your vaccine? This godless world of yours never gave us anything, and now, as you tell us that we are all going to die, you want to take your God away from us?
But the people who have no God also live in fear — and that’s not fear of the virus so much as fear of the poor or fear of what the virus will do to them.
“What will happen to the poor people?” some ask. By that they don’t really mean, “How will the poor survive?” The rich have always been in awe of the resilience of the poor, as they pay them monthly wages that are a fraction of the bill for their own three-year-old’s birthday party. What the rich worry about is that if the poor really starve — and this time they actually might starve — the poor will come for them to try to eat them.
Is it nature’s way of healing itself?
The non-poor, be they godless or godful, try to console themselves by sitting at home and telling each other that this epidemic is nature’s way of healing itself. Consumerism was destroying the planet, and now we have the chance to save it by organising Zoom parties and baking cakes.
The poor don’t have anywhere to turn. Mosques are Pakistan’s only social centres, except for the clubs of the very rich and some parks for the middle class. They are equipped with public-address systems and have running water; many are air-conditioned. Mosques could have been used to disseminate health tips and distribute food to the needy, or as quarantine centres and temporary hospitals.
But the government is too reluctant to take on the men of God to do any of that. So mosques, the very places that might have provided relief to the people, have been left to become, at best, battlegrounds over God’s intentions or, at worst, incubators of infection.
Before Pakistan had a coronavirus problem, it had a polio problem. The country came very close to eliminating that one, but the polio virus has resurfaced: Some people were refusing to get their children vaccinated because they feared that the United States government was using the inoculation programme to spy on them. They were also thinking: If God wants to cripple our children, who are we to stop Him?
Soon after the lockdown of Karachi began last month, I called up a doctor friend who worked at the front lines of an anti-polio campaign in the city a few years ago. He told me that while his team administered polio drops in hostile neighbourhoods he would stay a street away. Because you just never knew, he said: Here you were wanting to save somebody’s newborn from losing the use of her limbs, but the parents might just shoot you in the head for interfering with God’s plan.
My friend has a government job and works in a hospital that’s not supposed to handle COVID-19 patients. But things might change, and he said he wasn’t looking forward to that. He is half a believer and half a man of science.
The problem with this coronavirus, my friend told me, is that it doesn’t recognise class or sect. “It doesn’t differentiate between a Tablighi and a fashion designer. It adapts to local cultures quickly. It doesn’t even spare doctors.”
“Where did this virus come from?” I asked. “God created it,” he said. “But now He has lost control.” It’s not God’s virus anymore. It’s ours.
— Mohammed Hanif is the author of the novels “A Case of Exploding Mangoes,” “Our Lady of Alice Bhatti” and “Red Birds.” He is a contributing opinion writer.