Muslim worshippers attend evening prayers after ending their fast on the first day of Ramadan in Rawalpindi, Pakistan, on April 25, 2020. Image Credit: AP

Just ahead of Ramadan, Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan’s government chose to withdraw restrictions on mosques that were imposed earlier to avert the spread of the coronavirus.

In contrast to a limit of no more than five people attending a prayer gathering or ‘jamaat’ at a given time, Imran’s government agreed to allow the nightly ‘Taraweeh’ prayers in larger congregations during ‘Ramadan’ with some restrictions in place.

Worshippers must wear masks and stand apart, not less than six feet. These conditions were agreed between Pakistan President Arif Alvi and leaders of ‘ulema’ or Islamic scholars from across the country. Organisers at the mosques are also required to remove carpets and sanitise their floors before the gatherings commence.

The arrangement is baffling as Pakistan battles the coronavirus pandemic. In sharp contrast to other Islamic countries maintaining social distancing, the agreement has now sanctified social proximity. Monitoring compliance at thousands of mosques across Pakistan could be no less than an administrative nightmare, further stretching the capabilities of institutions of the state that are already stressed with enforcing the rule of law.

Unless Pakistan’s present-day ruling class sees the value of accepting failure and going back to the drawing board, the country’s prospects appear set to head south.

- Farhan Bokhari, Pakistan commentator

At the outset, there are two glaring gaps in Ramadan-related arrangements now in place. On the one hand, Pakistan has broken ranks with the Islamic world where several countries continue to enforce a variety of disciplines, with none offering to relax the rules as Pakistan has done. But crucially, on the other hand, the permission for a return to congregational prayers has enhanced the risk faced by Pakistan at the toughest moment in its history. Just ahead of the beginning of Ramadan in Pakistan yesterday, representatives of the Pakistan Medical Association (PMA) came out publicly, urging the agreement for mosques to be suspended. In Imran’s words, however, the onus now lies with the mosque administrations to maintain the conditions laid out in the agreement. Pakistan’s prime minister is either out of sync with the realities on the ground or merely hesitant to step back for fear of paying a likely political cost.

The risk, however, from allowing the congregations to go ahead in the first place is so large that the political risk for Imran would become secondary in the ultimate analysis. It is already clear that in the months ahead, the number of individuals across Pakistan infected with coronavirus will likely grow significantly.

It would be impossible to distinguish between the proportion infected from attending congregations in mosques as opposed to other sources. Ultimately, the allowance given by Imran’s government is likely to further polarise the environment in Pakistan between those who supported the idea in the first place and those opposed to it.

As Pakistan battles the coronavirus pandemic like the rest of the world, the responsibility for framing policy options must eventually rest with the community of medical experts, best equipped to decide the way forward. In Pakistan, however, Imran not only appears to have bypassed the opinion of well-trained medical experts as he backed the ‘Taraweeh’ agreement, but he has also chosen to land himself in political isolation, having turned down offers from key Opposition figures to forge a joint agreement on the way forward. Having decided to lead the battle on his own, Imran has exposed himself to criticism from the Opposition over the failure to adopt the right approach, ahead of time.

Imran’s indecisiveness at the early stages of the outbreak to opt for a nationwide lockdown may have exacerbated the challenge. And now with new coronavirus cases erupting across Pakistan more rapidly, it may already be too late to adopt tight measures. His decision to launch a new volunteer force known as the ‘Coronavirus Tigers’ has also badly exposed Imran’s inability to understand the importance of existing networks for emergency response at a critical time. Pakistan has a large community of civil society organisations with an established track record of being in the forefront during periods of humanitarian crises, notably the massive earthquake of 2005 that killed at least 70,000 people across the country’s northern mountainous belt.

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Meanwhile, the failure to put in place an efficient, new framework for combating coronavirus will likely also undermine Pakistan’s already fragile economic environment. In the almost 20 months of rule by Imran’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party, economic conditions, especially for poorer households, have become increasingly hard.

The push to root out corruption, as Imran had promised as his rallying cry in 2018, has ended up discouraging new investments by some of Pakistan’s wealthiest investors. And corruption tragically remains a way of life for ordinary Pakistanis as they grapple with mundane issues in their daily lives.

The coronavirus pandemic had only made it harder for Imran to stabilise Pakistan’s already weak prospects. Unless Pakistan’s present-day ruling class sees the value of accepting failure and going back to the drawing board, the country’s prospects appear set to head south.

Beyond the criticism over the government’s decision to allow congregational prayers in mosques during Ramadan, there is a much broader challenge waiting to be tackled. But with Imran’s apparent refusal to adopt new thinking, Pakistan’s future appears increasingly surrounded by difficult challenges.

— Farhan Bokhari is a Pakistan-based commentator who writes on political and economic matters.