Anti-polio campaigners have managed to convince one of the most loved celebrities in Pakistan to act as the face of the campaign to end the crippling disease in the country.
At a ceremony on Saturday to announce the official appointment of cricketing star Shahid Afridi as a “polio champion”, most of the various speakers’ focus seemed to be on buttering up the representatives of the organisations present rather than discussing how Afridi’s fame would be used to help end polio.
Curiously, the logos of key partners and donors including the Ministry of Interprovincial Coordination (IPC) and USAID, the latter of which alone has contributed $25 million towards polio eradication in the current year, were also missing from the background image behind the speakers.
Looking at the joy on the faces of the representatives of polio eradication partners present, one may have thought the war against polio was nearing an end, which sadly is not the case. The example of India, which has reported no polio case in the last 16 months, was also given without any explanation of how the Indian model could work in Pakistan, where 22 polio cases have been reported in this year alone. Furthermore, bans on polio vaccination campaigns have also been placed by the Taliban which have virtually brought the polio programme to a standstill.
The ceremony, which was supposed to focus on Afridi, ended up giving just few minutes to the star athlete, with the rest of the event filled by speakers who had nothing new to present.
Meanwhile, Shahnaz Wazir Ali, the Prime Minister’s Focal Person on Polio Eradication said, “We could not be more delighted to have Afridi join the polio eradication team in Pakistan. He is a true Pakistani hero and will help us deliver important message to some of the hardest to reach areas of the country.” Later, she also mentioned the fact that the campaign has the unanimous support of all parties in parliament.
“Polio is a preventable but not curable. It is a challenge for Pakistan to eradicate the polio virus from the county in the next two years,” said Rotary Polio Plus National Chair Aziz Memon, adding, “India did it and Pakistan will do it.”
UNICEF Representative Dan Rohrmann added a note of caution though, saying many people wake up every day wondering how Pakistan will eradicate polio. “Pakistan is playing a long and tough match against polio, and extra steps are required to win,” he said.
The star of the show then made a short prepared speech, saying he will make all out efforts to take the message of hope to every household. “It is the responsibility of every individual to protect children from all sorts of diseases.”
According to sources, Afridi was advised not to take questions from the media to avoid a possible onslaught of potentially controversial questions. No formal question and answer session was held, and Afridi was whisked out minutes after the ceremony concluded.
Plenty of distractions
Where there are celebrities there are fans. Unfortunately, this event, which deals with a difficult topic, featured children running around with bats and people with no affiliation to any media or polio-related organisation gossiping loudly. Autograph hunting distracted from the much more essential purpose of the event — returning legitimacy to the polio eradication campaign that was lost due to another Afridi, Shakeel, and fatwas by local ulema.
Published in The Express Tribune, July 8th, 2012.