Who would have thought that being a polio worker would turn out to be one of the most hazardous occupations in the country? Six polio workers, including five women, were gunned down in cold blood in Karachi and Peshawar over the last couple of days, leading the World Health Organisation to suspend its campaign, at least in Karachi. Thanks to the murderous actions of extremists, a disease that had been almost completely eradicated is now coming back with a vengeance and hundreds of thousands of children could be at risk.
The resurgence of polio can be traced back to Taliban radio campaigns in Swat and the tribal areas to convince the local population that polio vaccinations are part of a nefarious Western campaign to sterilise our population. The government pushback, which consisted of appointing cricketer Shahid Afridi as an ambassador to convince people that polio vaccinations were badly needed and an expensive media outreach programme seem to have had little success. The deaths in Karachi only serve to prove that those involved in efforts to eradicate polio are no less than soldiers in the frontline of a battlefield.
It is hard to see what else the government can do to fight back. All the money in the world will not be sufficient to fight back against the Taliban’s propaganda. The solution, as always, is to eliminate the Taliban so that their narrative, too, is destroyed. This requires political will on the part of a reluctant military and civilian government. If we do not get serious about the militancy threat, international organisations might abandon Pakistan and the polio endemic will only get worse. We have tried fighting ignorance with reason and that has only led to further unnecessary deaths. Beefed-up security can only do so much to protect vulnerable workers and ensure children get the vaccinations they need. While such reactive steps are needed, they must be accompanied by an aggressive military campaign to root out the Taliban.
Published in The Express Tribune, December 19th, 2012.