The global pandemic has laid bare the deeply internalised misconceptions across the globe. It is almost a cliche to say that misinformation is a bigger pandemic than Covid-19. The conspiracy theories have grown keeping pace with the growth in the number of infections and deaths. I straddle two cultures; Pakistan and the United States, and I have a hard time pinpointing as to which country has shown more imbecility when it comes to false beliefs about Covid-19. However, there may be a pattern here.
In Pakistan, many believe in the existence of manipulative ghosts (aasaib ka saya) and the protection against them such as a uniquely custom made taweez from a supposedly ghost talker (Baba) who always wants money for making this almost elixir of life. Perhaps the reason is that a majority of Pakistani society has a deep-seated aversion toward anything foreign. The relentless reminders they get about the dangers of Covid-19 and the required precautions they need to observe are taken with a grain of salt. Those reminders are translated as propaganda drilled into their heads by the dirty hand of some foreign entity, which is feeling threatened by Islam and so this is an assault to harm their beautiful religion.
Remember the internet was and perhaps still is viewed by many as a tool which American thinkers and entrepreneurs invented to waste the minds of young Muslim men with porn. I wonder if in the absence of porn these young Muslim men would have reached beyond the outer edges of our solar system in their quest for finding life elsewhere in the universe. The polio vaccination is still viewed as a tool of the West trying to harm the fertility of Pakistani Muslims. I’m assuming they are under the impression that the West feels that more Muslims would mean an amalgamation of sheer talent, which would snatch away the throne of global leadership from America. I’m sorry to break it to them that today’s Muslims are a sorry lot.
Similarly, the American people are no less imbecile. Many believe the virus was made in a Chinese lab to harm America. America is home to the most entertaining conspiracy theories and the pandemic has had its fair share. The most widely believed is one where Bill Gates is trying to depopulate the world by killing an enormous amount of people with this virus.
In Pakistani villages, wearing a mask could be an invitation to ridicule. Especially, my Pashtun brethren would not miss the opportunity to express the strength of their faith by saying, “marg pa naita de” meaning death has a time that cannot be avoided so why bother wearing a mask. In America, wearing a mask has become a political statement. For Republicans and especially Trump supporters it is equated with supporting the lies of the Democratic Party and harming American freedoms.
A significant percentage of Americans believe fictions like Iran is a dangerous country and that Israel is under threat from its neighbours. Many believe in unidentified flying objects (UFO). There is an enormous number of flat earthers in America. Yet, the virus, despite affecting millions, is viewed with suspicion. These examples and more paint one distinct picture though: whether in US or Pakistan, the general tendency has been to discard the story coming from abroad and viewing it as a sinister plan to harm them. As far as Americans are concerned, their country is under threat and for Pakistanis, their religion is under assault from global machinations such as the virus. What both perhaps don’t realise is that a great percentage of the global population proudly adopts American citizenship and many others would love to. Similarly, Islam is the most growing religion in the world.
Published in The Express Tribune, April 29th, 2021.