Monday, December 30, 2019
Raja Muhammad Ali
Falsehood has crept so deeply into our society that we can't even stop lying to ourselves. The lie of who we think we are gets so distorted with time that even we lose track of who we actually are.
The false persona that we create about ourselves is necessary in a society where one constantly has to oversell one's self to stay relevant. A society which focuses on optics more than substance; a society in which appearing a certain way is more important than being that way. But all these fake facades leave our egos extremely vulnerable. The persona that we create needs to be kept in extensive care -- even a slight whiff of truth can be fatal for who we think we are, and we don't want to know that we are not what we think we are.
I see that all around me irrespective of profession, age, colour, gender and background. The fierce protection of our alter-egos. I see it on roads when our alter-ego of Micheal Schumacher refuses to accept that someone can overtake us. I see it in offices when perfectly nice people conspire against their colleagues to somehow protect their own alter ego of 'best worker'. I see it in colleges when an argument turns into a physical altercation because the alter-ego of Aristotle couldn't tolerate being outwitted. I can see it in the broken arms of underage domestic help, who inadvertently made the alter-ego of Raja Inder question the validity of their arrogance.
But what happened yesterday at the Punjab Institute of Cardiology should be a wake up call for all of us. We all saw the overwhelming power of the death of the collective alter-ego of lawyers. Don't get me wrong. Some of the best people I know are lawyers, some of my best friends are lawyers. I am talking about the fake persona that the black coat has come to represent now. The persona which forces a perfectly nice person to not wear a seat belt and refuse to accept a challan because of who he is made to think he is once he is in that black coat. The alter-ego of Goliath, which couldn't sustain a slight from the video of an unknown young doctor addressing his colleagues. Defending the fake persona became so important that the human inside forgot that it was human to begin with. The black coat successfully killed the last strain of humanity in those donning it, to attack and fiercely protect the alter ego. We didn't comprehend the full horrors of collective fragile egos being challenged when they burned Joseph Colony, maybe because it was away from cameras, or maybe because the victims were not worthy of our empathy. But this time we felt the pain differently. This death of ego resulted in a blazing asteroid that hit too close to home.
Sadly, even this debacle couldn't change our mentality of "us and them". We still think we can get away by blaming a profession, by discussing the symptoms and ignoring the real issue, and accepting that we are all a hostage to the alternate reality we have created on the shifting sands of lies.
It's high time that as a society we start looking inward and break free of the toxic effects of striving to appear pious rather than being pious.
Let's all take a lesson from this and never forget who we really are, not let our alter-egos command us. For when it's challenged, the lies won't defend it, and it will require the sacrifice of our humanity to protect itself. We are the first victim, so let's be kind to ourselves and let's be honest. Stop judging someone who sins differently, stop forcing people to adopt fake personas to be invited to dinner. Stop telling yourself and others around you that they have to be a fake persona to be even accepted by the society. Stop being the log from the phrase: "log kia kahen gai?"
Let's build up our egos on solid foundations, on our traits -- not on the traits we think we have because we are made to believe we need to have them to be "accepted". Trust me when the foundation of your ego is strong, it won't need such inhumane acts to protect itself. The ego will be protected by the virtue of truth, not by the virtue of violence. Being rejected by a girl won't shatter our alter-ego of Sharukh Khan and turn us into acid-throwing lunatics to teach a lesson. Being fired from a job won't send us into the depths of depression and anxiety. Being slighted by an act of road rage won't turn us into street fighters. Let's build our egos and truth and let's release ourselves from the prison of fake personas we all live in as a society.
So next time you find yourself asking "do you know who I think I am?" Stop and check whether you are being a victim of your own alter-ego. Let's all start trying to escape this trap of thinking as we step into a new decade.
Political transition and mass misinformation campaigns have contributed to growing polio rates.
Ali Zai, Pakistan - Clad in a colourful floral shalwar kameez, her head draped in a brown shawl against the winter chill, Kainat Mohmand goes door to door to make sure no child in this northern Pakistani village is left behind.
"If we are nice and well-mannered, then the people are convinced and they accept us," says the 19-year-old polio vaccinator in the village of Ali Zai, about 10km south of Peshawar, the capital of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province.
"But this area is very dangerous," she adds, quickly.
In April, that danger crystallised. After a false rumour spread during a polio vaccination campaign that the drops were making children sick, hundreds of parents rushed their children to hospital, while thousands across the province refused to take part in the campaign at all.
In Ali Zai, dozens formed an angry mob that attacked a local government hospital, tearing down walls and, later, burning it to the ground. The violence led to the vaccination campaign being suspended across the province, an epicentre of polio infection in Pakistan.
The incident here was illustrative of Pakistan's struggle to contain the spread of polio in 2019, with cases rising to a five-year high amid suspicions of the vaccine and, officials say, a new trend: that of parents deprioritising polio vaccination due to the myriad other dangers to their lives that are of more immediate concern.
Since 1988, worldwide cases of poliomyelitis have dropped by 99 percent, from more than 350,000 to just 33 cases in 2018, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). The near-eradication of the disease has been the result of a sustained campaign of oral and injected vaccines targeting children under five, who are at risk of contracting the debilitating, highly infectious disease that can lead to paralysis and death.
Today, polio remains endemic in just three countries: Pakistan, Afghanistan and Nigeria (which has not reported a case in three years). This year, however, has seen the disease bounce back, with at least 125 cases reported, according to the Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI). The vast majority - 111 cases - have been reported from Pakistan, mostly in its northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, according to government data.
So what has gone wrong for Pakistan's polio programme, which brought cases down from 306 in 2014 to just 12 last year?
Rana Muhammad Safdar, the coordinator of the country's National Emergency Operations Centre on polio eradication, says the main obstacle was a complete breakdown in national coordination after a general election in mid-2018 that saw a new government, led by the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf's (PTI) Imran Khan, brought into power for the first time.
"[Last year] was a year of political transition in Pakistan, and the way that political transition happens here, we have three governments in a short span of time: the outgoing, the interim and the incoming," he said. "Whenever a government comes, they conduct transfers on a large scale […] These people, they kept on changing like anything."
For a programme that relies on more than 265,000 polio vaccinators going door to door to reach more than 35 million children, guarded by a further 100,000 security personnel, that kind of widescale bureaucratic change across almost every district in the country can be fatal.
"That affected the dynamics of our teams and the kind of oversight which was there, that dipped," said Safdar.
Mass misinformation campaigns
Further, as the number of cases began to rise, opposition political parties began to use the polio infections as a political issue to criticise the government, he says. The resulting political pressure pushed vaccinators to skew their results.
"When there is unnecessary pressure on them, and they feel that these are the kinds of results that [authorities] want to see, then they start providing those kinds of results, instead of focusing on real vaccinations," he said.
Hamid Jafari, the director of the WHO's polio eradication programme in the eastern Mediterranean region, agrees that there were technical shortcomings in the programme's ability to reach every child.
"The programme had under-estimated the number of children [that] missed vaccination repeatedly in core polio infected areas," he explained. "At its core, polio eradication is straightforward. If you vaccinate enough children in a given area, poliovirus has nowhere to hide and dies out. When not all children are reached poliovirus continues to find susceptible children."Also, mass misinformation campaigns were launched regarding the use of the vaccine, urging parents to refuse to give the drops to their children for fear of health concerns."They would take anti-vaxxer videos from Europe, then dub them in Urdu, professionally, and then they'd be promoted [online]," said Safdar. "And they would be timed so that they would circulate about a week before our immunisation campaigns."This year, Pakistan has successfully had at least 174 pieces of content promoting misinformation removed by websites including Facebook, YouTube and Twitter, the government says.
A bargaining chip
There has, however, been a new trend emerging among all of this: that of communities linking their use of the polio vaccine to other basic demands from the state, leveraging the international community's focus on eradication of the disease to achieve local governance outcomes. (Last year, international donors spent more than $800m on global polio eradication efforts, according to GPEI.)
"They see the importance [that the government] attaches to the polio vaccines, that is why they are making counter demands," said one polio programme official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorised to speak to the media. "They know that if they do not accept the polio drops, there will be pressure on government officials, and if the pressure comes then they will have to provide those other services."
"People say that you are providing us [polio vaccine] services, fine, but we also need these services along with them. Electricity, water and natural gas, jobs."
This year has seen numerous boycotts, with thousands of families in the Kurram, Orakzai, Bannu, North Waziristan and Peshawar districts refusing to give their children polio drops unless their local needs are met.
Protest organisers told Al Jazeera that while they had no doubt the polio vaccines were necessary for their children, they were using the polio campaign as a bargaining chip to address longstanding grievances. "[We boycotted] because there was a lot of focus from the government on polio," said Khalil Wazir, a protest organiser in North Waziristan district. His village refused to give their children polio drops for eight months until their demands - for government compensation owed to them to rebuild their homes - were met. Wazir's village of hundreds of residents had been flattened during the Pakistani military's operation to retake North Waziristan from the Pakistani Taliban in 2014. For the last two years, residents had been living in tents out in the open, he said. Within weeks of the boycott, government officials who Wazir had been unsuccessfully lobbying for years agreed to fulfil their obligations, he said.
"One day a woman died in our village from cold. Another was killed by a mad dog bite. Another died from a snake bite. We felt that our children were dying of heat, cold and other things, it was not polio," he said.
In Ali Zai, that sentiment echoes in the words of Mazhar Khan, a 32-year-old religious school administrator who had refused to give his three children the drops due to concerns about health implications.
"We see all these diseases, diabetes, blood pressure, jaundice," he said, sitting with a team of polio vaccinators on a rope-bed in the winter sun. "These are the diseases we see most often here. As far as polio is concerned, I don't think there would have been a single case of polio in our whole neighbourhood. But to treat it, police are being brought here [to force us to take the drops]."
"These questions regarding the polio vaccine are coming about because we have bigger problems than polio in our society, why is the government not solving those?"
It is a tricky problem to resolve, government officials admit.
"We work with the parents … we tell them that we understand that their requests are genuine, but if you go towards a boycott because of this, then you are depriving your children further," said Safdar, the polio programme chief.
Attacks on vaccinators
The polio programme in Pakistan has long been the subject of misinformation and rumours, with many linking it to an unspecified "Western" conspiracy to sterilise or otherwise harm Muslims. Many cite the US Central Intelligence Agency's (CIA) use of a fake vaccination campaign through a Pakistani doctor, Shakil Afridi, to verify the identity of Osama bin Laden before the raid to kill him in 2011 as proof of these theories.
The conspiracy theories do not just result in increased refusals, they also come at a far greater cost. Since 2012, at least 98 people have been killed in attacks on Pakistan's polio vaccination campaigns, according to an Al Jazeera tally.
The latest attack took place on December 18, with two policemen killed while on their way to join a vaccination team in the northern district of Lower Dir.
Out in the streets of Ali Zai, Kainat Mohmand is still trying to convince parents who had earlier refused the vaccine for their children to change their minds. There are no policemen here, despite the attacks in April. "Usually, they look at us with suspicion," she says. "They ask me to clarify things for them, about the vaccine. Many of them get convinced, then."
She smiles, broadly, and adds: "We try to make the impossible, possible."