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Conspiracy Theories Abound In Pakistan, Worsening Spread Of The Coronavirus


In Pakistan, conspiracy theories about the coronavirus abound. Health officials say it is impacting their work and causing the virus to spread. NPR's Diaa Hadid reports from Islamabad.

DIAA HADID, BYLINE: In fighting the pandemic, Pakistan faces a shortage of protective gear and health workers. People who contract the disease are stigmatized. Then there are the conspiracy theories.

NAUMAN UL HAQ: Coronavirus is some sort of a conspiracy from the Jews and a lot of people thinking that the government might be doing it for getting donations from the outside world.

HADID: Dr. Nauman Ul Haq lectures in public health at the Bacha Khan Medical College.

UL HAQ: There were rumors being spread around that they take people to the quarantine center, and then they inject something into them. And then they die.

HADID: Zain Raza works on the government's coronavirus response in the northern province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. He says people believing conspiracy theories is impacting their work because they aren't taking the disease seriously.

ZAIN RAZA: They are out there flouting social distancing rules. They go to mosques.

HADID: They cram inside mosques to pray. And Raza says, because they don't think it's dangerous, they wait till they're really sick to go to hospital.

RAZA: They are able to spread the disease outside in the community because they're coming in very late.

HADID: And they're more likely to die. Sajjad Khan is a public health specialist who works in the province, and he says some people are even refusing treatment.

SAJJAD KHAN: So I personally have known several people that they're not going to doctors, and they're suffering from symptoms like these.

HADID: COVID-19 symptoms. Khan knows two people who died without getting treatment. In tests done after they died, they were found to have the disease. The conspiracy theorists are helped along by something that should be good news. In Pakistan, the virus hasn't spread as quickly as authorities expected. There's about 15,000 cases but fewer than 400 deaths. Many attribute that to a lack of testing, but it's let some people argue the whole pandemic is just hyped up. The problem is most acute in rural parts of that northern province, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, where extremists have spread other conspiracy theories, like that the polio vaccine was created by the West to make Muslims infertile. But Khan says you can't blame people for their beliefs.

KHAN: We need to talk to people. We need to explain this new novel coronavirus. This is a new disease. People - like, they haven't seen anything in their lifetime like that.

HADID: The way some families of victims have been treated hasn't helped, like Abdul Ghaffar Gul, an illiterate farmer. His father died in mid-April of COVID-19, five days after he was taken to hospital. Gul says he'd never heard of that disease, and that made him suspicious.

ABDUL GHAFFAR GUL: (Non-English language spoken).

HADID: What made him even more suspicious was that his father was wrapped up in plastic and buried quickly. It's the standard way of dealing with the remains of a COVID-19 victim. But to Gul, a devout Muslim, it seemed cruel and un-Islamic.

GUL: (Non-English language spoken).

HADID: He says, "after what happened to my father, even if I'm sick, I won't go to the hospital." He says his whole village feels the same way.

Diaa Hadid, NPR News, Islamabad. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Diaa Hadid chiefly covers Pakistan and Afghanistan for NPR News. She is based in NPR's bureau in Islamabad. There, Hadid and her team were awarded a Murrow in 2019 for hard news for their story on why abortion rates in Pakistan are among the highest in the world.