A menace of our own making

Bapsi Sidhwa’s novel Ice Candy Man had a young girl in it called Lenny as its central character. The only one good thing that came out of this girl contracting polio was that she got to stay home and listen in on all the grown up conversation. There is no other benefit. There are only horrors to this disease: paralysis, and sometimes even death. Worse, you carry around the virus without knowing it and without realising that you are contracting it to others.
In 1998, 350,000 children were paralysed by polio every year in 125 countries, according to UNICEF. This figure has gone down by almost 99 percent. But there will always be bad eggs such as those countries that have misplaced priorities and chronic mismanagement: Pakistan, Afghanistan and Nigeria. Often found in the same club, the countries that have met this dreadful disease with neglect have created a breeding ground that has threatened the world with returning to the 1998 figures. This year in Pakistan, over 200 children have contracted polio. This leaves Pakistan with the lion’s share (85 percent) of the world’s cases.
It would be complicated enough to battle the disease against ignorance alone, given that a simple vaccine prevents the virus, making it possible to have a Pakistan completely polio-free. Things are further convoluted with the battle against the theory that all polio vaccines are vessels to either neuter the Muslim populace (note the population explosion), and/or a means to collect DNA samples. It has become a bowl of spaghetti noodles for the authorities.
Beyond measure, things have been a mess. In a bid to gather intelligence that led to the capture of Osama bin Laden in 2011, the polio campaign had been used for data-gathering by intelligence officials. Now, in a country already plagued by conspiracy theories, all polio campaigns are tainted. Parents, especially in conservative FATA where this disease prevails, have huge reservations about getting their children vaccinated.
The fact that polio workers have faced the wrath of the Taliban broadened the campaign’s suspicious status. Over 30 workers have been killed in the last two years. Ideally, the Taliban being against something ought to automatically put it in the kosher category, but there are takers for their agenda. If people are not sympathising with them, political leaders are calling them “brothers” we should negotiate with.
So then what does the world make of countries to whom the health, mobility and life of their posterity is negotiable? Mostly, such countries are put under quarantine; they are isolated and shunned. Pakistan has a travel advisory now — one now needs a polio certificate to travel abroad or to apply for a visa. This could possibly convert into a travel ban if the menace is not contained.
To contain this we must fix the mental disposition that accompanies the thinking that it is acceptable to not declare a health emergency. That it is acceptable to not inundate our talk shows, our advertisement campaigns and our community networks with the advocacy this needs. That it is acceptable to not cut our defence-addicted budgets for some diversion of funds into the polio campaign. That we can merrily go about our obsession with everything under the sun in our mosques that broadcast to millions, multiple times a day, except health hazards.
The prime minister has declared a polio-free Pakistan as his motto but the real question is what is being done to support the statement? Is there cohesion among all provincial governments about the unified methods in eradicating it? No provincial government is more important than the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa government where the capital, Peshawar, was recently named by the World Health Organisation (WHO) as the “largest reservoir of endemic polio virus in the world”.
With the ruling party and the opposing party at loggerheads, busy posturing and agitating, sloganeering and taking down one another, the sufferers are the campaigns that protect the most vulnerable of our society. Polio was on its way out from the world. We have called it back from its grave. Unless we want all our children to sit in on grown up conversations instead of being in school, we must give up our pettiness and our party egos and focus on this menace that is completely of our own making.

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