The struggle for a Polio-free Pakistan

What is behind the the sudden upsurge of violence towards polio vaccinators in Pakistan?

On Sunday 16 June, gunmen on motorbikes shot dead two polio workers carrying out a vaccination drive in Peshawar, a crowded city in Pakistan’s north-west. One of the men who died was a schoolteacher, the other a paramedic. Both left behind grieving families. Their deaths bring the total tally of polio workers assassinated in Pakistan up to nearly 20 since last December.

“People are scared,” says Muslim Raza, who heads the polio team in the Karim Poora area of Karachi. “Before this happened, many local people would come for a day’s training before joining the vaccination drives [which normally run for between three and five days each month]. Now nobody is volunteering to work.”

The attempt to stamp out polio through oral immunising drops has been running in Pakistan since 1994. In recent years, huge strides have been made towards stamping out the disease, which used to affect tens of thousands of people every year. In 2011, there were 198 new recorded cases of the polio virus in Pakistan; in 2012, just 58.

Yet Pakistan is one of just three countries – including Nigeria and Afghanistan – where it remains endemic. While paralysis strikes just a small percentage of those carrying the virus, the effects are devastating. Unable to support themselves, many people disabled by polio beg at the side of the traffic-filled roads in Pakistan’s big cities.

The attacks started on 18 December 2012, when five female health workers were killed within 20 minutes of each other, four in the southern port city of Karachi and one in Peshawar, in a brutal co-ordinated attack. News of the assassinations, shocking even by Pakistan’s blood-soaked standards, spread across the world.

In the aftermath of those first attacks, the three-day vaccination drive, which would have immunised 5.2 million children in Karachi alone, was suspended. In the intervening months, the programme has resumed. The chalk markings which denote that the polio team has been to visit can be seen on gates, doors, and walls outside houses across the country, from the upmarket areas of Islamabad, to slums, and remote villages. But despite high security in the problematic areas – the north-western province of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (KPK), parts of Karachi, and the Federally Administered Tribal Area – the death toll has risen. Many, though not all, of the victims have been women.

As yet, no-one has claimed responsibility. The Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan has denied they are behind the attacks, although they have spoken out against vaccinations in the past and are certainly responsible for perpetrating misinformation. The attacks are clearly planned and co-ordinated, but there have been no arrests and no high profile investigation – merely a huge increase in the number of police escorts. The latest development is that the new provincial government in KPK is planning to give polio workers weapons licences to carry their own guns.

Meanwhile, teams of health workers – partly made up of civil servants drafted out to the polio campaign, and partly of local volunteers working for a fee of 200 rupees (£1.50) per day – are continuing to go out to immunise children. Who are these unsung heroes? And why has this senseless campaign of violence begun?

Khoram Shehzad, 29, is a polio vaccinator from Karachi’s Kimari Town area. Like many vaccinators, he comes from the local community. Experts say that employing local volunteers is a crucial component of the programme as it means that the community feels a sense of ownership over the vaccination drive. “More than anything, more than police protecting you, the best protection is from those vaccinators coming from the community itself,” says Dr Elyas Durry, head of the World Health Organisation (WHO)’s polio team in Pakistan.

Shehzad left a job as a computer engineer three years ago to join the polio campaign, and currently earns 250 rupees (£2) per day for each four day immunisation drive. “I didn’t start doing this for the money. I am doing this for the people of Pakistan. These are the children, the future of the country,” he tells me when we speak on the phone. “We are all afraid because of the targeted killings. Some people don’t want to work in the field any more, but it is important for our country and our people.”

The resistance to the vaccine is deep-rooted. Several rumours circulate. One – perpetrated and spread by extremist Islamic leaders – is that the vaccine is a CIA plot to sterilise Muslim children. Another is that it contains materials forbidden by Islam, such as alcohol and pig’s blood.

“Some uneducated people don’t take the drops,” says Shehzad. “They say the medicine in the vaccine is haram [forbidden by Islam]. We tell them the government wouldn’t start this if it was bad for your children.”

The misconceptions are worse among the Pashtun population, who come from the conservative north-west of Pakistan. The rumours and misinformation have been perpetrated through radio broadcasts and other propaganda channels of extremist organisations. Shehzad’s area in Karachi, where there is a high security risk, is 85 per cent Pashto-speaking.

“It is mainly illiterate and uneducated people that refuse the vaccine,” says Fahmeeda Malik, a polio worker from Rawalpindi. “We reason with them, saying, if the government wanted to give you family planning medicine, there are a lot of places they can do it for grown ups. Why children? If they think over it, they normally agree. But if they don’t, we are helpless.”

Across the country, polio workers I speak to say that refusals make up just a tiny minority of the whole. Yet that small percentage is enough to jeopardise the goal of totally eliminating polio. The problem is compounded by the fact that Pakistan’s population is highly mobile, so the disease can easily spread outside the pockets where it is cornered as people are displaced or relocate in search of work.

“Often we ask people, who told you this is against the preaching of Islam? Mostly they say it is the leaders of mosques, so we go to them and convince them,” says Dr Khaled Randhawa, district health officer of Rawalpindi. In May this year, a group of international religious scholars met in Islamabad and issued an edict saying that the polio vaccine did not contravene Islam. “Depriving a child of polio drops is equal to committing a sin. Protecting your child from disease is a religious obligation,” said one of the scholars. This was a positive move, although it is too soon to say how much impact it will have.

“I have been working with these misconceptions about the vaccine for my whole life – in Somalia, in Nigeria, elsewhere,” says Durry. “But I don’t understand – nobody does – how it became such a violent reaction here in Pakistan. I don’t know why it has escalated.”

Many point to the CIA’s assassination of Osama Bin Laden. In the run up to the operation, the CIA ran a false hepatitis B vaccination drive so it could gather the DNA of local residents. It was a spectacularly irresponsible policy that leant credence to the conspiracy theories that were already widely circulated. The film Zero Dark Thirty depicted the fake drive as a polio campaign.

Yet is this alone responsible for the sudden upsurge of violence? Many experts believe it goes deeper. “It’s another way of trying to control the population through fear,” says Mustafa Qadri, Pakistan researcher at Amnesty International. “The aim is to terrorise, to make people scared, to make their conditions worse, and in that way to influence the society. Polio is not socially sensitive in the way that, for example, reproductive rights are: it is a very basic health requirement. When you’re attacking people’s access to these basic rights, you’re attacking their ability to live a normal life. And I think that is the overall objective: to control and to suppress the society.”

In the areas of the country where the risk is highest, polio field workers and team coordinators feel under siege.

“There is a big threat to these volunteers,” says Javed Marwat, the deputy commissioner of Peshawar, the provincial capital of KPK. “The situation is not good for anyone in the city. Every day there are bomb blasts, but the daily explosions get ignored. When a polio worker is killed, this news spreads to other countries, in the international media. The terrorists continue to kill polio workers because it has so much impact. More people die in blasts, but nobody cares about that.” Indeed, against the violent context of today’s Pakistan, the daily news of small scale terror attacks no longer makes an impact; the constant news of death is simply the background music to life. Increasingly, it is violence against unexpected or soft targets – the schoolgirl activist Malala Yousafzai, or health workers delivering life-saving vaccines – that makes national and international headlines.

At the District Health Office in Rawalpindi, I attended an evening meeting of polio workers. Here vaccination teams gathered in the evening to feed back on the day’s work. Most of them were women, clad in bright headscarves and face coverings, and drawn from the same conservative communities they are serving. They confidently talked through the day’s results, speaking over their male supervisor with details of refusals and the ways they had tackled them. “The woman in the house would not come out in front of a man, so I told my male colleague to leave,” says Saba, one of the vaccinators. Another, Aisha, added: “Since the last drive, we spoke to local notables about the refusals, and they have told people they should take the vaccine.” Of the 1,700 vaccinations they had carried out between them over the course of the day, there had been just one refusal.

It has been suggested that there is a gendered aspect to the violence. Not all polio workers are women, and some of those gunned down in recent months have been men. However, while the targeting of polio workers has suddenly escalated, there is a recent history of militant violence being directed against “lady health workers”, a body of more than 100,000 women who deliver door-to-door healthcare. The lady health worker programme was initiated by Benazir Bhutto in 1994, and for many women and girls in remote areas, they provide the only direct access to healthcare. A 2012 study published in the British Medical Journal looked at how the Taliban threatened and attacked female health workers in Swat during their brief period of control of the area. It found that not only did community health suffer significantly, but that lady health workers were socially ostracised after public vilification by the Taliban. It also found that many others stopped working or left the area due to their threat to their lives. Against this context, the recent attacks on polio workers could be yet another demonstration of the deep discomfort among the conservative elements of Pakistani society about women in public space, and women taking ownership of their bodies.

“By attacking these workers, the perpetrators of these attacks are cutting down people’s rights to services, particularly women and girls,” says Qadri. “When you target these people, you are effectively trying to destroy those parts of society that allow people to live with dignity.” In addition to this, he explains, the fact that the attacks have been sustained, despite extra security, compounds the desired effect of spreading terror. “Health workers are being targeted even when they have police escorts. They just feel very scared: even when the state is trying its best to protect people, they’re not safe. The impact for the community is profound.“

For the polio workers in the hotspots of Karachi and Peshawar, life goes on, for now. “My heart is full of terror when I hear that more workers, more workers, more workers are being targeted,” says Sadia Zaidi, a vaccinator from Peshawar whose name has been changed for security reasons. “Sometimes we don’t like to stay in one place for too long to convince refusers to take the vaccine, because we are at such risk. But we carry on. Some of my colleagues don’t even take the money because they just want to work for the people. My family is afraid for my safety, but I am doing this so my children can live in a polio-free Pakistan.”

 

A Pakistani health worker administers polio vaccine drops to a young child at a polio vaccination center in Karachi. Photograph: Getty Images

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

Getty
Show Hide image

Why Angela Merkel's comments about the UK and US shouldn't be given too much weight

The Chancellor's comments are aimed at a domestic and European audience, and she won't be abandoning Anglo-German relationships just yet.

Angela Merkel’s latest remarks do not seem well-judged but should not be given undue significance. Speaking as part of a rally in Munich for her sister party, the CSU, the German Chancellor claimed “we Europeans must really take our own fate into our hands”.

The comments should be read in the context of September's German elections and Merkel’s determination to restrain the fortune of her main political rival, Martin Schulz – obviously a strong Europhile and a committed Trump critic. Sigmar Gabriel - previously seen as a candidate to lead the left-wing SPD - has for some time been pressing for Germany and Europe to have “enough self-confidence” to stand up to Trump. He called for a “self-confident position, not just on behalf of us Germans but all Europeans”. Merkel is in part responding to this pressure.

Her words were well received by her audience. The beer hall crowd erupted into sustained applause. But taking an implicit pop at Donald Trump is hardly likely to be a divisive tactic at such a gathering. Criticising the UK post-Brexit and the US under Trump is the sort of virtue signalling guaranteed to ensure a good clap.

It’s not clear that the comments represent that much of a new departure, as she herself has since claimed. She said something similar earlier this year. In January, after the publication of Donald Trump’s interview with The Times and Bild, she said that “we Europeans have our fate in our own hands”.

At one level what Merkel said is something of a truism: in two year’s time Britain will no longer be directly deciding the fate of the EU. In future no British Prime Minister will attend the European Council, and British MEPs will leave the Parliament at the next round of European elections in 2019. Yet Merkel’s words “we Europeans”, conflate Europe and the EU, something she has previously rejected. Back in July last year, at a joint press conference with Theresa May, she said: “the UK after all remains part of Europe, if not of the Union”.

At the same press conference, Merkel also confirmed that the EU and the UK would need to continue to work together. At that time she even used the first person plural to include Britain, saying “we have certain missions also to fulfil with the rest of the world” – there the ‘we’ meant Britain and the EU, now the 'we' excludes Britain.

Her comments surely also mark a frustration born of difficulties at the G7 summit over climate change, but Britain and Germany agreed at the meeting in Sicily on the Paris Accord. More broadly, the next few months will be crucial for determining the future relationship between Britain and the EU. There will be many difficult negotiations ahead.

Merkel is widely expected to remain the German Chancellor after this autumn’s election. As the single most powerful individual in the EU27, she is the most crucial person in determining future relations between the UK and the EU. Indeed, to some extent, it was her intransigence during Cameron’s ‘renegotiation’ which precipitated Brexit itself. She also needs to watch with care growing irritation across the EU at the (perceived) extent of German influence and control over the institutions and direction of the European project. Recent reports in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung which suggested a Merkel plan for Jens Weidmann of the Bundesbank to succeed Mario Draghi at the ECB have not gone down well across southern Europe. For those critics, the hands controlling the fate of Europe are Merkel’s.

Brexit remains a crucial challenge for the EU. How the issue is handled will shape the future of the Union. Many across Europe’s capitals are worried that Brussels risks driving Britain further away than Brexit will require; they are worried lest the Channel becomes metaphorically wider and Britain turns its back on the continent. On the UK side, Theresa May has accepted the EU, and particularly Merkel’s, insistence, that there can be no cherry picking, and therefore she has committed to leaving the single market as well as the EU. May has offered a “deep and special” partnership and a comprehensive free trading arrangement. Merkel should welcome Britain’s clarity. She must work with new French President Emmanuel Macron and others to lead the EU towards a new relationship with Britain – a close partnership which protects free trade, security and the other forms of cooperation which benefit all Europeans.

Henry Newman is the director of Open Europe. He tweets @henrynewman.

0800 7318496