Fatwa For A Mask

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by Javaid Iqbal

In the coming days, Kashmir will witness a surge of cases, as the lockdown is lifted. Although there are no hotspots yet in Kashmir, we will need to be proactive when dealing with a global pandemic. I have seen firsthand how the virus ravaged New York, which has one of the best healthcare systems in the world, and I do not want people in Kashmir to repeat the same mistakes that New Yorkers made.

Students wearing face-masks walk with their belongings after completing 14-days of quarantine at a hotel Pine Spring during government-imposed nationwide lockdown as a preventive measure against the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus in Srinagar on April 3, 2020. KL Image: Bilal Bahadur

To defeat the pandemic, we need high levels of collaboration between governments and citizens. Trust in government is required for such partnership and coordination to take place. Yet this comes when trust in government and institutions has been in steep decline. People in Kashmir do not trust the government due to which people do not use masks when venturing outside.

During the pandemic’s initial days, many religions worldwide were blamed for spreading the virus, but now these religious leaders need to be a part of the solution to curb the spread.

In Taiwan, which is lauded as a model country with proper Covid-19 management, religious leaders worked with the government’s epidemic command centre to respond to the health crisis and protect the people. Muslim countries have quoted the Prophet to promote quarantine and travel bans. The Prophet said: “If you hear of an outbreak of plague in a land, do not enter it; and if the plague breaks out in a place while you are in it, do not leave that place.”

Just like in Kashmir, religious leaders are the most respected leaders in Indonesia, where many Muslim organizations issued a fatwa to substitute Friday prayers. In Somalia, which also happens to a majority Muslim population, religious leaders have partnered with the government to preach in the streets the importance of good hygiene practices, how to use social distancing, and how to identify misinformation and now the importance of using masks.

In late 2014, public health officials and religious leaders joined the World Health Organization (WHO) to produce a protocol for culturally sensitive burials of Ebola victims. Over 2,000 Christian and Muslim leaders were trained to conduct safe, dignified funerals in Liberia and Sierra Leone. According to a 2017 study published in Neglected Tropical Diseases, the burial protocol may have saved thousands of lives. With no end to the pandemic insight, the administration must engage all actors to combat the contagion spread.

One proposal for lifting lockdowns is that we use mass testing along with contact tracing and quarantine to get ahead of infections in the community, which makes sense in the western context. In resource deficit Kashmir, however, this strategy would be almost impossible to implement. We need an effective, efficient, and cheap solution.

Our religious leaders need to issue a fatwa about masks to protect the people during this pandemic. The vaccine may take years to develop as the fastest vaccine ever developed was for mumps, which took four years to develop and many more years to distribute. Most people in Kashmir still do not use a mask when in crowded places because they lack the information on how these are useful. These leaders need to use the language of religion and the pulpit’s power to warn people of the risks they face during this devastating pandemic. It is paramount for these religious leaders to explain and support objective scientific findings to save Kashmiris’ lives. Local religious leaders have high levels of influence and community-organizing capabilities. They can help frame approaches that will make them more likely to succeed. In Kashmir, during instability, hardship, and uncertainty, people turn to religious leaders, whom they often trust more than media, government, and business officials for direction and information.

Health experts worldwide say the evidence is clear that masks can help prevent the contagion spread and that the more people wearing masks, the better. The new guidelines recommend that everyone who comes in close contact with others in crowded or close quarters, such as on a bus or in a store, wear a cloth mask composed of at least three different layers of material. Public face mask-wearing is essential because it is estimated that anywhere from 6% to almost 18% of those infected can carry the virus without developing symptoms. Add to this an incubation period of around five days, but up to 14 days in some cases, before symptoms develop, even those who do go on to show signs of being contagious can spread the virus to many people before they start to fall ill. So, universal masking is the solution.

Those communities that implemented masking were more successful than others at reducing the virus spread, countries that flattened the curve used masks in public. Face masks will help to reduce transmission in the community, mainly if used in public transport and crowded areas.

Making everyone wear a mask will need a cultural shift that cannot happen without the support of religious leaders in Kashmir. Some people may think issuing fatwas on the usage of masks may be extreme, but we need extreme and radical solutions if we have to beat this virus.

(The author is a Global Fellow at Brandeis University USA. The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of Kashmir Life.)

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