By Owais Tohid
April 7, 2020
When Khalid Zaidi landed in Mashhad from Karbala, things still felt normal in Iran. The traditional Qahwa Khana cafes and shops were open, and importantly for Khalid and the hundreds of Pakistani pilgrims he was escorting as tour operator, the holy shrine of Imam Reza was open.
But rumours and anecdotal news had already begun circulating about coronavirus deaths.
The group had to decide whether to continue the pilgrimage tour to Qom after Mashad. Khalid and a few friends had planned to stay back for the Persian New Year of Nowruz, celebrated when winter changes into spring.
“We were getting sketchy news of deaths from Qom. There was confusion and opinions were divided,” recalls Khalid, whose real identity is withheld. “Some wanted to proceed to Qom since the shrines were open. Others were freaking out and said it was too big of a risk so let’s return.”
Some clerics began propagating that the shrine in Qom had healing powers to cure diseases, and a video viewed by millions showed a man licking and kissing the gate of the shrine, saying he wasn’t scared of the virus. Iran’s Supreme leader Ali Khomenei termed the outbreak a hoax and enemy propaganda. President Hasan Rouhani didn’t announce quarantine measures and urged people to vote in the country’s legislative polls on Feb. 21. Meanwhile, horrific satellite images in international media showed mass trenches dug up to bury the dead at the Behesht-e-Masoumeh complex near Qom.
Khalid Zaidi decided not to take the risk and to return to Pakistan with his tour group. Some rejected his decision and went ahead to Qom on their own. The rest came back by road and were quarantined. Khalid tested negative for the virus himself, but many pilgrims who returning from Qom tested positive in Pakistan.
The spread of coronavirus in Iran was fuelled by politics and religion and consequently travelled to many countries through pilgrims. Pakistan seems the worst hit. A few days back when Pakistan crossed the figure of 2,000 cases, a World Health Organisation (WHO) report said 46 percent of confirmed Covid-19 patients in the country had travelled to Iran.
To an extent, the situation was inevitable as the countries share borders and thousands of Shias visit for pilgrimage every year. But the land route runs through southwestern Balochistan province, among the least developed and most derelict and poor areas of the country, completely unequipped to handle a border crisis of this nature.
Pakistani authorities were caught off guard, and Balochistan government spokesman, Liaquat Shiwani, says they tried to stem the tide.
“We had requested Iran through the envoy in Pakistan to provide our pilgrims quarantine facilities and health certificates,” he said. “But the Iranians were amid their own crisis and had their own cases to deal with. They started pushing the pilgrims across the border and stamping ‘exit’ on their passports so we had no choice. They are Pakistani citizens, we had to accept them with our limited facilities.”
Then came the chaos in Pakistan’s border town of Taftan. The quarantine facilities were rudimentary and the pilgrims were mishandled. Some complained of not being checked by doctors, others said the food was terrible. Many said the camp conditions spread the virus further, and videos emerged of unhygienic sanitation conditions. There are reports that some people ran away from the camps. Others were declared healthy and released after 14 days, only to be diagnosed with Covid-19 when they returned to their home provinces.
The pilgrims, Zaireen as they are known in Pakistan, hailed from across the country. In Balochistan, 145 out of 190 confirmed cases are Iran returnee pilgrims belonging to the Hazara Shia community. The capital city of Quetta has been locked down fearing the possible spread of the virus. 1,300 km from Quetta, in Gilgit Baltistan 170 out of 210 cases are returning Zaireen.
“We share the border with China but there hasn’t been a single cross-border case from there. Our cases are pilgrims and their contact circle,” spokesman of Gilgit Baltistan government, Faizullah Faragh said.
For both Balochistan and Gilgit Baltistan, given their very limited resources, handling the initial influx of pilgrims was a difficult task. Pakistan’s first frontline worker casualty was in Gilgit Baltistan; a heroic doctor, Osama Riaz, who died after contracting the coronavirus while screening returned pilgrims.
Pakistan has received over 6,000 pilgrims via the land route from Taftan and officials are still collecting data of pilgrims who entered from different airports. Around 8,000 pilgrims and Pakistani students are still in Iran, and the situation is worrisome for both countries.
Clamped under US sanctions, Iran has become one of the worst hit countries in the world with over 30,000 cases and over 3,700 deaths. Pakistan has over 3,000 reported cases now, though other estimates suggest the figure might be closer to 20,000 based on the difficulty in tracing and testing suspected cases. There are 52 deaths reported.
Pakistan has a sizeable and influential Shia population, so its connections with Iran are not just geographical but also emotional and spiritual. Pakistan also has a history of sectarian strife and the targeting of Shias by violent extremists, so handling the issue of infected pilgrims requires caution. On social media, certain sectarian elements have traded allegations on whether the virus spread because of Shia pilgrims or Sunni Tableeghis. Government officials and relevant authorities have so far been careful not to cast any blame, nor allow sect divisions to emerge in official responses and relief initiatives.
And so, PM Khan already walking a tightrope, has rightly avoided getting into a blame game and has urged the international community to lift sanctions against Iran. Meanwhile, authorities are waiting to receive the next convoy of pilgrims.
Khalid is now home.
“I was aboard the last flight operated out of Tehran. Before we landed at Karachi airport, a majority of the passengers took Panadol tablets to dodge the thermal screening,” he said.
Khalid paid 344,000 Pakistani rupees for his emergency return– over $2,000. His pilgrimage caused him a heavy loss, and he couldn’t celebrate the spring festival in Iran like he had hoped to.
It seems that for Iran and Pakistan, and for pilgrims like Khalid, spring is a long time away.