In Pakistan’s fight against Covid-19, religion might not be helping

(CNN) Pakistan is entering its fifth week under lockdown to control the spread of the coronavirus. But as the Islamic holy month of Ramadan starts this weekend, hundreds of thousands of people will congregate in mosques nationwide to offer special prayers.The government’s submission to demands from senior clerics and religious political parties for mosque exemptions highlights that Pakistan’s fight against Covid-19 is more about managing political divides than saving lives.As of Saturday, the country of more than 200 million people had at least 11,900 confirmed cases and 253 deaths, according to a tally by Johns Hopkins University. That’s more than double the number of cases and deaths the country had on April 13.

Despite this steady increase, the religious establishment has remained skeptical of the government’s pandemic response. Hardline clerics urged worshipers to defy restrictions first imposed in March and gather in mosques in great numbers. Congregations attacked police officers deployed to enforce the lockdown. The onset of Ramadan — and the promise of generous charitable contributions by worshipers to mosques as part of holy month observances — spurred religious groups to intensify pressure on the government, with the latter caving to avoid the political fallout.

The Pakistan Medical Association has denounced the decision to permit congregations, saying that protocols agreed between the government and religious groups — including requirements for worshipers to remain six feet apart and complete ablutions at home — are unlikely to be implemented. Doctors, who have already threatened to walk off the job owing to a lack of medical and protective equipment, say the health system will not cope if the virus spreads any faster during Ramadan.

Prime Minister Imran Khan’s decision to accommodate clerics’ demands points to their political influence. Although religious political parties have rarely won more than 2% of the vote during elections, they have immense street power, and can whip religious sentiment and organize mass protests to destabilize governments.

Historically, religious groups also maintain close links with Pakistan’s powerful military, a legacy of the anti-Soviet Afghan “jihad” in the 1980s. The military has previously mobilized religious groups to put pressure on civilian governments.

However this time, the pandemic has revealed the limitations of the military’s control over such groups. The military supports a lockdown, and its inability to gain clerics’ buy-in will frustrate Khan’s administration, which has been left open to criticism for kowtowing to the religious establishment.

This will intensify civil-military tensions, already spiraling since the start of the coronavirus outbreak. The military was impatient with Khan’s initial reluctance to impose a national lockdown, and deployed troops to enforce provincial-level restrictions — forcing the government’s hand to take broader measures. Since the start of April, the military has taken control of the national pandemic response, with a lieutenant general sitting alongside the planning minister at the helm of the National Command and Operations Centre, a coordinating body. On Friday, the military’s spokesman announced that all the institution’s resources would be available for a “track, test and quarantine” strategy to contain the virus’s spread.

The military’s interests in tackling the coronavirus are clear. A prolonged lockdown or the collapse of the creaking health infrastructure could lead to rioting and widespread civil unrest, which the military would have to manage. This would distract from pressing strategic and security priorities, not least the unfolding peace process in Afghanistan.

A poorly managed coronavirus response would also have a major economic toll, which would impact a military budget already affected by US President Donald Trump’s decision to cut Coalition Support Funds in 2018. The World Bank has predicted that Pakistan will fall into recession this year. Anticipating calls for greater health expenditure after the pandemic, the military knows that it will have to stabilize the economy to protect its interests.

The military also aims to centralize political decision-making to better enable it to exercise behind-the-scenes control. Recent years have seen several attempts to weaken a 2010 constitutional amendment granting Pakistan’s four provinces greater autonomy. This consolidation has been upended by the pandemic, with provinces responding independently to the coronavirus threat.

Tensions are particularly high between Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) government and the opposition Pakistan Peoples Party, which has long controlled the southern province of Sindh. Murad Ali Shah, Sindh’s chief minister, has been widely praised for moving quickly in March to impose a lockdown in the commercial capital Karachi and test pilgrims returning from Iran. Khan has repeatedly mocked Shah’s approach, terming it an overreaction.

The PTI government’s laxity on lockdown rules for mosques will inflame tensions at provincial level. On Thursday, Sindh restricted late-night prayer attendance in mosques to five people. An apologetic Murad described his decision as “very difficult” — yet necessary — and argued that he wasn’t violating the government’s agreement with religious groups.