There are many reasons behind the distrust around Covid-19 vaccines worldwide, but Pakistan’s distrust comes from a strange connection – the world’s most wanted terrorist.
Resistance to COVID-19 vaccines across the globe has taken many forms. In countries such as the U.S., vaccine distrust has been spread out by top-ranking politicians, while citizens in some other countries are wary of the shots that haven’t yet cleared the last stage of human testing.
But the case in Pakistan is different. Apart from some common factors, Pakistan’s history links vaccine distrust to Osama Bin Laden!
THE SECRET OPERATION
In the early 2010s, when the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) was planning to kill the world’s most wanted terrorist Osama Bin Laden, the Intelligence Agency ran a fake vaccination program in Abbottabad, Pakistan, offering free Hepatitis B vaccines to children.
The fake vaccination drive aimed to collect DNA evidence linking Osama Bin Laden to the compound where he was suspected of residing. While it is unclear how the samples were to be collected and how they would have led the CIA to the terrorist, this scheme’s news broke out in Pakistan, fueling numerous conspiracy theories about vaccinations.
While the Navy SEALs eventually succeeded in raiding a high-walled compound in Pakistan in May 2011 and killing the world’s most wanted terrorist, the fake vaccination has become a source of long-standing distrust and conspiracy theories amongst Pakistanis.
When the Navy SEALs were fighting out one virus, another virus too was about to be eradicated – Polio. International health experts had finally cornered the polio virus in a few remaining areas in northern Nigeria, Afghanistan, and Pakistan after almost half a century of vaccinating children and adults worldwide.
However, after the fake vaccination drive news came out, many local leaders began urging people not to vaccinate their kids. Various districts banned vaccination teams, and the Taliban issued a fatwa against vaccination programs, Vox reports.
The impact of this distrust has been such that even today Pakistan remains one of the three countries where polio has not been eradicated. Along with neighbouring Afghanistan, the country is seeing its highest increase in polio cases since 2014.
Polio vaccinators are targeted with violence; since 2012, at least 95 polio workers, including many women, are estimated to have been killed in attacks. According to Vox, as recently as this December, members of a vaccination team were wounded or killed in an incident that garnered very little media coverage.
Polio has also surfaced amid the war and chaos in Iraq and Syria, where the crippling disease had been eradicated as recently as 2000.
THE WORST IS NOT OVER YET
In 2013, the CIA promised to avoid using vaccination programs to collect intelligence in response to criticism from leaders in public health and science, Hala Iqbal notes for Vox.
While the international community, as well as the intelligence agency, might have expected the distrust to decrease over the years, the legacy of the fake vaccine campaign has not been easy to erase, and it has once again come up to highlights as countries around the world are vaccinating their citizens against COVID-19.
To this day, local leaders in Pakistan rally against vaccines, calling them western spying programs. Some other politically unstable regions, too, are rife with rumours. In Nigeria, for example, false assertions have long been made about the vaccines by local religious leaders.
In Pakistan, rumours are once again making rounds that the COVID-19 vaccinations, too, are part of a CIA plot. Along with other factors, the Osama Bin Laden link has led to such high vaccine hesitancy that as of March 5th, 2020, a month after immunization began, Pakistan had only administered 197,000 doses of vaccine, or 0.09 vaccinations per 100 members of the population.
According to a recent survey by Gallup Pakistan, 49 per cent of the participants chose not to get the vaccine jabs, revealing that a large proportion of the country has opted against getting inoculated for the COVID-19 virus. This statistic shows that despite Pakistan’s surprising success at limiting the pandemic so far, the worst is not over yet.