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Asian countries & the race for COVID-19 Vaccine

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Charvi Trivedi

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Asian countries & the race for COVID-19 Vaccine


Global Views 360

Publication Date

August 29, 2020


Representative image of Vaccine

Representative image of Vaccine | Source: Dimitri Houtteman via Unsplash

Our relationship with the new strain of coronavirus is almost 8 months strong now. Countries like the US, Russia, UK, China, India, and many more have already set their brainy scientists in the task of developing a vaccine, turning it into a race which desperately needs a winner, since no one wants this deadly relationship to endure. Several attempts have proved to be successful, especially in countries like Russia, USA, India, and China.

China was the first to start scouring for a vaccine the day WHO declared that the new strain of SARS-CoV, originating in Wuhan-China, has resulted in a pandemic. It is a fierce competitor, especially to the US, as almost 8 of the 24 promising vaccines approved for clinical trials are from China. It used the technology of ‘inactivated vaccine’ which basically means killing the actual virus and using that to create a vaccine. This method is quite useful in treating measles and influenza, thus, increasing the chances of success in the case of COVID-19 as well.

“It’s a tried and true strategy”, Paul Offit, director of the Vaccine Education Center at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, said  about the inactivated vaccine. One potential vaccine from China-based Sinopharm is already in the phase 3 of trials whereas Sinovac will enter the third phase this month. Moreover, China has permitted Sinovac and Sinopharm to dilute phase 1 and 2 of vaccine trials on humans to hasten the process.

The head of the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, Gao Fu, had also been injected with a potential vaccine on July 28, 2020. “I’m going to reveal something undercover: I am injected with one of the vaccines'' Gao Fu said in a webinar hosted by Alibaba Health, an arm of the Chinese e-commerce giant, and Cell Press, an American publisher of scientific journals. However, he did not reveal any more details about how and when exactly he administered himself with the vaccine and ‘hopes’ that the vaccine works.

Vladimir Putin, President of Russia | Source: Wikimedia

Elsewhere in Russia, on August 11, 2020, President Vladimir Putin proudly announced that Russia was the first country to grant regulatory approval to their vaccine after carrying out human trials for less than 2 months by the Gamalei Institute in Moscow. Regulatory approval permits vaccination of the masses. Although it has not undergone phase 3 of trials, Russia expects to initiate mass production of the vaccine by the end of this year. Kirill Dmitriev, head of Russia's sovereign wealth fund states that the vaccine will be called ‘Sputnik V’, named after Sputnik 1, the first satellite launched by Soveit Union which was a euphoric moment for Russia. More recently, China and Russia have joined hands in proceeding with the clinical trials of their vaccines.

These two instances seem to bring a new hope for the future, yet raise alarms and invite scepticism from the experts in the field of public health. One major concern is that without prolonged trials, vaccines should not be authorized for public use. Anthony Fauci, an infectious disease expert based in the US said “I do hope the Chinese and the Russians are actually testing the vaccines before they are administering the vaccine to anyone. Because claims of having a vaccine ready to distribute before you do testing is problematic at the very least”. Hence, some people are still in doubt regarding the safety of the product. Putin, however, rubbished such concerns and said "I know that it works quite effectively, forms strong immunity, and I repeat, it has passed all the needed checks".

An Indian biotechnological company, Bharat Biotech developed ‘Covaxin’ in collaboration with Indian Council for Medical Research (ICMR), using the mechanism of inactivated vaccine. It was successful in getting approval for human trials which were scheduled to begin in July, 2020. Initial reports stated that it would be ready for mass use by August 15, 2020, which also marked the 73rd Independence Day of India. However, Bharat biotech was clear in letting the public know that phase 1 of the trials are still on-going. ICMR cleared the confusion by stating that it would prepare the results of the phase 1 trials by August 15, 2020, not the actual vaccine for use. Phase 2 of the trials are awaited in September, 2020.

So far, the results of phase 1 trials have been positive as no serious side-effects are observed in the vaccine candidates. “The vaccine has been safe. No adverse effect has been reported. Even the point of injection pain, which is normal in vaccines, has been very mild” said Dr Kushwaha of Prakhar Hospital.

Meanwhile, the South Korean government stated on August 21, 2020, that it will secure adequate vaccine supply to its citizens by cooperating with international bodies and promoting local drug development. Three South Korean companies have started the process of making a vaccine and all are in the clinical trial phase. Bill Gates asserts that the South Korean pharmaceutical company, SK Bioscience, will have around 200 million vaccine doses ready by June 2021.

Japan is jointly collaborating with the UK, France and other European countries to establish a $20 billion fund to buy coronavirus vaccines, with Japan pledging a contribution of $800 million. It’s vaccine program aims to focus on giving primary attention to its medical workers and the elderly people of the country when the first doses of the vaccine are made. The state-funded vaccination program is believed to be officially adopted by Japan in September this year with negotiations with the UK and US based drug makers already in place.

With the race to bring COVID-19 vaccine seemingly coming to a close and it will hopefully be ready by the end of 2020 or early 2021. Till then, the entire world is watching this race with bated breath.

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July 19, 2021 12:00 PM

The Blasphemy Law of Pakistan and its Implications

In Pakistan, Blasphemy results in a capital punishment in majority of cases. It is perhaps considered a crime worse than terrorism. A crucial case in point is the fact that the Pakistan’s Anti-Terrorism Court gave around 15 years jail term to two close aides of Hafiz Saeed—chief of the terrorist organization—Lashkar-e-Taiba—and mastermind behind 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks—where at least 150 innocent people lost their lives.

Similarly, Zakiur Rehman Lakhvi—Lashkar-e-Taiba’s operation commander and another important figure involved in the 2008 Mumbai attack—was sentenced to 15 years in jail period. Not to mention—this happened amidst the international pressure on Pakistan for letting terrorists to function and roam freely within their country.

While something as violent as terrorism is dealt with lenient punishments, there are draconian laws for blasphemy in the country. Moreover, one can be accused of committing blasphemy—doesn’t matter if they did it or not—and might not even face a fair trial.

This article discusses what are the blasphemy laws and what are their implications while looking at some specific cases.

What are Pakistan’s Blasphemy laws?

What's called Blasphemy law today has its origins in the colonial era. The “offences relating to religion” were introduced by British in 1860, and were later expanded in 1927. These were sections 295 and 295-A from the Indian Penal Code. The laws were made to avoid religious disturbances, insult religious beliefs, or intentionally destroy or desecrate a place or an object of worship. Under the 295 and 295-A, the convicted were to be given a jail term from one year to ten years—with or without a fine.

Pakistan ended up inheriting these laws after the partition of India in 1947.

The laws were amended in 1982 and another clause was added which prescribed life imprisonment for desecration of the Quran intentionally. Another clause was added in 1986 to punish blasphemy against the Prophet Muhammad through imprisonment for life or death. These clauses, were added under General Zia-ul-Haq’s military regime, in an order to make the laws more “pro-Islam.”

Since then, this law has often been used to persecute people from minority communities—such as the Ahmadiyas, Shias, Christians, and Hindus—they have been accused of blasphemy without much evidence.

Infamous cases and implications of blasphemy in Pakistan

One of the famous cases was of Asia Bibi, which grabbed international attention as well. Asia Noreen—known as Asia Bibi—was a Pakistani Christan and a farm laborer in Punjab province. Her husband, Ashiq Masih, was a brick laborer. A dispute with her Muslim neighbours turned into an accusation of blasphemy—leading to her arrest and imprisoned. There were a lot of protests in Pakistan, demanding death penalty for Asia Bibi.

Two politicians—Salman Taseer and Shahbaz Bhatti—who supported and tried to help Asia Bibi, were murdered. Taseer was shot by his own bodyguard named Malik Mumtaz Hussain Qadri in broad daylight. Qadri was tried and sentenced to death. He was executed in 2016. Mumtaz Qadri became a hero for millions and hardliners praised him as a martyr. He is regarded as a saint and a mausoleum has been built over his grave in his village near Islamabad, where even devotees come to offer prayers.

Asia Bibi was first sentenced to death by a trial court in 2010, however was later acquitted by the Supreme Court in a historic judgement of 2018. In 2019, Pakistan’s Supreme Court ruled that she was free to leave Pakistan and was given asylum in Canada where she moved along with her family.

Although after a long struggle, Asia Bibi still got justice and was able to start a new life—unfortunately many others didn’t. Many met with Mob Justice.

In 2017, a journalism student at a Pakistani University was lynched to death by fellow students in Mardan—in the province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. The student—Mashal Khan—was a Shia Muslim and was falsely accused of blasphemy. The mob was enraged by a rumour according to which he had promoted the Ahmadi faith on Facebook. In a similar instance, a man named Tahrir Ahmad Naseem was killed by vigilantes in July last year for blasphemy. He was a former Ahmadi, and was in Peshawar Central Jail since 2018 for claiming to be a prophet. He was shot dead inside the courtroom during trial in the Peshawar Judicial Complex.

Furthermore, in a case similar to that of Asia Bibi, a Christian couple—Shahzad and Shama Maseeh—were accused of blasphemy as well. They were then beaten and burned alive by a mob in 2014. Shama was four months pregnant. The mob, which also included a local cleric, believed that the couple had burned some pages of the Quran along with some rubbish, although the couple’s family still denies this. Five people including the cleric were sentenced to death, while the eight others were given two years imprisonment.

Last year, former Foreign and Defense Minister Khawaja Asif as well was accused of blasphemy for merely stating that “all religions are equal.”

Why is this happening?

According to data by Pakistan’s Centre for Social Justice, there have been 1549 known cases of serious blasphemy in the years 1987-2017, out of which 720 were Muslims, 516 Ahmadis, 238 Christians, 31 Hindus, and the rest 44 are unknown. 75 out of the total cases ended in the person being murdered before their trial.

There are 13 countries in the world which punish blasphemy by death penalty and Pakistan happens to be one of them. But unlike countries like Iran and Saudi Arabia where they are executed judicially—as mentioned earlier—accused in Pakistan are often killed in mob violence or assassination. While Saudi Arabia and Iran continue to top in terms of the highest number of executions, most of them for sacrilege or crimes against Islam, Pakistan’s total ‘judiciary’ killings stand at zero.

The problem of this mob mentality in Pakistan, especially when it comes to religion, is actually deeply rooted in its constitution. The country’s aspiration to become a democracy as well as an Islamic state is in itself contradictory. The people want the right to freedom and expression and the hanging of a person committing blasphemy at the same time. The constitution denies criticism of Islam while claiming to allow freedom of speech and religion. The elevation of one religion over others in itself is principally undemocratic.

Another interesting point is the fact that the people supporting these ideas haven’t been aware of how things can backfire. Muhammad Din Taseer—father of Salman Taseer—supported Ilam Din, who murdered a Hindu publisher over blasphemy in 1929. An ancestor’s support for radicalism ended up in his own offspring being assassinated in the name of blasphemy.

Mental illness and blasphemy

In Pakistan, often some mentally ill people are punished to death by mobs for unknowingly ‘committing’ blasphemy. In 2012, a man widely reported by the media and police as ‘mentally unstable’ was arrested for blasphemy in Bahawalpur district, Punjab province. A mob gathered outside the police station, dragged him outside, and burned him to death. There have also been cases of misuse where such vulnerable individuals were subjected to sexual abuse and later accused of blasphemy by the abusers to cover up their crimes.

Such abuses towards mentally unsound people would have been a criminal case and the abusers would have been punished—unless they use the blasphemy law—as the mentally unstable victim cannot defend themselves.

Role of Anti-Terrorism courts

Pakistan’s Anti-Terrorism courts were set up to ensure quick justice in cases such as terrorism, sectarian violence, targeted political killings, hijacking, kidnapping, extortion and even arms trafficking. Earlier gang rape was also included in it—but removed later.

They are also key to controlling mob attacks on blasphemy accused as such trials are held here.

Yet, these courts have been facing several problems due to lack of basic resources and understaffing. The posts of judges often remain vacant for months, and the state prosecutors complain of poor working conditions—with no offices, stationery, clerical staff or legal resources. These problems may have risen due to the fact that there are not sufficient funds allotted for the ATC infrastructure, one of the major challenges in Pakistan’s legal system. Due to this, these courts are not able to fulfill their primary objective—to provide ‘quick’ justice.

Moreover, these courts lack independence and are vulnerable to political influence—the judges are held accountable to the executive. Sometimes the witnesses often refuse to testify against the accused, as they fear assassination by terrorist groups the accused belongs to. The judges, state prosecutors and others also have personal security concerns which also lead to delays in trials.

Also, these courts deny terrorism suspects the right to equality before the law. They are not even tried in a public place with full defense and are not presumed innocent. Peshawar High Court advocate Ghulam Nabi even challenged the Anti-Terrorism (Amendment) Ordinance 2009 under Article 199 of the constitution in December 2009, saying that it violated basic human rights.

The blasphemy laws of Pakistan need to be repealed in today's Global civic society. People are fighting for equality everywhere around the globe. And now it is up to Pakistan to choose—whether to become a democracy or continue with a pseudo-democratic authoritarian regime which is based on extremist interpretation of religion.

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