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Fighting Coronavirus with Faith: Religious and Parareligious Responses to Covid-19 in Bangladesh


Authors: Sharifa Sultana, A.K.M. Najmul Islam, Syed Ishtiaque Ahmed
Posted: Wed, September 16, 2020 - 1:39:52

Many communities in Asia, Africa, and Latin America—often left out of human-computer interaction (HCI) discussions—defy the boundary of scientific rationality and seek healthcare and well-being from various traditional faith-based practices. For example, South African indigenous traditional healers serve 60 percent of their population. And thousands of Peruvians use the ancient tradition of mystical healing and shamanism for their well-being, as do many people in South Asia [1,2]. Here we broadly term such faith-based practices witchcraft. During crises like pandemics, witches often use local beliefs and alternative rationales to explain diseases, their spread, and their impacts, as well as to innovate protective measures. Recently, modern scientific innovations and computing technologies have started encroaching on these faith-based practices. Covid-19 has demonstrated how modern scientific rationality and local alternative rationality interact—something that has remained understudied in our mainstream HCI literature for a long time.

Today’s HCI is increasingly interested in alternative assumptions and decision making around well-being in the Global South. Our own work in this vein that involves ethnographic field studies in rural Bangladesh, reveals that the rural healers, witches, and their followers explain Covid-19 using religious, parareligious, and supernatural metaphors and narratives. In this ongoing fieldwork, so far we have engaged with more than 30 male and female participants. This post presents part of our findings and focuses on the rural conceptualization of the coronavirus, its relation to morality, and a few possible ways of stopping the virus from rural perspectives. We explain these through the three lenses presented below.

“Microbe is a curse that spreads through unhappiness”

The healers and witches (known as Kabiraz) told us that Covid-19 was a strange and new situation for them that they had never seen before. However, they also told us that they had experienced similar challenging situations before, and that they could use that knowledge to handle Covid-19. These witches defined the coronavirus as an “evil spirit and a curse.” Over the course of our conversations, a witch also mentioned that usually people with weak physical and mental health are more vulnerable to such curses. That is why she criticized the hard rules like quarantining, because that would impact negatively on the mind of the weak people (i.e., make them even more unhappy).

Figure 1. (Left) A set of Tantra that includes a Jantra on a mud pot and green and red chillies. This has to be put beside the main door of the house to keep the curse away. (Right) Tabiz seller claiming that it will prevent infection from Covid-19 (a collected image recently went viral among Bangladeshi Facebook users [3]).


Another witch told us how they were trying to keep their clients’ houses safe from Covid-19 during this crisis. She explained that Covid-19 patients were possessed by a bad spirit that is full of curse. The method of stopping the curse included a set of activities called Tantra. She also showed us an example of Tantra that used some Jantra (scripts for recital, usually placed within geometric shapes) on a mud pot, some scripts from witch books, and some spices (Figure 1, left). The pot with the Jantra on it had to be put in front of the main door of the house, and the spices had to be hanging from somewhere close to the pot. Thus, the pot would radiate a positive energy that makes cursed people feel uncomfortable upon coming near the house and discard the idea of visiting. The villagers were producing such Jantra on a mass scale and putting them into amulets called Tabiz, selling them in their local markets (Figure 1, right).

“Immorality is the main vulnerability”

The villagers mentioned a wide range of people who could be the victims of Covid-19, including people who maintain a life that does not conform to village norms, for example people who were engaged in illegal businesses or who consumed Haram (not permissible in Islam) foods and commodities. Our discussion with the rural women led us to dissect the story of a man in their village who had recently traveled back from Kuwait. The women told us that that person was no longer a “local person” to them since he broke many local moral rules. One of the women said,

He went there [Kuwait] by bribing for a duplicate (fake) passport and visa. He was living in Kuwait for many years. Most likely, he was engaged in an illegal business there as he did not have the real papers. So, he must be more vulnerable to this curse...

The women also told us that the local elders and leaders of the neighborhood urgently discussed this issue and found him to be “dangerous” for the other residents of the village—especially if he mixed with the locals and went to the tea stalls, mosques, and marketplaces. This was less because that person might spread the virus directly, and more because that person could influence others to indulge in immorality (which would eventually cause Covid-19). They decided not to be friendly with that person (because he was already cursed), and to not allow him to move freely in their village.

Design, rules, and faith

The villagers adapted to the quarantine in their own way. We found religious faith and local beliefs playing a major role in rural Bangladesh while the villagers adapted to the quarantine and hygiene measures. For example, a woman who had rented the extended part of her house explained how they updated the house hygiene rules for themselves and the renters by adapting to the Islamic way of washing body parts (Odhu):

We have a new rule in our house that now no one is allowed to enter the house without having “Odhu” and using soap for it.

She also referred to Islamic literature to support some of her rules:

Once Mohammad (PBUH) was cured by reciting Surah Al-Nas and Surah Al-Falaq when someone spelled him with black magic. We ask the residents to recite these two Surah loudly during that cleaning time.

This and many such examples show how the local responses to Covid-19 in rural Bangladesh are rooted in and shaped by the villagers’ spiritual beliefs and traditional practices. The modern scientific advice is neither rejected nor accepted by the villagers: They acted according to their own narrative, and developed a communal effort to combat Covid-19 in their own way.

Our ongoing and long-term engagement with these rural communities in Bangladesh demonstrates how millions of people in the Global South live outside the realm of modern scientific knowledge, and how they interact with modernity, science, and technology using their own faith-based narratives. Taking these local narratives and traditional faiths seriously essentially dismantles HCI’s current orientation toward modern science and the perception of computing as a vehicle for it. Through our work, we join the growing movement within HCI to ask whose health? whose harm? and whose knowledge? and challenge the hegemony of the secular Western science in computing practices that attempts to colonize over millions of lives in the Global South. We believe that we need to decenter Western scientific knowledge as the main source of HCI design to address the contextual needs of millions of people in the world, especially in the time of public health emergencies like Covid-19.

Endnotes

1. Sultana, S. and Ahmed, S.I. Witchcraft and HCI: Morality, modernity, and postcolonial computing in rural Bangladesh. Proc. of the 2019 SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems. ACM, New York, 2019.

2. Sultana, S., Ahmed, S.I. and Fussell S.R. Parar-daktar understands my problems better: Disentangling the challenges to designing better access to healthcare in rural Bangladesh. Proc. of the ACM on Human-Computer Interaction 3, CSCW (2019), 168.

3. https://www.facebook.com/groups/538670766844801/permalink/561537171224827/


Posted in: Covid-19 on Wed, September 16, 2020 - 1:39:52

Sharifa Sultana

Sharifa Sultana is an HCI researcher. She is interested in ICTD, critical computing, well-being, and feminist HCI. She uses both quantitative and qualitative (ethnographic) techniques to study marginalized rural populations in Bangladesh and aims to design computational tools and systems to address the challenges for the rural low-education population while accessing information. Currently, she is pursuing a Ph.D. in information science at Cornell University. ss3634@cornell.edu
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A.K.M. Najmul Islam

Department of Future Technologies, University of Turku, Finland LUT School of Engineering Science, LUT University, Finland najmul.islam@utu.fi
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Syed Ishtiaque Ahmed

Syed Ishtiaque Ahmed is an assistant professor of computer science at the University of Toronto. For the past 12 years, he has been conducting ethnography and design research with various marginalized groups in the Global South. ishtiaque@cs.toronto.edu
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Post Comment


@Brett (2020 09 22)

I could add to your insightful observations that “the beliefs and practices of villagers are rejected by modern scientists, who act according to their own narrative.” This results in both sides completely missing the points on the other side. It is our most basic task as practitioners to understand those we seek to serve before we attempt to change their behavior. The entire history of computing as it has sought to advance into the oral world has been a tragicomedy of epic proportions, which has shaped the digital divide not just across socio-economic lines, but critically also along the lines of literacy and orality.

@whitelist@acm.org (2020 09 25)

@umilly

Thanks for this important post.

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