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XXVIII.1 January - February 2021
Page: 6
Digital Citation

Fighting coronavirus with faith: Religious and parareligious responses to Covid-19 in Bangladesh

Sharifa Sultana, A. Islam, Syed Ahmed

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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.

Covid-19 has demonstrated how modern scientific rationality and local alternative rationality interact.

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, involving ethnographic field studies in rural Bangladesh, reveals that 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.

back to top  '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. However, they also told us that they had experienced similar challenging situations in the past, 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 people with weak physical and mental health tend to be more vulnerable to such curses. For this reason, she criticized strict policies like quarantines, which would impact negatively on the minds of weak people (i.e., further weaken their states of mind).

Another witch shared their methods of protecting clients' homes from Covid-19. She explained that Covid-19 patients were possessed by a bad spirit, full of curse. The method of stopping the curse included a set of activities called tantra. The example of tantra she showed us used some jantra (scripts for recital, usually placed within geometric shapes) on a mud pot, scripts from witch books, and certain spices (Figure 1, left). The pot with the jantra should be placed in front of the main door of the house, and the spices were to hang from somewhere close to the pot. Thus, the pot would radiate a positive energy that made cursed people feel uncomfortable upon approaching the house and encourage them to turn away. The villagers were producing such jantra on a mass scale, putting them into amulets called tabiz, and selling them in their local markets (Figure 1, right).

ins01.gif Figure 1. (Left) A set of tantra that includes a jantra on a mud pot and green and red chilies. This has to be put beside the main door of the house to keep the curse away. (Right) A seller claims that tabiz will prevent infection from Covid-19 (an image that recently went viral among Bangladeshi Facebook users [3]).

back to top  'Immorality is the Main Vulnerability'

The villagers mentioned a wide range of people who could be the victims of Covid-19, including those whose lifestyles deviate from village norms—for example, someone engaged in illegal business activity or who consumed food that is haram, or forbidden by Islam. Our discussion with the rural women led us to dissect the story of a man in their village who had recently returned from Kuwait. The women said he was no longer a "local person" to them since he had broken many moral codes. 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 elders and leaders of the neighborhood urgently discussed this issue and found him to be dangerous for the other residents—especially if he socialized and went to the tea stalls, mosques, and marketplaces. This was less an issue of transmitting the virus, and more because that person could influence others to indulge in immorality, which would eventually cause Covid-19. They decided to not be friendly with that person, as he was already cursed, and to restrict his freedom of movement around the village.

back to top  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 how villagers in rural Bangladesh interpreted and implemented the hygiene measures. For example, a woman who had rented out part of her house updated the house hygiene rules for her household and the renters by adapting to the Islamic way of washing body parts (Wudu):

We have a new rule in our house that now no one is allowed to enter the house without having Wudu 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 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 have 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 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 we challenge the hegemony of the secular Western science in computing practices that attempts to colonize 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, especially in the time of public health emergencies like Covid-19.

back to top  References

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/

back to top  Authors

Sharifa Sultana is a Ph.D. student in information science at Cornell University. She is interested in ICTD, critical computing, well-being, and feminist HCI. She studies 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. [email protected]

A.K.M. Najmul Islam is an adjunct professor in the Department of Future Technologies, University of Turku, Finland, and in the LUT School of Engineering Science, LUT University, Finland. [email protected]

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 marginalized groups in the Global South. [email protected]

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