Mass Hysteria in Pakistan: Societal Panics and Collective Delusions

The mysteries of mass hysteria, from political upheavals to vaccine scares, and learn strategies for societal resilience.

Noor Fatima
By Noor Fatima 3 Min Read
mass hysteria in Pakistan

Medically known as Mass Psychogenic Illness (MPI) or Mass Hysteria, this mysterious phenomenon involves a large number of people experiencing collective delusions that may manifest as physical symptoms without any discernible medical cause. Typically, this phenomenon arises in response to perceived stressors or threatening stimuli within society and can rapidly spread through rumors and social influences, resulting in cases of mass hysteria.

In modern times, instances of mass hysteria are often observed during events like Black Friday shopping, where superstitions and cultural beliefs can exacerbate the phenomenon. During periods of uncertainty, superstitions tend to hold more sway, leading to irrational behaviors, panic, and the rapid dissemination of false information. This can cause widespread anxiety and disruption among the public. Mass hysteria transcends mere panic; it is a complex psychological phenomenon not fully understood, characterized by spontaneous mob actions that influence one another sociologically.

In Pakistan, mass hysteria typically manifests as sudden and mysterious episodes of illness within large groups of people who are not directly related but share similar circumstances. These instances are often attributed to a lack of education and awareness among the public, as well as the role of mass media in spreading fear and rumors. Some significant cases of mass hysteria in Pakistan include:

Bhutto’s Execution (1979):

Following the execution of former Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto on April 4, 1979, widespread mass hysteria and unrest erupted among his followers. Many believed his trial and execution were politically motivated, leading to protests, riots, strikes, and chaos across the country. This event underscores how political events in Pakistan often evoke strong emotional responses and trigger mass hysteria among the population.

Polio Mass Hysteria:

In 2002-03, mass hysteria surrounded polio vaccinations in Pakistan due to rumors that the vaccines were contaminated or part of a Western conspiracy. This led to thousands of parents refusing to vaccinate their children, resulting in a severe polio outbreak in several parts of the country. Subsequently, the government took the polio campaign more seriously, engaging in continuous activism against the virus and using media and other means to raise awareness. Another case of mass hysteria regarding polio arose in 2019 when fears spread that vaccines would cause sterility in children.

Blasphemy Accusations and Assassinations:

Incidents involving blasphemy accusations have sparked mass hysteria in Pakistan. Allegations against individuals or religious minorities often lead to violent reactions and mob mentality, bypassing legal procedures. The assassination of Punjab Governor Salman Taseer in 2011, for his criticism of Pakistan’s blasphemy laws and advocacy for reforms, intensified religious fervor and garnered mass support for his assassin. Taseer’s murder sharpened religious sentiments and polarized opinions further.

The impacts of mass hysteria can be harmful, varying based on the types of symptoms exhibited. Addressing and overcoming mass hysteria requires tackling root causes and implementing strategies that promote tranquility, rationality, and accurate information dissemination, especially in the age of the internet. Transparent information from trusted sources can reduce panic and dispel myths, while educating the masses about social norms can prevent disruptions of social order. Reassurance and moral support can alleviate stress and anxiety, while fostering solidarity can promote unity and resilience. Additionally, providing easy access to mental health services and counseling can help individuals cope with stressful emotions more effectively.

The author is an undergraduate student at the National Defence University, Islamabad.

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