A Conversation with Abbas Hussain

September 27, 2022 The Asia Foundation
A Conversation with Abbas Hussain
Show Notes Transcript

How a two-year program helped vulnerable communities in South Asia protect themselves from Covid-19 and the “fake-news pandemic.”  

John Rieger (00:00):

Have you ever done any musical theater, Abbas?

Abbas Hussain (00:05):

I have, actually. I'm training as a singer these days and I'm learning Eastern classical music.

Tracie Yang (00:11):


John Rieger (00:13):

Will you sing something for us?


The secret life of a development practitioner today on InAsia, from The Asia Foundation. I'm John Rieger.

Tracie Yang (00:21):

And I'm Tracie Yang. Our guest this week has been a regular contributor to InAsia for years, but how well do we really know him? His pandemic project with The Asia Foundation to support vulnerable communities and fight COVID misinformation in South Asia is coming to an end, and he joins us today from the city of Karachi, where it's two o'clock in the morning. Abbas Hussain, welcome to InAsia.

Abbas Hussain (00:44):

Thank you so much for having me.

John Rieger (00:46):

Here in the US, it really feels like people have kind of lost interest in COVID-19. The masks are gone, people are dining out. Is it the same way in Pakistan?

Abbas Hussain (00:56):

It is, it is indeed. Just a little while ago, I just landed from Lahore and I was the only one on the plane who was wearing a mask. I think my aunt and myself.

Tracie Yang (01:06):

And your contract with The Asia Foundation is also coming to an end. You've been part of a project to increase community resilience to COVID-19 in India, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and the Maldives. So, this was a multi-country project?

Abbas Hussain (01:20):

It was a multi-country project, yes.

John Rieger (01:23):

A big part of the project was combating misinformation, which has really become its own kind of global plague. You've actually called it a parallel pandemic, a fake news pandemic.

Abbas Hussain (01:34):

The fake news pandemic was a problem across South Asia. I, on my WhatsApp, came across so many broadcast messages about how vaccines lead to impotency. That was one rumor that was spreading like wildfire in Pakistan. Another one was that you would die within two years of getting vaccinated.

Tracie Yang (01:54):


Abbas Hussain (01:54):

I mean, as dramatic as that. So this was definitely a pandemic of fake news.

Tracie Yang (02:00):

Can you give us some examples of how you tried to address this fake news?

Abbas Hussain (02:05):

We tried to promote accurate information through various social media, as well as broadcast media outlets, and we tried to use scientifically-verified information to challenge the kind of fake news which was being spread at that point in time. We also trained youth ambassadors as well as other community groups to spread accurate information. And in Pakistan, for instance, 339 youth ambassadors were trained in the art of combating rumors.

John Rieger (02:36):

When you're building people's capacity to recognize and counteract fake news online, give me some techniques. I would like to build some people's capacity to do that too.

Abbas Hussain (02:48):

I mean, that's a good question. The people that you assign to combat misinformation, you give them a list of popular rumors and you ask them to keep a lookout for those rumors, and then you give them information sources. For example, the WHO has mentioned that vaccinations don't cause impotency, that it's safe for pregnant women to get vaccinated. So they give them a list of all this information and they give them the source of that information with which to challenge those people. So basically, when someone is more well informed, they're able to tackle those rumors and they're able to create a counter-narrative based on robust information.

Tracie Yang (03:27):

Would you say your endeavor was successful? How do you measure success for a project like that?

Abbas Hussain (03:34):

One important measure of success is looking at the number of people who engaged with our posts on social media, through broadcast media channels, whether radio or news channels on television, and also in terms of changed behavior. We have done in-country independent evaluations where evaluators conducted a lot of interviews with beneficiaries and different stakeholders. Now we have a regional evaluation as well.

Tracie Yang (04:04):

So, Abbas, you have written for us repeatedly over the years on social justice issues. You've written about Pakistan's backlogged courts, the movement for alternative dispute resolution, the growing number of women lawyers and judges. What draws you to these issues?

Abbas Hussain (04:23):

I think living in a developing country, you see a lot of inequality. There are vulnerable groups, especially those who are not affluent, who have little access to justice and other resources which many of us take for granted. That was something that I was passionate about changing always, and I adopted different mediums of expressing myself in that regard. So for example, I did theater for social change, I wrote articles to express myself. There was a lot of passion inside of me, so I used to go on these demonstrations as well. Then I did a course in documentary production as well, because I thought that was another profound way of expressing my angst against this injustice that I observed around me.


I mean, of course, that social injustice, social equality, I think that's an issue that exists world over, but I was seeing that around me as well. So that was something I wanted to talk about, discuss, analyze, get to the roots of and try and make sense of, and hopefully whether it's me being like a drop in the ocean, I'm trying to make a difference in whatever way I could, basically.

John Rieger (05:32):

Here's one of the reasons we like your blog posts, Abbas. In 2019, you wrote this in a story about alternative dispute resolution, "Litigation is a scenario in which you go in as a bull, but leave as a sausage." Thank you for that. That's great material, man. Okay, look, here's a lead from a story you wrote in 2018. "In his old age, a longstanding property dispute became the bane of Abdul Hamid Khan's existence. The father of four sons and three daughters, Khan had been left like Shakespeare's King Lear, without a roof over his head." Now, InAsia is a blog about international development in asia, so we don't get many references to Shakespeare. Should this tell us anything about your other interests?

Abbas Hussain (06:22):

Yes, I do have a link to the performing arts, as I mentioned earlier on, and with Shakespeare in particular because I did this Shakespeare production which was part of the World Shakespeare Festival in 2012, which preceded the London Olympics. So I had the opportunity to perform at the Globe Theatre, which is like the mecca for actors. So yeah, acting is my passion.

John Rieger (06:45):

What play did you perform at the Globe?

Abbas Hussain (06:48):

We performed Taming of the Shrew, but we tried to do it in a non-misogynistic way, because it is misogynistic.

Tracie Yang (06:54):

Ah. Yeah, that's nice. Updated.

John Rieger (06:56):

So it was revisionist Shakespeare.

Abbas Hussain (06:59):

Revisionist, and since we believe in gender empowerment, all of us who were behind the production, there were a lot of women who were in the production, so we decided to do it in an ironic way and we questioned the whole patriarchal sense that was embedded in the script.

John Rieger (07:19):

Have you ever done any musical theater, Abbas?

Abbas Hussain (07:22):

I have actually, but actually since you mentioned music, I'm training as a singer these days and I'm learning Eastern classical music.

John Rieger (07:32):

Will you sing something for us?

Abbas Hussain (07:34):

Not at the moment, maybe I'm not well trained enough to do that.

John Rieger (07:37):


Abbas Hussain (07:38):

That's just the impact of John. Just so intimidating. What can I say, John?

John Rieger (07:48):

I guess we can't ignore the fact that a third of Pakistan is underwater right now.

Abbas Hussain (07:54):


John Rieger (07:54):

At a time when the country is already under extraordinary economic stress. When you look around, doesn't it make you lose heart?

Abbas Hussain (08:02):

One thing that I see around me, and I have seen around me since childhood, a very strong sense of philanthropy exists in our people, and a lot of relief has been pouring in from local quarters as well as international quarters and it's very heartening to see everyone coming together to help the people who've been affected by the floods. I'm heartened, I'm relieved that people are getting help, but just like there was a pandemic fatigue, I hope there isn't a donor fatigue, because people's homes have been swept away, their incomes have gone, and there's just destruction beyond one's imagination.

Tracie Yang (08:40):

Something about you, Abbas, that really comes through is that you're an optimist. How do you hang onto that optimism?

Abbas Hussain (08:47):

I don't think you can have social change without hope, because if there's a sense of despondency, then you just give up. And then how will you create social change if you have a defeatist attitude? So I believe in being an optimist and I believe in trying against all odds to make a difference.

Tracie Yang (09:07):

So, what's next for you then, Abbas?

Abbas Hussain (09:10):

Okay, so what's next for me? The world's my oyster, as generic as that sounds, but-

John Rieger (09:17):

I'm sure he's going to break into song any minute, honestly.

Abbas Hussain (09:20):

You wish, John. I actually want to do short films, because I have had very little experience of on-camera acting, and so yeah, that's something I would be interested in. But as far as the development sector's concerned, I think it's a very interesting time to be a development practitioner, because in the post-COVID period, a lot of the work has become remote. So I've been applying for those, I've been talking to different teams and organizations, and yeah, so let's see. Nothing's firmed up at this point, but fingers crossed. I hope that something interesting pans out for me.

John Rieger (09:54):

The Asia Foundation's Abbas Hussain. Thank you so much for joining us today, I've enjoyed our conversation tremendously.

Abbas Hussain (10:01):

You are very welcome. The pleasure was all mine.

Tracie Yang (10:03):

We are very disappointed you didn't sing, though.

John Rieger (10:09):

That's our show for this week.

Tracie Yang (10:10):

It's a talk show.

John Rieger (10:11):

It is, and next week, we'll be talking to pioneering journalists, advocate, and Nobel Peace Prize winner Maria Ressa. That's one not to miss. We hope you'll join us.

Tracie Yang (10:22):

Until then, I'm Tracie Yang.

John Rieger (10:24):

And I'm John Rieger.

Tracie Yang (10:25):

Thanks for listening.