A ‘herd immunity plan’ hidden in hit-or-miss pandemic response?

May 27, 2020

LAHORE: The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the weaknesses in our governance system as the approach of the federal government continues to remain not in synch with the provinces, while the crisis has...

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LAHORE: The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the weaknesses in our governance system as the approach of the federal government continues to remain not in synch with the provinces, while the crisis has laid bare the risks of having a confused and incompetent central authority.

The risks to economy are much higher in Pakistan than the rest of the world. It is because we were already experiencing economic meltdown when pandemic hit our country. The situation demands a unified and prudent approach that this government is not prepared to adopt. Federal government’s response to the pandemic was slow and confused. The shortcomings in the health system were enormous but the provinces were groping in dark about their share in the test kits and equipment’s imported by the federal government. Although health is basically a provincial subject, but the provinces were not consulted about what they actually needed to tackle the issue.

We have seen that some countries have tackled the pandemic more successfully than the others. The basic reason was that they were better prepared to tackle any health crisis because of better capabilities. In Europe for instance the infection rate and fatalities in Germany are far less that United Kingdom (the second highest mortality rate after United States). The reason that the pandemic was contained in Germany was that its healthcare system was in good shape going into the crisis; everyone has had full access to medical care.

In Pakistan legally every worker has to be registered with social security apparatus that fully looks after all the health issues of each worker and its family. Unfortunately, the employers have registered a fraction of their employees in social security to avoid the contributions they have to make in this regard. This is the failure of governance as the sold-out concerned officials let the defaulting employers stay off the hook.

The second reason was that the Germans acted very fast when they saw that the virus is spreading rapidly in most parts of the world. Before the pandemic hit Germany, its government enhanced its Intensive Care Units capacity by three times. Our government waited for the virus to hit the population first before they went on a buying spree to enhance capacities. The third factor that went in German’s favour was the availability of numerous laboratories that had the capability to test blood samples for virus. In addition, it hosts some of the most distinguished researchers active in research on viruses. This is the reason that the first rapid COVID-19 test was developed there. Germans with a population of 83 million are conducting one million COVID-19 tests per day an they expect to enhance the testing capacity to 5 million per day. We as a third-world country lack the capability to develop our own kit for this test. From the imported kits we are expecting to perform up to 20,000 test per day for a population of 207 million. This explains why the virus is spreading more in Pakistan with each passing day.

Pakistan performed better than many countries in distributing emergency funds to the poor as it already had data about the vulnerable in its data base. Citizens were able to apply for emergency cash transfers (made available to an impressive 12 million households) directly from their mobile phones. But we must understand that we lack resources to look after them even in the medium-term. Management would become impossible if the pandemic does not start declining soon.

The way things are going, we would be needing a series of rescue packages for which we have no available fiscal resources. The virus is spreading mainly because of our flawed approach to handle the crisis. We have through dole-outs been able only to ameliorate the short-term economic losses caused by the lockdown. However, the long-term economic, social, and environmental risks have been amplified to the extent that it would take years to reach even a degraded version of the pre-crisis days.

Easing the lockdown, in fact, is nothing but the government’s efforts to control the COVID-19 through the so-called herd immunity against the virus. The provinces and the federal governments were not on one page on the lockdown. Federal government constitutionally has the right to operate passenger trains on all routes. It nullifies the efforts of any province that is trying to make lockdown stricter. And it appears the government is doing everything it can to keep this herd-immunity-plan under wraps, because it entails the risk of high number of fatalities.

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