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April 1, 2020

Federal govt skeptical of Punjab’s coronavirus testing data

Top Story

April 1, 2020

ISLAMABAD: A few days ago, the Punjab chief minister made a claim that left many officials baffled; including those in federal government. “So far, 13,380 people have been tested for [Covid-19] in Punjab…” Usman Buzdar tweeted on March 28. This figure was in contradiction with the federal data of cumulative tests performed (13,231) till that date not only in Punjab and other provinces but also Azad Jammu & Kashmir and Gilgit-Baltistan.

The claimed figure has kept rising since. It jumped to 14,890 on March 30 in Punjab, according to statistics of provincial government. However, this doesn’t tally with the data maintained by National Institute of Health that coordinates with all provinces toupdate it on daily basis. Taking NIH daily situation report as a guide, countrywide testing as on March 31 was slightly lower (14,658) than claimed by Punjab alone. According to NIH data, only 2,500 tests have been conducted in Punjab till March 31. The prime minister’s adviser on health has cast doubts on the authenticity of Punjab’s testing data. “This figure isn’t correct. I don’t know how they do it,” Dr Zafar Mirza told The News while reacting on this. There is a problem in data sharing and we are trying to streamline it through software, he explained. Punjab is, however, adamant on the stated figure. “Do you think I’m lying,” asked a well-placed bureaucrat in Lahore when questioned by The News.

He said tests conducted at private labs are also included in cumulative testing figure of Punjab. Giving a breakup as of March 30, he said as many as 2,610 tests were conducted by Punjab government’s labs, 2,500 from NIH, 180 at Nishtar Hospital Multan, 2,600 at Shaukat Khanum Cancer Hospital and 7,000 at Chughtai Lab. When explained this to Dr Zafar Mirza, he was nevertheless skeptical. “Does this mean that half of the total test conducted countrywide were performed at Chughati Lab in Punjab,” he wondered in a dismissive tone. He said Punjab has not shared with NIH of the tests conducted at private facilities.

The NIH has notified as many as 15 testing facilities throughout Pakistan; among them four are in Punjab. They are: Public Health Lab of Punjab Aids Control Program, Shaukat Khanum Hospital, Nishtar Hospital and Armed Forces Institute of Pathology. Although Chughtai Lab is not in the notified list, many people have themselves tested from there privately. Even the first case reported in Punjab, a British Pakistani, had himself tested from Chughtai.

According to the prevailing practice, hospitalisation of confirmed cases is compulsory in Punjab. Not only they are admitted, their house is guarded by police as other family members are home-quarantined. Although Punjab officials say that such policing is required to arrest this pandemic, this has led to creating panic among citizens. Dr Zafar Mirza said this trend of criminalising patients must be stopped.