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April 24, 2020

The half-quarantine policy

Opinion

April 24, 2020

The PTI government is facing hard choices at the moment. The half-measures or half-quarantine policy has led us to this situation.

We lost precious time in the confusion over whether to impose a lockdown or just impose some restrictions to contain the virus. We lost time that we could have used to enhance the capacity of our public health system and to provide our frontline fighters -- doctors, nurses and healthcare staff proper protective gears and other equipment.

On the one hand, the pressure is mounting on the PTI government to allow traders to resume commercial activities. The government has already succumbed to pressure and allowed congregational prayers at mosques during Ramazan. The people have become impatient with the partial lockdown already in place for nearly one month. And this partial lockdown is already withering away as more and more people are coming out of their homes for different reasons. We have no effective, efficient and up to date social protection system in place to provide the basic needs and services to affected people.

On the other hand, the numbers of infected patients are rising and have already crossed 10,800. The deaths are also rising. It seems that we are heading towards a disastrous situation.

Many leading doctors and health experts are expressing serious concerns and are warning the government of the possible consequences of easing the movement restrictions. They have warned that the expected easing of the lockdown can prove disastrous for Pakistan. If we don’t enforce the lockdown in letter and spirit, the projected number of coronavirus cases can rise up to 70,000 by May 15. The doctors have also warned that: “as many as 7,000 people would require life support but our country does not have the capacity to cater to even half of those patients.”

The doctors have also demanded a ban on all types of crowds and congregations, including those at supermarkets, shopping malls and mosques, saying people should avoid gathering at any place at least for one and a half to two months, so that transmission of the novel coronavirus could be minimized as much as possible; they have also asked religious clerics and people to offer prayers at homes.

The PTI government should listen carefully to the sane voices of top doctors and health experts before easing the lockdown restrictions. Professor Atta Ur Rahman has also expressed serious concerns regarding the policy of easing the restrictions and resumption of business activities.

The PTI government needs to learn from the experiences of different Western countries before easing the lockdown restrictions. We need to learn from the mistakes made by Italy, Spain, Britain and the US in the fight against the Covid-19 pandemic. The half-quarantine policy adopted by these countries has brought devastating consequences for both the economy and human life.

We have seen two different strategies to curb the spread of coronavirus so far. There are two options -- one is to completely stop everything for two months and overcome the virus and the second is to take half measures and then suffer for nearly six months. Both human lives and the economy are going to suffer after half measures. The economic cost is involved in both strategies. But the strategy adopted by China saved many human lives at the economic cost.

In a half quarantine or partial lockdown strategy, the experience so far shows us that both the economic and human cost is much higher. China paid a heavy economic price for closing down the country for two months but now it has started to return back to the normal situation when most of the Western countries including the US will continue to suffer for a longer period. They will continue to impose and ease restrictions again and again until we have a vaccine to cure the disease.

China adopted the full quarantine approach and imposed a complete lockdown. This strategy was criticised by Western governments and media as repressive and dictatorial. The Western governments adopted the half-quarantine strategy. Some governments took the approach of herd immunity and allowed the virus to spread. Sweden is a leading example of this strategy. The British government also followed the policy of herd immunity in the beginning but changed it when more people started to die. China imposed a complete lockdown in Wuhan and other cities; it lasted for nearly two months. People were not allowed on the streets. Public transport and businesses were shut down.

Lockdown was just one instrument of this strategy. There are other important components of this strategy. The ability and capacity of the state to mobilise both financial and human resources needed to curb the spread. China not only provided basic needs and services to the people locked down through ‘neighbour committees’, but the same committees were used to implement the lockdown too. China also enhanced its capacity of testing and to provide medical treatment to the affected people. They mobilised doctors, healthcare staff and volunteers to fight against this pandemic.

China has the advantage of planning and organisation. The country used portable scanners to scan the lungs to identify corona-infected people. But then China has the capacity to do so. This capacity hasn’t been built overnight. China has spent a huge amount of money on its health facilities. The five-year plan helps the Chinese state to clearly prioritize its public investments.

The problem is that the Western media presents China as a villain and deliberately ignores the positive sides of its system. It hardly sees anything positive in China. It focuses on China’s top-down bureaucratic political model and ignores the progressive developments of China. Yes there are problems with Chinese system. It has weaknesses. But in this period of crisis, it has shown that this system based on planning-public ownership and investment is more efficient-capable and people centric than the western neo liberal economic model and system.

The writer is a freelance journalist.