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Tuesday December 07, 2021

Pakistan’s response to COVID-19

April 30, 2020

The majority of countries around the world, Pakistan among them, are caught between two situations: the economic well being of their people and their medical safety, both under unprecedented threat from the deadly virus called COVID-19. Each individual head of state faces this grave situation. Before coming to any conclusions, however, we should first survey what the rest of the world has been doing, and then attempt to glean what the best solution for Pakistan can be.

Firstly, let’s look at India. On 24 March 2020, Prime Minister Narendra Modi asked his people to forgive him for the onerous, 21-day nationwide lockdown he imposed. The question that arises is why the Indian government would do this to its $2.9 trillion economy, with the sole answer being that they understood that if this virus spreads it will have consequences which are far beyond what we currently know. Over two months since the first case of Covid-19 was detected in India, more than 29,435 people have tested positive and some 934 people have died, but a severe lockdown has certainly helped the Indian government slow the spread of disease. As Dr. Gabriel Leung observes, “How best to do that will vary by country, depending on its means, tolerance for disruption and its people’s collective will. In all cases, however, the challenge essentially is a three-way tug of war between combating the disease, protecting the economy and keeping society at an even keel.”

China is another example. Why was an industrial hub like Wuhan locked down? It is more than clear that Chinese President XI Jinping would know about the economic impact it would have on the Chinese economy. Either the government could rush to stop an increase in the 50,000 infections and over 2500 deaths in Wuhan, or it could attempt to preclude the economic impact it would have on Wuhan’s people. The Chinese government knew that severe measures would work; by mid-March, the number of new infections had decreased significantly. More recently, China has lifted the lockdown from Wuhan, having benefited immensely from its strict epidemic control centers.

Now let’s look at New Zealand. New Zealand was locked down on 25 March 2020, when there were fewer than 150 cases of the virus and no deaths. They will remain in total lockdown until 27th April 2020 if the current trajectory continues. Their transmission rate - the number of cases each person with the virus passes it on to - is now 0.48, less that half a person each. For context, in the rest of the world it is 2.5 people. They also have the lowest number of confirmed cases per 100,000 people in the world. 1400 people have been infected with Covid-19 but only 12 have died - all of them older citizens with pre-existing health conditions.

USA on the other hand had a vastly different approach. When the first coronavirus case was identified in January, President Donald Trump dismissed the seriousness of the spread and stated that virus was under control. Since then the outbreak has spread across the country, with more than 1.01 million cases and more than 56,521 deaths. This is a terrible toll, and it has easily surpassed the number of reported cases in China, Italy, and the worst-hit European nations. A lethargic lockdown, lack of coordination between Washington and the states, testing delays, and a president constantly issuing irresponsible statements, are all reasons that the United States finds itself in today’s morass.

Let’s also turn to Italy. In its early stages, the Covid-19 surge in Italy looked nothing like a crisis. The initial state-of-emergency declarations were met with skepticism by both the public and those in policy circles, even though several scientists had been warning of the potential for such a catastrophe for weeks. Indeed, in late February, some notable Italian politicians engaged in public handshaking in Milan to make the point that the economy should not be frozen at the behest of the virus. Just a week later, one of those glad-handing politicians was diagnosed with Covid-19. The confirmed cases as of today are 199,000, and the confirmed deaths are 26,977.

In light of the above, the only practical solution to this pandemic is a lockdown model that resembles Wuhan, China. While Pakistan’s capacity and resources are scarcely comparable, it was more than possible for the country’s initial response to Covid-19 to be far more cognizant of the problem. Pakistan should have locked down the country immediately as soon as the virus in China became apparent, due to our location (and also due to the fact that we are a densely populated country). All borders should have been sealed, flights grounded, and the Chinese requested for their help and insight. Prime Minister Imran Khan should have taken the nation into confidence well before when he actually did, as done by the New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern. This lockdown should have continued until the first week of Ramadan. During this period, political and religious unity should have been encouraged, and at the same time, economic and medical issues should have received high policy priority. Furthermore, the urban and rural areas harder hit by the infection could have been identified through regular testing. While it would behoove anyone to deeply sympathise with the PM’s plight, and his constant insistence that the daily-wager and those below the poverty line would be the worst to suffer from a strict lockdown, it should be remembered that no cohesive alternatives were explored by the government before taking such a decision. With the requisite BISP data, outreach, and concerted rationing to the most vulnerable families, there was more than enough space for the state to reconsider.

Threats such as pandemics that evolve in a nonlinear fashion e.g. they start small but exponentially intensify are especially tricky to confront because of the challenges of rapidly interpreting what is happening in real time. The most effective time to take strong action was extremely early, when the threat appears to be small, and before the number of cases mushroom.

The writer is a lawyer Email: bilalnaseer.bn@gmail.com