Thursday June 30, 2022

Resisting the virus

June 18, 2020

Due to the PTI government's mishandling, the Covid-19 situation in Pakistan has gone from bad to worse.

From "the coronavirus is a flu that spreads quickly" to "people are neither taking it seriously, nor following the SOPs" – we can easily sum up the government's bungled policy.

According to Johns Hopkins University's coronavirus resource center, Pakistan is the fifteenth most Covid-19-affected country and fifth highest for daily news cases in the world.

Notwithstanding Covid-19's Wuhan origins, the pandemic neither has a race, religion nor colour, and nor does it discriminate along these lines. Yet, we believed that the strain of the coronavirus which entered Pakistan was not as lethal as it was in China, Iran, Europe, or the rest of the world. Right from the beginning, a combination of exceptionalism, denialism and incompetence got us off to a wrong start. The result is the exponential growth of the coronavirus cases and deaths across Pakistan.

The government's cluttered messaging on Covid-19 is epitomised by the prime minister's various speeches in which he has described lockdowns and social distancing measures as time-buying tools until a vaccine is developed and available in the market.

Quite to the contrary, according to the World Health Organisation, lockdown and social distancing measures are implemented to reduce the reproduction rate (RO) of the coronavirus below 1 to keep the pressure off the healthcare system. The RO refers to the measure of virus' transmission or the number of infections generated by each new case.

The ‘first wave’ (not to be confused with the global first and second wave of the pandemic) of Covid-19 struck Pakistan in March. The Shia pilgrims returning from Iran and the expatriate Pakistanis coming from different parts of the world, particularly Europe, were the first carriers of the coronavirus in the country. Inadequate quarantine facilities at Taftan and insufficient screening at the main airports resulted in the leakages. The refusal of the Tableeghi Jamaat to postpone its annual gathering at the Raiwind Markaz also undermined the initial efforts to contain the spread of the contagion.

The lockdown announced in April, despite less-than-ideal implementation, insufficient testing and underreporting, kept the number of coronavirus cases and casualties below an alarming threshold. For instance, intensive care facilities and occupancy at the government hospitals during this time were not choked.

The second bout of Covid-19 hit Pakistan hard in early June, and most of these cases are of local community transmission. The decision to lift the lockdown, particularly the week before Eidul Fitr, proved fatal. Following this decision, the number of daily cases rose from hundreds to thousands and deaths jumped up from the daily average of 15-20 to the 80-100 mark. For instance, from May 9 to June 8, after the lockdown was lifted, as many as 78,825 new coronavirus cases were added to the national tally. The same figure for the preceding month was 28,000. The lockdown and social distancing measures, no matter how imperfect, still worked.

The life versus livelihood debate, in the context of Covid-19, required a humanist rather than capitalist approach: without lives, there will be no livelihoods. This debate further politicised an already polarised polity, sowed confusion and created a policy paralysis.

A timely and efficient lockdown would have enabled the government to gradually open the economy with specific SOPs and save precious lives. Right now, the pandemic is destroying whatever is left of the struggling economy and consuming precious lives.

After Eid, the rapid explosion of coronavirus cases has taken a toll on our fragile healthcare system, and exposed our medical fraternity to the pandemic. At present, as many as 3,400 healthcare workers, including 1,750 doctors, 400 nurses and 800 other supporting staff, have been infected across Pakistan.

In the future, the security challenges to nation-states will come from environmental degradation, such as rising temperatures, high sea levels and coronavirus-like pandemics as well as insecurity over resources. Given future challenges, cutting-edge technological advancement grounded in a culture of scientific learning and data-driven policymaking is the roadmap to smart statecraft. Knowledge-driven economies and technologically skilled human resources are going to be the two main pillars of state power. The more accommodative and innovative a state becomes, the more resilient the state-society bond is – to cope with future challenges.

The coronavirus pandemic has been a great equaliser which has exposed the redundancies, archaic bureaucratic practices and ugly realities of Pakistan's governance system. The most telling has been the state-society disconnect and divergent priorities. The coronavirus pandemic, the locust attack endangering the agriculture sector, glacial melt causing seasonal flooding and dengue outbreak necessitate expanding and re-conceptualising the notion of security in Pakistan by making it more inclusive and human-centric.

In addition to conventional security, the non-traditional security sector involving health, food, human and economic security requires dedicated resource allocation, investment in institutional capacity and development of human expertise.

Under a whole-of-state-and-society approach, a coordinated and bipartisan national response is needed for flattening the Covid-19 curve. In hindsight, even if one area or neighborhood is compromised, it can potentially neutralise the entire national effort. Likewise, consistent and articulate strategic communication is equally important to dispel the infodemic which has been spreading in the form of conspiracy theories and fake news.

Finally, a philanthropist like PM Imran Khan who created a state-of-the-art cancer hospital despite enormous challenges and scepticism needs to put on his philanthropist hat to steer the nation out of this pandemic.

The writer is a research fellow at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Singapore.