Buzdar, late to show

The Punjab government has been criticised for a lack of timely interventions

While Chief Minister Sardar Usman Buzdar claims that his government was the first to take up the coronavirus issue on January 3 and immediately set up a control room in Health Department, the Punjab government is being criticised for its lack of preparedness.

In China, Singapore and South Korea, the decision to respond aggressively played a key role in mitigating the crisis. In Pakistan, Sindh province is leading in taking aggressive steps to combat this pandemic. However, health professionals believe that the Punjab – the most populated province of the country – has been unable to respond adequately, given the scale of the challenge.

The Punjab government was in a fix about the immediate steps it needed to take, says Salman Abid, a political analyst. “Sindh government took timely and appropriate initiatives. In comparison, the Punjab government started a bit late; but now their approach appears appropriate.”

“In fact, the issue has become politicised, making it difficult for the average citizen to know whom to trust or what to believe.” The other aspect, Abid believes, is the dependence of the Buzdar administration on bureaucracy rather than elected members. “This is the way Mian Shehbaz Sharif acted in any challenging situation. The important thing for the CM now is to understand as quickly as possible that whatever relief package has been announced cannot have an impact unless people’s representatives are engaged.”

The Pakistan Medical Association had conducted a seminar in the first week of February in which health experts warned the government about the severity of the pandemic and demanded a public awareness campaign.

The Punjab government, thus, knew that the pandemic was going to hit the province. Dr Ashraf Nizami, the Lahore PMA president, says, “Unfortunately, the whole of February was wasted without creating quarantine centres, ramping up testing facilities, and acquiring protective and testing equipment.”

“The other worrying aspect is that personal protective equipment is not available for all health practitioners. Also, the equipment that has been provided at some of the facilities does not come up to the World Health Organisation standards. This means that our health workers are in great danger.” The Young Doctors’ Association (YDA) has been highlighting the scarcity of mandatory safety kits in all public hospitals.

“Even if we were to say that Punjab was a little late to respond to the pandemic, today we are undoubtedly far ahead of any other province,” says Musarrat Jamshed Cheema, a Punjab government spokesperson.

Nizami says that the government failed to take the concerned health institutions and associations on board. It did not apparently realise that both public and private facilities and the departments of virology have an integral part in such situations.

“The scarcity of diagnostic kits nationwide and delay in testing has also led experts to warn that there is no way of even knowing where the hotspots are.”

The Punjab government has also come under fire for not taking prompt action to ban mass gatherings. The Tableegi Ijtema in Raiwind was allowed and became the second major source of spread of virus. Weddings and other gatherings kept on taking place till March 14. Furthermore, the government failed to formulate a firm strategy regarding congregational prayers.

Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq Naqshbandi, chairman of the Tanzeem Ittehad-i-Ummat, says that the Punjab government, religious groups and scholars did not play their due role. “It was primarily the government’s duty to persuade religious leaders and scholars to announce a ban on group activities at mosques or elsewhere. For their part, the religious groups and scholars should have played their role, given the urgency of the situation.”

Apart from taking administrative measures, it is important to create awareness. According to Abid, media is playing its role but the government too should reach out to the public with an effective communication approach. “Unfortunately, the response of the government was lacking.”

Musarrat Jamshed Cheema, a spokesperson for the Punjab government, dismisses the criticism. “The Punjab government constituted a committee to monitor the pandemic situation. A special health committee has been formed to ensure that the necessary interventions are taken without a delay. Our approach has resulted in productive outcomes,” she claims.

“As regards rigorous detection and strict quarantine, the Punjab has reached 5,000 to 7,000 tests per day, which is marvellous.” Areas where ‘positive’ cases have been reported have been declared ‘red’ and their surroundings ‘blue’ zones. “A quarantine centre for pilgrims coming from Iran was established without any delay, perhaps before any other province had one.”

Cheema is also convinced that her government has a better mechanism in place to deliver the Rs 4,000 a month financial aid to each of the 2.5 million families in need. “Even if we were to agree that the Punjab was a little late to respond to the pandemic, today we are undoubtedly far ahead of any other province.”

The writer is a staff member. He can be reached at [email protected]

Coronavirus: Punjab government being criticised for a lack of timely interventions