A grey winter

October 11, 2020

A vast majority of people in Pakistan believe the threat of Covid-19 to be over. Will winter be a different story altogether?

A temperature check.

Last Friday, not a single person was wearing a mask at one of the largest mosques in Karachi where hundreds of people gather five times a day to offer prayers and hundreds on Friday afternoon. Everybody, from a three-year-old to elderly people in their 70s and 80s were standing in rows, without leaving any distance between one another.

Schools, too, are open and thousands of children are attending classes in small and crowded rooms; restaurants are buzzing with laughter as people of all ages seem to be enjoying the food without fear; large gatherings are being held; and huge rallies on roads – both religious and political, have started taking place throughout the country as if there exists no lethal, infectious disease that has killed over a million people including, as official statistics claim, 6,550 in Pakistan alone.

Life appears to be back to normal — as it was before Covid-19. Hundreds are working in crowded factories, universities are open and people are travelling in buses, trains and vans packed to capacity almost as if coronavirus was washed away in the recent rains. Some health experts believe that a large fraction of the country’s population has developed Covid-19 antibodies and that “herd immunity” would be achieved ‘soon’.

The officially reported stats appear to support this claim so far. In the Punjab, the largest province, less than one percent of the tests conducted everyday are coming out as corona-positive. This means that if 10,000 people are tested in a single day, only a hundred or so are found to be infected with coronavirus. Of the average 35,000 to 40,000 tests conducted every day, hardly 500 to 700 people are found infected with the virus and there have been “only a few deaths”. Compared to neighbouring India, where over one hundred thousand cases are being reported on daily basis, it would seem that Pakistan is faring ‘much better’.

But, have we really gotten rid of or managed to control Covid-19 in Pakistan?

“A few days back, the World Health Organisation (WHO) said that according to its estimates, only 10 percent of world’s population has so far contracted the coronavirus infection while Dr Tom Frieden, the former director of Center for Disease Control (CDC) in United States, believes that actual infections in the US, [arguable] the worst-affected country are roughly 40 million, which is not more than 12 percent of the total population of the world”, says Dr Rana Jawad Asghar, an epidemiologist. He says he wonders as to how it is possible for “40 to 50 percent of the population” in Pakistan to have “developed immunity.”

Pointing out that coronavirus infections have started rising in Pakistan, as they have in the rest of the world, with the weather getting cold and dry in most parts of the country, Dr Rana Jawad Asghar says it is believed that this infection “spread rapidly in countries where weather remains cold and dry”, and that in the United States, “meat processing plants” became “hotspots” due to the “extremely low temperature and dry conditions” essential for preserving meat. He fears that during the winter, “coronavirus is going to strike back as conditions would be favourable for the virus to multiply, spread and infect humans, catching them off-guard”.

“Israel is the first country to re-impose a national lockdown. The UK has started seeing a steep increase in hospitalisations, after a good interval. Similarly, new cases are emerging in France and Germany, after an apparent under-control situation. It looks like the second-wave has already started in Europe”, he says, reiterating that cases have “definitely started rising in Pakistan as the weather is getting cooler”.

“This is evident from the data from Islamabad and Sindh while Gilgit-Baltistan and Balochistan are already showing higher number of daily Covid-19 cases as compared to other parts of the country. It appears that the Punjab is under-reporting the cases. They have been in the habit of doing so for many years”, says Dr Asghar.

He says difficult days lie ahead, not only for the “rest of the world” but for the people of Pakistan as well, especially at a time when the latter appear to have thrown caution to the wind and are neither wearing masks nor adhering to social distancing protocols. “This is a very alarming situation”, he says, adding that “by the time a vaccine to prevent Covid-19 becomes available, a lot of damage would have been done.”

“The development of one or two vaccines for Covid-19 prevention is at least two to three months away. Even after its development, it would take a few more months for the vaccine to become available. Persuading people to get vaccinated would be another uphill task. There’s no proven treatment or antiviral drug available so far. So, the only option left is sticking to the preventive measures – wearing masks, avoiding social gatherings and maintaining social distance but nobody is taking this seriously”, he says.

Dr Faisal Sultan, special assistant to prime minister (SAPM) on health, also believes that the “threat is not over for Pakistan yet” and that “crowded restaurants and weddings halls as well as large gatherings should be a serious cause of concern for the authorities” as people have started “ignoring the precautionary measures” including “social distancing, wearing of masks and avoiding social gatherings”.

“Some countries are now facing the second-wave of Covid-19 while some are still struggling with the first wave. In Pakistan, if things continue in this vein, we fear that strict restrictions may have to be imposed again to prevent the spread of infectious disease”, he adds.

Dr Sultan concedes that not only the number of cases is on the rise but the percentage of Covid-19 cases among those tested is increasing. In Karachi, the positivity ratio is climbing and currently stands around 5 percent. Leading Covid-19 indicators are on the rise. The number of critical patients could also rise in the weeks to come if this trend continues.

“SOPs regarding restaurants are not being followed. We are reviewing the situation. Soon some strict guidelines would be announced regarding crowding at restaurants and wedding halls. At weddings and funeral gatherings, people come and greet the host without observing social distancing protocols. This is a very risky situation and can lead to spread of virus to a large population”, adds Dr Sultan.

On the other hand, Dr Tahir Shamsi, a hematologist, believes that almost half of Pakistan’s population is now immune to the Covid-19. He says “we are only a few weeks away from achievement of herd immunity”, and that there would be “no need for a vaccine as a majority of the would be carrying Covid-19 antibodies. This would prevent infections and re-infections”.

The writer is an investigative reporter, currently covering health, science, environment and water issues for The News   International.

A grey winter