Managing the pandemic

The PTI completes 1,000 days in power amid the third wave of Covid-19.

The Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf has completed its 1,000 days in power amid the third wave of Covid-19, which is deadlier and more contagious than the previous two waves. Arrival of the South African and Brazilian variants of coronavirus in Pakistan may create a tough situation for the government in the near future. However, according to government claims it is well equipped to deal with the challenge.

Prime Minister Imran Khan and his team have been changing their stance on the best way to deal with the pandemic. It appeared initially that the government did not foresee the hazard or act timely. Some of its critics say it failed to make tough decisions like when it was called for. Also, during the first wave, the use of face masks was inconsistent, causing confusion among the masses that led to a greater spread of the virus. A lockdown was imposed in March 2020. When it was lifted in May, the action led to a rapid spike in fresh cases. Inbound flights were not checked for Covid patients and there was no clear policy throughout 2020. As a result the UK variant too reached Pakistan. In addition, say critics, it was clear that the health infrastructure was not adequately upgraded even after the first wave.

Despite the loopholes, some wrong decisions and some late decisions, spread of the virus remained lower than predicted by most experts.

The government set up a National Command and Operation Centre with Asad Umar as its chairman to counter Covid-19. Asad Umar’s forecast in May 2020 said that Covid-19 cases, during the first wave will reach 1.2 million in August 2020. However, the case count remained lower. The government tried then to take credit for this by stating that its strategy of imposing smart lockdowns in the areas with high infection rate had worked.

Crisis Group, in its report Pakistan Covid-19 Crisis, published in 2020 wrote, “The federal government’s adoption of what it calls a “smart lockdowns” strategy may not be enough. The strategy entails removing restrictions in specific areas within cities or regions where the authorities assess that case rates are relatively low and imposing them where they are high. But poor data and low testing rates have hampered efforts to “track, trace and quarantine”, which involve identifying and isolating virus carriers and their contacts and placing hot-spots under quarantine, and are essential to curbing the virus. With Covid-19 spreading in densely populated cities such as Karachi, Lahore and Peshawar, limited closures are unlikely to prevent contagion.”

Medical scientists from Pakistan and abroad are still researching reasons for the lower ratio of positive cases. The parliament and the opposition parties were kept away from decision-making about Covid-19 as the situation deteriorated. The federal government’s policies were imposed on the provinces despite health being a provincial responsibility. The Pakistan Peoples Party’s government in Sindh had opted for strict measures and a complete lockdown in the first wave but Islamabad opposed the idea and undermined the provincial government’s authority. Prime Minister Khan kept changing his statements about lockdowns. As large numbers of people completely violated standard operating procedures (SOPs), the government did not adopt stricter policies against them in the first two waves.

The government seems finally to have learnt from its mistakes. It has closed down educational institutions, called the army to help with the implementation of SOPs, imposed restrictions on the religious congregations, adopted a policy of shutting down shops at 6.00 pm and fined those who violated the SOPs. People, who don’t wear face mask are now being fined and consigned to lockups. Fearing congregations and get-togethers on the occasion of Eidul Fitr, the government has announced vacations from May 10 to May 15 (practically starting from May 8).

These measures seem to have been effective though some traders are protesting closure of markets ahead of the Eid. Asad Umar has tweeted, “Significant improvement seen in SOP compliance since the stronger enforcement measures including military deployment took place. National average compliance has doubled from 34 percent on April 25 to 68 percent on May 3. Need to sustain and build on this compliance level till Eid.”

On the other hand, all provinces have closed all resorts and deployed police and army on all exits and entrances to the provinces and big cities. They have advised the people to stay at home.

On the vaccination front, the government has been receiving vaccine doses from China and has allowed the private sector to import vaccines as well. The people have mostly responded well ignoring fake news related to it.

According to Dr Faisal Sultan, five million people have registered for the vaccine. “By June, Pakistan will have received 18.7 million doses, of which 78 percent are purchased by the government.” He said, “Till May 1, two million people of Pakistan have been vaccinated.”

Some political observers says the government has learnt from its mistakes in handling the Covid-19 pandemic is on the right track now as it completes 1,000 days in office.

The writer is a senior journalist, teacher of journalism, writer and researcher. He tweets at @BukhariMubasher

Managing the pandemic