Coronavirus and the government’s unpreparedness
The surge in coronavirus cases in Pakistan has raised questions about the government’s preparedness to deal with the pandemic. Despite the severity of the crisis, the government has not taken all the measures required to contain its spread.
The figure is now in the hundreds and there is fear that the outbreak could get out of control if timely action is not taken. In a recent interview, Prime Minister Imran Khan admitted that the country did not have the capacity and resources to deal with the situation if the virus became uncontrollable.
In an address to the nation, however, Khan said his government was taking necessary measures to tackle the outbreak. He also exhorted the nation not to panic. Following the speech, the government announced some measures to contain the virus. The closure of education institutes was extended and a ban on large public gatherings was imposed.
Many analysts believe, however, that these steps are too little and too late. While the number of deaths still remain low, the exponential rise in infections in the country seem to indicate that fighting the pandemic does not figure too high on the federal government’s list of priorities. Not only has it failed to spell out a clear national policy, there is also no effective coordination between the federal and provincial administrations.
Lack of resources and non-availability of medical facilities further account for the rise of coronavirus cases. What is more alarming is the fact that the virus is now spreading into communities. In many instances it has even been alleged that the number of confirmed coronavirus cases have been kept low-- but understating numbers to downplay the severity of the problem makes it even more difficult to deal with a crisis like this.
Despite the fact that the warning signs were out there for a long time, the federal government responded slowly and convened the National Security Council meeting to discuss the crisis only recently. And still, there is no coherent policy to deal with the enormous challenges that lie ahead. It is not just about stopping the spread of the virus but also managing the long-term economic and social impact the crisis is bound to have, with global dimensions.
Despite the fact that the warning signs were out there for a long time, the federal government responded slowly and convened the National Security Council meeting to discuss the crisis only recently. And still, there is no coherent policy to deal with the enormous challenges that lie ahead.
The first coronavirus case in Pakistan was detected about a month ago and now the number of cases is well into the hundreds. But the federal government lives in a state of denial. There was no sense of urgency until some days ago. Islamabad took its time closing borders and flights coming from areas most affected by the virus. There were no proper facilities provided by federal agencies at major airports across the country to screen passengers flying back home from affected areas until recently.
Most of the cases have so far sprouted among pilgrims and other travelers returning from Iran and other countries. Initially, the pilgrims from Iran were kept under observation near Taftan border crossing in Balochistan. Their number was in the thousands, but the provincial authorities did not have enough resources to test everyone. The condition in which the returnees were quarantined also contributed to the spread of the virus.
A large number of those who were allowed to leave the Taftan border camps later tested positive for the disease. The Sindh government was the first to set up facilities where the returnees were isolated and tested. This medical examination may also explain why Sindh confirmed the highest number of cases among all federating units. The spread of the virus could have been contained had there been better coordination between federal and provincial authorities. The federal government failed to provide any help despite calls from provincial administrations.
It took a while for Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, both led by the ruling Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party, to wake up to the crisis. Punjab declared a health emergency only last week. It is quite surprising that the number of cases in the province has remained relatively low, though this seems to be changing as results of tests carried out on pilgrims returning from Iran show several among them may have the infection. The situation in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa is not very different either.
It is true that there is no need to push the panic button, yet apathy is more dangerous. Government transparency and accurate reporting of facts can help the country deal with the challenge more effectively. It is understandable that with limited screening facilities in the country, it is not easy to get a clear picture of the situation, though there is no point in understating the facts. This is a global problem and needs a holistic approach. A national crisis requires a collective response.
– Zahid Hussain is an award-winning journalist and author. He is a former scholar at Woodrow Wilson International Centre for Scholar, USA, and a visiting fellow at Wolfson College, University of Cambridge, and at the Stimson Center in Washington DC. He is author of Frontline Pakistan: The struggle with militant Islam (Columbia university press) and The Scorpion’s tail: The relentless rise of Islamic militants in Pakistan (Simon and Schuster, NY). Frontline Pakistan was the book of the year (2007) by the WSJ.