Pakistan must change its coronavirus response
Pakistan's coronavirus cases are rising exponentially. Each day, the number of new infections surpasses the previous day's record. Deaths too are mounting. At the time of writing, five lawmakers alone have lost their lives to this deadly virus. Yet the PTI government wants to take no measures to contain the spread. It is mind-boggling.
Prime Minister Imran Khan, after initially downplaying the threat posed by this virus as akin to the flu and then proclaiming that he is against lockdowns, has recently informed us that people will die.
Once upon a time, not that long ago, Prime Minister Boris Johnson, said something similar. On the 12th of March, to be precise, he said,
"Many more families are going to lose loved ones before their time."
It sounded callous. It wasn't well-received. Shortly thereafter, Boris himself came down with the virus. The UK's coronavirus response had to change thereafter. After dilly-dallying for 22 precious days and flirting with the idea of herd immunity, several dead bodies and infected people later, the UK decided to go for a proper lockdown. And although both deaths and new infections in the UK are still high , the 10-week lockdown has resulted in the numbers coming down significantly from the peak.
The R number, which is the rate at which the infection is transmitted has gone down to less than 1 from a peak of between 3 and 4.6 in April. When to lock down and when to ease restrictions must be dictated by this number. And yet, nobody from the government has told us what the R number in Pakistan is. Imran Khan chose to team up with a cleric in his telethon to raise funds to cope with the pandemic but has yet to tell us who the country's chief medical or scientific officer is.
Ultimately it is scientific advice that must dictate countrywide response to this pandemic, and not political feuds or pandering to religiosity. The Prime Minister has repeatedly informed us that Pakistan is a resource-strapped, debt-ridden country that cannot afford to lock down, but that people must exercise caution. Trouble is, if you leave it to individual decision-making there can be no coordinated response.
But here's something interesting. The richest countries haven't been the best at keeping this virus at bay, while countries like Vietnam have done phenomenally, with less than 350 total infections and zero deaths reported. Greece is another inspiring example and has come out shining in its coronavirus response. With less than 200 deaths and fewer than 3000 infections, it has left some of the richest countries of the world far behind.
The Prime Minister has repeatedly informed us that Pakistan is a resource-strapped, debt-ridden country that cannot afford to lock down, but that people must exercise caution. Trouble is, if you leave it to individual decision-making there can be no coordinated response.
Ayesha Ijaz Khan
A lockdown isn't ideal. It is hard. But it's the only way to contain the spread of this virus. Countries like New Zealand and Taiwan, who locked down early and waited it out till the virus was all but eradicated from their shores have come out winners.
Others, like Italy and Spain, learned their lessons the hard way, but learn they did. Despite the fact that Spain has now had virtually zero deaths for days in a row and new infections have gone down to less than 400 per day, the Spanish Parliament just voted to extend the lockdown that went into effect in March for a final two-week period.
There will be an economic fallout worldwide as a result of this pandemic and that will need to be addressed separately, but it is dangerous to pit saving lives against saving livelihoods. At the end of the day it is the government's responsibility, and not the public's to save as many lives as they can and to coordinate an effective response to a public health emergency.
Instead of confusing the public with mixed messaging, opening marriage halls and tourist hotspots while telling the people to be safe and stay indoors, the government must educate people about the grave risk this virus poses and close down anything that isn't essential. A leaked report to the Punjab government had asked for a month long lock down starting on the 15th of May. Why was that advice not followed?
In order to be effective, now more than ever, the government needs to be transparent and accountable. It needs to explain which scientific model it is following. The only country that has followed the path Pakistan is taking is Sweden and it's chief epidemiologist had his mea culpa moment, admitting that he could have handled the coronavirus response better.
If Pakistan does not urgently correct course, its people will pay dearly and remember for years on whose watch it happened.
– The writer is a lawyer who lives in London and tweets @ayeshaijazkhan