Stranded in China

Published February 2, 2020

AN infectious disease snowballing in intensity across the globe and inadequate health facilities at home to prevent its spread — the coronavirus outbreak poses a serious dilemma for Pakistan.

The concerns are centred on approximately 30,000 Pakistanis resident in China, particularly 500-plus students in Wuhan — ground zero for the epidemic — and whether the Pakistani government should evacuate them.

Read: Govt stays firm on decision to not repatriate Pakistanis from virus-hit China

Four individuals among these are diagnosed as being infected with the coronavirus and are under treatment in China. Videos have emerged of frightened students in Wuhan pleading to be reunited with their families in Pakistan. However, the Pakistani government has taken the position that it will not bring these expats home in light of the risk that unwitting carriers of the virus could lead to a spread of the disease in this country.

Certainly, the state has valid reasons to be concerned.

The virus is spreading around the world at an exponential rate: at least 22 countries have been affected, with the total number of patients numbering around 12,000. More than 250 have died.

Granted, the fatality rate is not very high, but this is clearly a transmissible infection.

While acknowledging the distress of the stranded Pakistanis and the fact that they should have been provided government assistance much earlier, pragmatism must dictate the state’s response — at least in the short term.

Given our shambolic health infrastructure and far from robust infection-control practices, our high population density and hospitals teeming with people, the conditions are ripe for an infection to spread like wildfire. In the event of such a development, the health system would be overburdened beyond its capacity to cope, leading to knock-on effects in other areas of life.

That said, it is regrettable that facilities in this country are not equal to the task of properly managing quarantine requirements, an important aspect of a well-functioning health system.

There have been a number of global viral outbreaks in recent years; a country that learns from experience would have had quarantine protocols in place at entry points into the country.

Consider that the student who managed to return from Wuhan on his own initiative has been placed in an isolation ward at a private hospital. However, isolation is a public health practice used to restrict the movement of people diagnosed with a communicable disease.

On the other hand, quarantine is meant to separate from the general population those who appear to be well but may have been exposed to an infection, such as the aforementioned student. Moreover, quarantine calls for a dedicated facility — rather than a hospital — where ostensibly healthy individuals can be kept under observation for a period of time so as to ensure they are not infected. In the long run, then, the government must set up such facilities in the event a deadly virus does make its way into the country.

Published in Dawn, February 2nd, 2020

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