Containing the virus

Updated Mar 15 2020

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THE National Security Council has met to discuss a strategy for a looming healthcare crisis of unprecedented proportions — the contagious coronavirus, which has sparked panic across the world owing to its rapid spread and potential to kill.

The government has announced the formation of a national coordination committee along with a string of measures which include the sealing of borders with Iran and Afghanistan, restricting international flights and barring mass public events.

The advisory also declared the shutdown of educational institutions, cinemas, theatres and marriage halls, the adjournment of civil cases in courts and changes in hearing procedures for criminal cases.

The decisions came as Pakistan reported some 30 confirmed cases of COVID-19, which include at least one individual who did not travel abroad, indicating that community spread within the country could be a reality.

Given that Pakistan is straddled by China and Iran which have among the highest reported cases, the authorities’ response to the fast-spreading virus has been lethargic and more reactive than proactive — a circumstance which has led the virus to thrive in other countries.

States including China, Iran and Italy were unable to contain the spread and have reported thousands of cases and hundreds of deaths.

This is a situation our authorities have been aware of for some time.

One illustration of this is that until just a couple of days ago, Punjab, the most populated province, had ostensibly taken no measures to limit public gatherings or establish health protocols.

The ijtima at Raiwind, a congregation of thousands, began despite the provincial government’s pleas to organisers not to hold it.

This defies logic. Pakistan is a developing country with poor healthcare infrastructure and low hygiene standards, so authorities ought to have sounded the alarm by enforcing strict screening and cancelling mass public events when the first case was reported at the end of February.

Moving forward, the government must share its resources and work with the provincial governments to contain the virus.

This would include effective screening at entry ports, which until recently involved filling out a form.

Resources must be allocated to establish health desks at ports which check symptoms and isolate passengers who show signs of being infected.

Across cities, the government must kick off mass multilingual awareness drives about hygiene, symptoms and the availability of medical help.

The federal government must take on board religious authorities to examine the roles that mosques can play to create awareness and limit the spread.

Prime Minister Imran Khan should follow in the footsteps of other world leaders and be visible in the COVID-19 messaging campaign, which he had stayed away from until yesterday.

Given the potentially high mortality rate and the ensuing economic losses, this is not the time to bicker over the 18th Amendment or the availability of funds. Our politicians ought to show leadership and focus on action, transparency and communication.

Published in Dawn, March 15th, 2020