A testing time

Updated March 21, 2020

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The writer is Dawn’s resident editor in Islamabad.
The writer is Dawn’s resident editor in Islamabad.

THERE is much that is not known about coronavirus. There is much that will remain unknown for a long time about coronavirus. But there is something that is known from the limited knowledge that is available to the world today. The little that is known is precious. Very precious.

Which is exactly why the world is paying attention to it. Or at least, a better part of the world. In a sea of ignorance, even small islands of knowledge can decide who lives and who drowns.

China almost drowned. So did South Korea. Both swam ashore after flailing around in the deep dark waters. From their experience, the world has learnt some lessons. And among these many lessons, two stand out as beacons for all countries who are battling the scourge of the corona pandemic.

Lockdown. Test.

China enforced the largest and most draconian lockdown in history. South Korea tested with a vengeance not seen before. After many weeks of pummelling the virus with this aggressive strategy, both countries appear to have the situation under control. For now. The unknowns, however, continue to snarl and growl.  The cured people could catch the virus again; or the virus could come back in a later cycle; or it could break out in another region; or it could fight off the best vaccines — there is so much that could still go wrong in China and South Korea. But as of today, the only steps that have delivered results are locking down cities and populations and then testing aggressively to find the infected people from inside urban haystacks and putting them under quarantine and treatment.

These are testing times and such times require testing as a top priority.

Easier said than done, says Pakistan. And for good reason, perhaps.

Lockdown in our republic carries two major and countless minor problems. The first big one, as Prime Minister Imran Khan said on Friday, is the economic one. Locking down entire cities and shutting down millions of Pakistanis inside their homes will mean depriving a large segment of the population of a means to earn their living. This would amount to condemning them to unimaginable travails and existential agony. Second, the governments would find it extremely difficult to enforce such massive lockdowns short of unleashing state violence which will generate its own unpredictable consequences. The minor issues make a long list: what about transport as some people will still need to go to work? What about supply of food and essentials and how to regulate them without diluting the impact of the lockdown? What about law enforcers’ powers and possible repercussions of a nationwide curfew? What about far-flung rural areas and the ability to police them when even a few people can trigger an avalanche of infections? The issues are endless.

Testing has one big issue: we do not have enough testing kits. And given the unprecedented global demand for them, we do not know when we can get them. Oh, and they’re not inexpensive either. So we are jealously guarding the limited kits we have and discouraging people from coming forward to get tested unless they show symptoms or they have recently travelled from abroad. This essentially means we have no way of knowing the true extent of the infections, and we can’t aggressively test, test, test to find the infected people.

If we cannot do the only two things that have actually worked (so far) to combat coronavirus, what do we do?

Experience of other countries tells us this: we should do whatever needs to be done, howsoever it can be done, and how-much-so-ever it costs to get it done so we can go into lockdown and test, test and test. That is it. Period.

So what will it take for the lockdown to work? The most important factor is enabling sustenance for those who will be cut off from their sources of income. This would also mean injecting resources to keep those industries and businesses afloat that will get hit the hardest from the lockdown. This would, in turn, mean coughing up sufficient funds to do all this. But we are a poor country with a struggling economy, you might say. True. But there is such a thing called prioritisation. Can there be a higher priority than keeping your citizens alive?

Lockdown today is not really a choice. The only choice is how we make it happen. Money can be found and organised and funnelled to those who will need it most. The government must dig into its coffers, re-prioritise expenses and generate international funding (World Bank etc are already helping out) and launch a massive, unprecedented effort to sustain the population for a lockdown. As far as enforcing the lockdown is concerned, it will become more manageable once people know sustenance is coming their way. Second, a forceful communication campaign should make the people realise the absolute necessity of this lockdown while also addressing their fears and concerns that are natural to erupt when told they will need to be shuttered inside their homes.

These are testing time and such times require testing as a top priority. For this, we need money, and we need kits. If we have 100,000 kits they are enough to test nine million people, as per the chairman of NDMA. This should form the first line of attack against the virus. If this is decided by the government, then getting the money and hunting the globe for kits is the challenge our government must accept.

And yet, the federal government dithers. It is not ready to take these two steps because it says it cannot. When the basis of your policy is not what you must do but what you cannot do, you are starting with net negative.

In today’s context, this means stepping into the abyss.

The writer is Dawn’s resident editor in Islamabad.

Twitter: @fahdhusain

Published in Dawn, March 21st, 2020