Lockdown begins

24 Mar 2020

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ON Monday, Pakistan moved much closer to a full lockdown in its attempts to limit the spread of Covid-19 by breaking the chain of transmission through physical contact. With the extension of government-ordered shutdowns to KP and Punjab, the entire country has now been closed down more extensively than before as only essential services will be allowed to remain open. The country has been in some degree of lockdown ever since the NSC meeting on March 13, which ordered the complete closure of educational institutions, restricted international travel, barred large public gatherings, and shut down the western borders. Many things have happened since. The government has since effectively ‘quarantined’ the country by totally barring international travel and closing its borders with Iran and Afghanistan for daily public traffic. Train operations have also been reduced along with curtailment of intercity bus services as the number of people infected with the virus has spiked sharply. Sindh has taken more aggressive measures with a view to forcing people to stay home as the province has reported the highest number of Covid-19 patients, or 45pc of all confirmed cases. Punjab went for a slightly ‘less harsh lockdown’, shutting down government and private institutions, offices, malls, restaurants and other non-essential services, taking public transport off the road, banning pillion riding on motorbikes, and permitting only emergency intra-city commute as the province saw its tally of Covid-19 patients rise to 246 in just a few days, far more quickly than the rest of the country.

Overall, the number of cases have surged past 800 from just 19 on March 11. The health authorities had detected the first two cases on Feb 26; both individuals had returned from Iran. The graph has since been depicting a much steeper rise in the number of confirmed cases when compared to many other countries, leaving the government with no choice but to lock down the country as the number of infected people with no recent foreign travel history also increases.

Meanwhile, we have been witnessing an unnecessary debate over whether or not a total lockdown is justified. Both arguments are valid. Those worried about job losses and food security for the poor have opposed the demand for a lockdown, with Prime Minister Imran Khan supporting this viewpoint. Yet he is not averse to a lockdown if the situation gets out of hand as in countries like Italy, Spain and Iran. Painful as it may be, a full lockdown is the only remedy available so far to ‘flatten the curve’, ensure better care for those infected, and save lives. Until a cure or a vaccine is discovered, all stakeholders need to rise above their petty political interests to cooperate rather than indulge in recriminations. The government needs to stay a step ahead of the disease and proactively deal with the situation that is constantly evolving.

Published in Dawn, March 24th, 2020