Addressing the confusion

April 02, 2020


The writer is a member of staff.
The writer is a member of staff.

FOR many days into the fight against Covid-19, people (including myself) wondered why the government had not come forward with a clear messaging strategy that sought to inform people of the dangers facing the country in the form of the coronavirus, as well as the steps necessary for their protection. But the kinds of messages the prime minister has put out in his public addresses and media interactions have not helped to clear the air.

In his first address, he said that the virus was like the flu and that 97 per cent of those infected recover. But the real point that anyone who has worked with numbers will tell you is not that 97pc recover, but that 3pc don’t because the numbers can get so large that, even with 3pc, you could be talking of millions of people if strong and decisive action is not taken early.

The fact is that 3pc of a population is a very large number, almost terrifying. Consider that 3pc of the world’s population died in the Second World War. That is the scale of the danger, even as we are told that there was not much to worry about.

Unfortunately, while arguing against lockdowns, the leadership has no clear idea of what their own strategy is.

In his latest address, he again said that only the old and sick are in danger. Not only is this incorrect, it is also misleading — and a dangerous message to be putting out from the top. If that were true, we could ask why countries around the world are taking such extraordinary measures to try and contain the spread of this virus. Have they all misunderstood the danger? Authorities around the world, from governments to the World Health Organisation, have gone to great lengths to convey the opposite message, that the statistical average of those requiring hospitalisation or who are at risk of death might be older people, but that doesn’t mean that individuals who are not old or who do not have pre-existing conditions should consider themselves safe. Responsible leadership is about highlighting the risk, not downplaying it.

Once again, in his latest address, the prime minister attacked the idea of lockdowns. Perhaps to justify his own stance, he said that the Indian prime minister had apologised to his people for imposing a lockdown on them. The fact is that the Indian prime minister apologised for the hardships that the people have had to face during the lockdown, but he emphasised that the measure was necessary. Besides, the lockdown in India was remarkably poorly handled, with people being given only a few hours’ notice. That has not been the case here.

Unfortunately, while arguing against lockdowns, the leadership has no clear idea of what their own strategy is to arrest the spread of this virus. The prime minister argued that nobody knows how far this is going to go, a theme that was also there in his first address on the issue. He had said that the government could consider lockdowns down the road “if this gets really bad”.

So far, the federal government has come out with no projections about when they anticipate the virus will hit its peak, or how high that peak might be, how long it will last, where the infection clusters are forming or what the geographic spread of the virus is. Until recently, it was not even able to put out accurate data on how many tests have been carried out in the country. All this is deeply problematic and merits extreme concern because it means we are flying blind into the situation. The value of a leader lies not in telling us that ‘nobody knows how bad this is going to get’ but in getting the right people to build these projections and gain an idea of where matters are headed. I know for a fact that the governments in Sindh and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa have carried out research. Models developed at the Brookings Institution and Imperial College London have been used to get a rudimentary idea of the projections.

These models work better if you have more testing data to plug into them, something that our Covid-19 response effort has been lacking thus far. But to get an idea of how lost the federal government is in all this, consider that the situation report produced by the National Institute of Health, the federal entity that supposedly disseminates all virus-related data, showed that 2,720 tests had been carried out in Punjab whereas the chief minister tweeted that more than 14,000 tests had been done in his province. Of course, the fine print in the NIH report says their data is only from the Provincial Reference Lab and not from other labs. It looks like the other labs is where the action is, because the number given by the NIH for the numbers of tests carried out is around one-seventh of what the Punjab authorities are claiming.

This is not quibbling over numbers. Testing is at the core of any response. Lockdowns are only supposed to open the space for ramped-up testing; they are not solutions on their own. If the government can’t even count the number of tests being done in the country, how can we expect them to collect the kind of data that is required to gain a clearer picture of the spread, the clusters and the future direction of the virus?

Consider also that while the prime minister preferred to argue with TV anchors in one of his media interactions, the drug regulator of his own government was dysfunctional at that very moment simply because 10 appointments of key decision-makers had not been made. Without data, you cannot see where you’re going. Without the drug regulator, you cannot build the mix of medicines you need to wage your fight. Blind and unarmed is no way to walk into a Second World War-level fight.

The writer is a member of staff.

Twitter: @khurramhusain

Published in Dawn, April 2nd, 2020