Quarantine lapses

April 10, 2020

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THE consequences of the leaden-footed initial response to the coronavirus cases in much of the country are becoming clearer by the day. It has recently emerged that a large number of the 1,160 pilgrims who had arrived in Multan on March 20 from Iran via Taftan and earlier tested negative for the virus have since contracted the disease — a result of shambolic quarantine conditions in which they were detained in Multan. What makes the lapse so grave is that upon being released from detention, during which they interacted freely with infected patients housed in the same facility, they were allowed to return to their home districts. And even though they were quarantined at the end of their journey, they would have unwittingly spread the disease among uninfected fellow travellers and those they mingled with along the way. It seems the Multan district administration was not sufficiently backed by the provincial authorities in its efforts to prevent the spread of the virus among the pilgrims. The Punjab health department, despite requests by senior district officials, reportedly dragged its feet on testing them again before they went to their hometowns. Then, when the pilgrims— who had already spent a fortnight each of quarantine in Taftan and Multan — grew agitated upon being informed they would be tested again after all and have to remain in place pending the results, the police refused to intervene and restore order. The situation became fraught enough for the army to be called in. As a ‘compromise’, the pilgrims agreed to their samples being collected and sent off for testing while they were returned to their home districts.

As the results of those tests reveal, these are precisely the lapses in judgement, on the part of both the public and officialdom, which have spurred the spread of the virus. They will make it all the more difficult to ‘flatten the curve’, which would prevent the country’s already inadequate health facilities from being overwhelmed. Health protocols to address the various challenges posed by the pandemic, including those arising from the public’s cultural predispositions, should have been defined more clearly. After all, it was two months between the lockdown in Wuhan and the discovery of the first Covid-19 case in Pakistan — although to be fair, many other countries too dropped the ball. There needs to be a more coordinated, holistic approach to this crisis: half-measures and mixed messaging will merely exacerbate it.

Published in Dawn, April 10th, 2020