AS the battle against the coronavirus rages on, the federal government has made a fresh proposition to the provinces: to enforce lockdown in only those localities from where new cases are being reported. Invoking the term ‘smart lockdown’, Special Assistant to the Prime Minister on National Security Moeed Yusuf said the suggestion builds on the prime minister’s view that imposing a blanket lockdown is not a feasible option as it would have serious economic consequences. Essentially, if this smart lockdown is imposed by provincial authorities, restrictions in parts of the country which are deemed ‘low risk’ areas will be relaxed; but they will remain in place in localities where confirmed Covid-19 cases are high.

The smart lockdown strategy is heavily dependent on two key factors: mass testing and the availability of data. At the moment, Pakistan is testing between 6,500 to 7,500 people per day in a population of over 200m. While the government has pledged to take this figure to 25,000 by the end of the month, it is far too early to make a call about the selective easing of restrictions and deem areas ‘low risk’. Given that Pakistan is still in the initial stages of grappling with the virus, the government currently has very little information about infection rates, confirmed cases and future projections that supports the easing of restrictions. In fact, even the limited information that is available clearly shows that the Covid-19 graphs for active cases, daily new cases and daily deaths all indicate a steady rise. Moreover, the figures for the actual number of cases and deaths are likely far higher, as testing is limited and reports of an unusual rise in home deaths in Karachi suggest there may be Covid-19-related fatalities outside of hospitals, as has been the case in other countries. The handful of countries that have started to lift restrictions waited till Covid-19 cases had reached their peak and the curve flattened by strict distancing measures.

In this scenario, the government must continue with the lockdown till patterns for the spread of Covid-19 are well established. Provinces should not jump the gun, imposing a smart lockdown till they have a clear statistical picture of the Covid-19 spread. As they gather this data, authorities must focus on ramping up targeted relief efforts for sections of the public that will face dire economic consequences. A calculation of which areas are ‘low risk’ at this stage is impossible without contact tracing and mass testing, as those without symptoms can pass the virus to vulnerable people without knowing they are carriers. With the partial lifting of restrictions for certain industries and the continuation of congregational prayers in Ramazan, hospitals must brace themselves for an escalation in the spread of the virus in the coming weeks. The government would do well to allow data, and not panic, to determine its future course of action.

Published in Dawn, April 21st, 2020

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