ONE month is all that our government could bear. The lockdowns were never going to be easy to execute and manage, but one month after they were launched nationwide, it all appears to be unravelling.
The prime minister in his televised remarks on Tuesday once again repeated his priority. “We have to save our people from poverty, from hunger”, he said, underlining that this means Pakistan’s challenges are bigger than those of the Western countries that don’t need to worry about hunger and poverty in his view.
On Wednesday, we had different viewpoints exploding on the airwaves. Sindh Chief Minister Murad Ali Shah, the only provincial chief executive from an opposition party, pleaded for strengthening the lockdowns instead of unravelling them. Meanwhile, Sindh Governor Imran Ismail, was in Hyderabad, talking about “softening the lockdown” in the name of the poor, telling his audience that work needs to resume to ease people’s hardship.
Meanwhile, a group of doctors showed up at the Karachi Press Club on Wednesday afternoon, representing the Pakistan Islamic Medical Association and the Pakistan Medical Association, pleading for the government to pay more attention to doctors’ advice on how to manage the pandemic as opposed to advice offered by the ulema. One might add that the advice offered by industrialists and miscellaneous billionaires also needs to take a back seat at this point, though I don’t think the doctors at the KPC stressed this as much.
Doctors are battling not just the coronavirus but also the myths that surround it.
Later, on Wednesday, the government’s own adviser on health, and the man who has thus far been in the lead in crafting the government’s response to the pandemic, Dr Zafar Mirza, came on air and surprisingly chose to sidestep the whole issue of reopening mosques and factories and construction sites. In his remarks, he talked about how the pandemic is a significant event in human history and how it will leave its imprint on future generations. He also spared some words for how the economic hardships it has created must be tackled.
This debate is now central to where this country is going. Rarely has it been more critical for the leadership to step up to the plate. One group wants to cast the whole moment as an economic challenge, and the other wants us to see it as a public health emergency. Of course, it is easy to say that ‘it is both’ but the fact remains that the state has to make a choice in its policy response.
This is how the doctors explained it, and their words are worth listening to carefully. “This is basically a medical issue… in the previous five days, meaning from April 16 to April 21, we have gone from 6,772 patients to 9,464, meaning a 40 per cent increase approximately… there is a misconception that there is no real pandemic in our country, the real reason for which everyone knows is a testing issue, which has been there and will remain. But we the doctors believe that the numbers are there, and the numbers will affect us. Some people think that this whole thing does not affect us very much in the subcontinent, and especially in Pakistan, and even if it does it doesn’t do much harm. But, as we have just informed you, whatever Covid-19 facilities we have in this city are already at their maximum capacity at a time when the pandemic has not even peaked. So we have to remove these myths that this pandemic is not really here, that we will be alright even if it is.…”
Listen carefully to the doctors and you’ll notice they are battling not just the virus but the myths that are being stirred into action because of it, and they are concerned because they are on the front lines. The myths say that South Asians might have some built-in immunity due to previous rounds of vaccinations against other diseases (the so-called BCG hypothesis), that our younger demographic means we will not be hit as hard as other countries, that hot weather slows down the virus transmission (a myth repeated by the prime minister in one of his earlier televised addresses), and so on.
The biggest prevailing myth is that we have a choice between life and livelihoods. These two cannot be separated in a pandemic. Lifting the lockdowns risks creating an uncontrollable spread of the disease, which will lock down the workforce and the economy in its own way — to far more damaging effect.
The problem right now is clear. The prime minister is not listening to the health professionals. This is why his own health adviser is reduced to waffling in generalities and cannot give a straight answer to whether or not it is a good idea to reopen mosques in the middle of a pandemic. I wonder if the leadership even know how many doctors, nurses and other health care professionals battling on the front line have tested positive or have died thus far. If they were indeed listening to health professionals they would not cite the example of other countries that are considering opening up, because they are past their peak in terms of the number of infections.
In fact, the prime minister appears to be getting his advice from billionaires and industrialists, who have been urging him from the very beginning to undo the lockdown, and marshalling all manner of arguments to justify their stance. He is listening to the ulema, who have given an assurance that people will be made to stand at a safe distance during prayers. The prime minister himself has said that those mosques not observing the rules agreed upon will be closed. Somebody should show him the videos coming out of Lal Masjid.
This is a public health emergency. It is best to let the health professionals provide the guidance on what is the safest route forward for us all.
The writer is a member of staff.
Published in Dawn, April 23rd, 2020