Easing lockdown completely would overburden healthcare system: Asad Umar

Published May 3, 2020
Minister for Planning, Development and Special Initiatives Asad Umar addresses the media. — DawnNewsTV
Minister for Planning, Development and Special Initiatives Asad Umar addresses the media. — DawnNewsTV

Minister for Planning, Development and Special Initiatives Asad Umar on Sunday said that a decision on the lockdown will be taken close to May 9. However, he added that the government could not "open everything and ease the lockdown completely" because it would overburden the healthcare system.

Addressing the media at the National Command and Operation Centre in Islamabad, Umar said: "We will discuss with the prime minister within 2-3 days and then take a decision in the National Coordination Committee meeting about restrictions after May 9 [when the lockdown is due to end].

"The two most important factors to consider here are the number of beds in intensive care units (ICUs) and the number of ventilators."

Umar said that there were nearly 5,000 beds in ICUs across the country, of which 1,500 were dedicated for virus patients. He added that the country also has 5,000 ventilators and the National Disaster Management Authority was trying to import even more.

'Diet of 1 in 4 Pakistanis reduced'

Talking about the impact of coronavirus on poverty and hunger, Umar cited a research by Pakistan Institute of Development Economics (Pide) which showed that between 20 million to 70m people could fall below the poverty line. He added that according to Pide's calculations, 18 million jobs could be lost due to Covid-19.

He added that a recent Gallup survey found that one in four Pakistanis saw a reduction in their diets because of the virus.

Umar underscored the economic devastation caused by the virus, saying that while the virus was not as fatal in Pakistan as in other countries, its economic impact was worse. "We have seen revenues decrease by Rs119bn in just one month. A research by Sustainable Development Policy Institute has shown that some 1m small organisations might shut down permanently."

He added that a research by a renowned university revealed that "the cost imposed by economic and social distancing may be large in terms of immediate deprivation and hunger". Quoting another Gallup survey, he said that citizens in Pakistan more than any other country said that their livelihoods were affected by the virus.

'Coronavirus not as fatal in Pakistan'

He added that the coronavirus had "not been as fatal in Pakistan" as it has been in other countries, especially in the West.

Umar compared Pakistan's death rates to the fatality rates of other countries. "The coronavirus has caused 58 per cent more deaths in the United States, 207pc more in Spain and 124pc more in the United Kingdom as compared to Pakistan in the same period."

Referring to the foreign media's focus on the concept of "flattening the curve", Umar explained that countries worldwide were "not focusing on eliminating the virus but on controlling it". He added that even they realised that the actions needed to eliminate the virus would be "too strict for the people to bear".

Coming to Pakistan's situation, Umar said that the country was reporting 24 deaths daily on average for the past few weeks and if this was extended to a month, it amounted to nearly 720 deaths per month. "Comparatively some 4,000 people die in traffic accidents across the country each month. But we still allow traffic because it's necessary.

"If we focus on bringing deaths due to coronavirus to zero, we have to realise that we cannot bear the measures it would take [to do that]."

What the govt has to do

Umar said that what the government has to do is to "continue increasing the health capacity. Our health capacity has increased a lot from a few months ago and we will continue working to increase that."

Adding that the government received a "splendid response" from public and private manufacturers, he said that the country was producing personal protective equipment locally. "We have also received some great, workable designs for ventilators," he said.

The minister added that the government also needed to increase the testing capacity. "We have 55 laboratories that can conduct virus tests. If they work in single shifts, we can conduct some 14,700 tests every day which is close to our target of 20,000. If we do double shifts, we can also double the number the tests that can be conducted daily."

Europe easing lockdown to keep wheel of economy turning

Umar added that even countries in Europe where thousands of deaths occurred such as Spain, Italy and France have started easing lockdowns to keep the "wheel of the economy turning.

"What is important is that we do not burden our healthcare system while also preventing hunger and poverty," Umar concluded.

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