A worrying gamble

May 12, 2020


AS was expected, hundreds of thousands of people came out of their homes on the first day of the relaxed lockdown. In every province, markets and shops were crowded as if the virus and its very real threat were things of the past. Scenes in bustling commercial areas showed that the practice of ‘social-distancing’, mask-wearing and general precaution were all but forgotten. This happened as Pakistan crossed the 30,000 mark for positive cases and Sindh recorded over 1,000 Covid-19 cases — the highest in a single day. These results were obtained after close to 5,500 tests were conducted in the province in 24 hours, which means approximately 20pc were positive. The situation is already serious and the reports from hospitals and doctors suggest that the situation will get worse. According to the Sindh health minister, there is a sharp increase in the number of patients “after every half an hour” and the number of beds in high-dependency units across hospitals in the province are running short. While the graph for positive cases remains on the incline and recorded deaths reach 670, the lockdown appears to exist merely in name. The caveat for following SOPs, too, has been ignored, and bodes poorly for what lies ahead.

The coming weeks will determine whether the government’s gamble of restarting business was worth the risk. Worryingly, the data and the size of crowds in public contradict this decision. If the government is unable to effectively enforce SOPs, as the scenes from yesterday indicate, the results will be disastrous. Already, congregations in mosques are violating the protocols agreed upon between the government and clergy. There is also very little hope that the rest of the general public will suddenly observe SOPs. In Punjab, where contact-based industries such as barbershops and salons have been allowed to open, implementing SOPs will be an even bigger challenge as many of these businesses exist in closed, private spaces. If the cases and deaths continue to climb at this rate — which the data predicts may happen — the authorities must be quick and decisive in their response and revoke relaxations in the lockdown. A scenario where these cases and deaths rise and no action is taken will cripple the healthcare system and be a collective blow to both society and the economy.

As the government mulls its next move, it should focus its resources on ramping up testing. While testing has increased to around 12,000 per day, it is still far less than the goal of 25,000. Furthermore, members of the federal and provincial governments should end hostilities which are continuing unabated in this pandemic. The presence of the coronavirus and the ensuing chaos have created an unprecedented situation which demands extraordinary leadership. Name-calling and blame games will only worsen the public’s already low levels of trust in the state.

Published in Dawn, May 12th, 2020