A dangerous gamble

May 13 2020

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The writer is an author and journalist.
The writer is an author and journalist.

THE sight of the multitudes thronging marketplaces and the stream of traffic choking the roads while the curve of Covid-10 cases continues to rise is frightening. Yet this was predictable. With the relaxation of restrictions, there is not even a pretence of social-distancing. The administration seems to have abdicated its responsibility as the situation spirals out of control.

Pakistan is rapidly climbing up the ladder of the countries most affected by the virus. It is now 19th on the list, jumping five places in a matter of days. The death toll has also been mounting and is far from reaching its peak. But a federal minister has callously dismissed the virus fatalities claiming that more “people are killed in road accidents in the country every day”.

This reasoning echoes President Trump’s argument for lifting the lockdown, ie traffic wouldn’t stop because of road accidents. He is not the only one among the leaders who sounds like the US president in dismissing the effects of the deadly virus. Pakistan is perhaps among the very few countries that have reopened business while the Covid-19 graph is still on the rise. While the prime minister is never tired of giving examples of other countries reopening, he has failed to understand that these states began to do so only after the number of patients declined substantially. These countries have also enforced strict rules under which businesses have to operate. In contrast, we are in a hurry to relax the restrictions despite the surge in cases.

We haven’t heard of anyone dying of hunger as yet, but hundreds have already been killed by the pandemic in this country. With people gathering in bazaars and congregations at mosques sweeping aside all rules of social-distancing and precautions, there is complete chaos. Law and order has broken down in parts of the country, with the leadership in complete denial about the seriousness of the situation.

The centre has not understood that bringing the virus under control would help the economy recover.

Many experts have warned that a public health disaster is waiting to happen. So what is going to happen to the economy in such a situation? Has the leadership thought about the consequences while abruptly reopening business? It is evident that the federal leadership has never been convinced about the need to shut down in order to contain the spread of the virus.

The prime minister has been at the forefront of the campaign against the lockdown, undermining the entire effort. The half-hearted action has not only failed to deliver the desired result but also harmed prospects of an early revival of the economy. What the federal leadership has not understood is that bringing the coronavirus under control would also help the economy recover more rapidly.

Had the lockdown been strictly enforced over the past two months, the situation would have been much better by now. We may not have flattened the curve but the spread of the virus could have been contained enough for a weak public health system not to be overwhelmed. The rising number of doctors and health workers being affected by the virus is also worrisome.

Bringing the infection rate down would have been easier had timely action been taken while the rate was still low, rather than remaining in a state of denial. It’s evident that even places with severe outbreaks can bring their numbers down if they take measures in time.

Before getting to the second stage of relaxing the lockdown, it was imperative to first maintain a rigorous regime of social-distancing for however long it took to reduce new infections. It is equally important to significantly raise the number of tests and quickly spot new cases.

Sure our testing capacity has improved significantly over the period, but it is not enough. Reports suggest that the number of tests in some provinces has deliberately been kept low in an attempt to suppress the actual figure. Transparency is extremely important if we want to successfully combat the disease. Indeed, it’s hard to predict things in a pandemic as one is still not sure of the exact nature of the disease.

Given these uncertainties, the government needed to move extremely carefully rather than making decisions on the basis of whims and presumptions.

Most worrisome are reports that the leadership’s policy on the coronavirus is influenced by the concept of ‘herd immunity’. This epidemiological notion that describes the state where a population is sufficiently immune to an infection is extremely dangerous. Some countries that had earlier shaped policies based on the idea have now changed their approach after a disastrous outcome. But our leadership is still sticking to the theory at the cost of human lives. Why is a rejected strategy that carries the risk of high mortality numbers being touted as the solution for poor countries with a young population like Pakistan?

For a while it seemed as if the federal government was willing to take Covid-19 seriously. Notwithstanding the top leadership’s sending confused and mixed messages, there had been some coordination among all stakeholders lately that had helped the country deal with the challenges arising from one of the worst crisis Pakistan has ever faced. But the attitude of the federal leadership is extremely divisive and has seriously affected all efforts to fight the deadly pandemic.

The worsening tension between the centre and the Sindh government is extremely worrisome. It has now gone beyond a war of words between the two sides. The fracas has become extremely ugly with both sides engaged in a blame game. The situation can almost be compared to a civil war in the midst of an invasion. The spectacle at the latest session of the National Assembly where politicians hurled abuse at each other rather than focusing on a policy to fight the pandemic is the last thing the nation expected from its elected leaders in these testing times.

What we are witnessing today is political anarchy and policy disarray threatening the country. How can people be expected to follow the rules when the leadership itself encourages lawlessness?

The writer is an author and journalist.

zhussain100@yahoo.com

Twitter: @hidhussain

Published in Dawn, May 13th, 2020