Vaccine for success

16 May 2020

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The writer is Dawn’s resident in Islamabad.
The writer is Dawn’s resident in Islamabad.

IN the fight against Covid-19, some countries have registered certified successes while many others have been spectacular failures. On this spectrum, where is Pakistan located?

In order to make this assessment, it may be prudent to first lay out some caveats. First, since the global struggle against the virus is nowhere near an end, success and failure are relative in terms of time and scale. Second, the first round of this war — which is currently under way — is probably the hardest. With each passing day, the odds will shift in favour of the world because countries will learn lessons, build immunity and get closer to a vaccine. Third, the measure of a country’s performance will be judged not just on the fatality rate but also on the way its leadership processed the challenge, crafted a comprehensive strategy and executed it with clarity and conviction.

Caveats aside, how do we measure success? Given the complexity of data and the fluidity of the situation, there could be a number of metrics that could be used to compare and contrast countries that have done well with those that have floundered. Some may want to use fatality rate as a rough measure while others may prefer the ‘R0’ factor (pronounced as R-Nought). This number describes the number of people one patient can infect. If the R0 of a country falls below 1.0, it means the infection is waning because technically one patient on an average is not infecting another person. Countries that have succeeded in bringing down their R0 under 1.0 can be considered models of success. And yet, there are also some issues with the accuracy of R0 and many experts tend to doubt its value as an indicator of performance.

Today, we have righted some wrongs and wronged some rights.

Other experts and political leaders may expand the parameters of the success quotient and include factors like the impact on the economy, effects on the vulnerable segments of the population or even the capacity levels of healthcare facilities in dealing with the pressure from Covid-19. However, the final evaluation may encompass most if not all of these metrics in order to reach a conclusion about who did well and who did not.

The period January – May 2020 tells a story that is slightly less complicated in its evaluation of success and failure. In this story, some countries stand out for their success in controlling the spread of Covid-19 before it could wreak havoc in terms of infections and fatalities. Prominent among them are China, South Korea, Germany and New Zealand. All have won Round One against the virus and have learned valuable lessons for Round Two, whenever that erupts.

In this initial story, there are also some countries which can safely be considered failures in their response to the challenge. The ones that stand out are the US, UK Italy and possibly Iran. The failure of these countries is measured in the thousands of lives lost. Some recognised their mistakes and moved swiftly to correct them. The damage however had been done.

What was common between the countries that have won Round One?

One, their leaders were swift in recognising the threat. Two, they understood very quickly that the only way to slow the spread of the virus was to lock down without delay and start aggressive testing. Three, they understood lockdown would not make the virus go away but would allow them time to beef up their medical defences and provide space for other measures. Four, they figured out that lockdown could not be sustained for long so they had to achieve the most out of the limited time for lockdowns they had. So they ensured a complete and strict lockdown, extracted the most out of this time, suppressed the spread of the infection, and opened the lockdown. Their strategy was clear, efficient, strict, tangible and comprehensive. They got the job done.

What was common between countries that have lost Round One?

One, they underplayed the threat from Covid-19 and took it casually. Two, they dithered. And wavered. And waffled. Once done with these, they flip-flopped, then hemmed and hawed. Three, they wasted precious time at the start, time that should have been utilised in taking swift, bold steps. Four, they created false binaries and confused their citizens, thereby diluting the impact of the lockdown and other measures (some later relented). Five, their countries paid a terrible price for their faulty decision-making.

Where does Pakistan stand? In terms of infection and fatality rate we are not yet in the red zone where our health structure is on the brink of being overwhelmed. We do not know why the spread of infection and mortality is lower than feared (no one in the world knows). Thanking the Almighty Allah SWT is something we must all do and pray that the infection does not spiral out of control. But at the same time, no one should gloss over what we have done (or not done) since January.

The January – May 2020 story tells us the following about Pakistan: one, we dithered. Two, we took corona lightly. Three, we wasted at least February and two weeks of March. Four, the federal government provided weak leadership. Five, we could not do the lockdown that was needed at the time it was needed. Six, we politicised a public health issue.

Today, we have righted some wrongs and wronged some rights. In the meantime our leadership is attempting to weaponise hope through operational successes. This may not be a bad idea but the reality is that the gains we are making in terms of upping our health facilities, instituting Tracing, Testing and Quarantine (TTQ) and distributing cash aid through the Ehsaas (BISP) programme — all this amounts to bandaging the wounds we inflicted on ourselves in the initial days emulating the countries that have lost Round One.

This is precisely why our leadership continues to miss the point when it cites US and UK as examples of how even rich countries could not cope with the challenge. Pakistan’s leaders should be learning lessons from the countries that won Round One instead of comparing themselves with countries that have lost badly due to a failure of their leadership to provide leadership when such leadership was required the most.

The writer is Dawn’s resident in Islamabad.

Twitter: @fahdhusain

Published in Dawn, May 16th, 2020