Grim numbers

May 23, 2020

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IF commercial activity and the enthusiastic queues outside stores are anything to go by, it appears that both the government and the public have largely accepted the coronavirus as a non-issue. While there was an attempt by authorities to limit commercial activity earlier, the Punjab government has extended the timings for malls and markets across the province until 10pm for Eid shoppers. Eid shopping crowds and the resumption of nationwide train services, too, are strong indicators that many in Pakistan have attempted to go back to ‘business as usual’ — even as the daily cases climb and healthcare professionals sound the alarm. The numbers remain grim and the graph for daily new cases continues to show a steady increase. Covid-19 infections have crossed 50,000, with over 1,000 deaths. In Sindh, at least seven doctors and five policemen have passed away from the virus. In the media fraternity, Covid-19 has claimed the lives of at least three journalists and infected scores of others. Despite the very real — and potentially fatal — threat from the virus, authorities have shown their eagerness to reopen the economy out of concern that extended lockdowns will affect daily wagers and negatively impact the economy.

The consequences of the government’s gamble will be visible in the coming weeks. Even as infection rates climb, congregations continue in mosques, and many blatantly violate the government’s SOPs. Despite several pleas by provincial authorities, there is little hope that Eid prayers and congregations will respect the distancing SOPs. In these circumstances, the only hope is that the government is using its time to build its healthcare and testing capacity. The government has justified its decision to reopen by saying that Pakistan’s figures are ‘much better than countries in the West’ and that perhaps populations in South Asia have some miracle, unproven immunity. Across the border in India and Iran, which have comparable weather, a high prevalence of BCG vaccinations and a young population, the numbers paint an alarming picture. Sweden, which many lockdown detractors liberally use as an example, has reported the highest coronavirus death rate per capita. Given the effect of the virus on our neighbours and the established dangers as proved by renowned hospitals and scientific organisations, complacency and ignorance are certainly dangerous strategies. As recent events have proven, complacent countries — even those with far more sophisticated and well-funded healthcare systems — have suffered. Authorities ought to realise this and prepare the healthcare sector for a dire situation.

Published in Dawn, May 23rd, 2020