THE relaxation in countrywide lockdowns, coupled with the government and superior judiciary’s mixed messaging about the coronavirus threat, seem to have induced the public to throw already barely existent caution to the wind. Scenes of zero socially distanced revelry, with scarcely a mask in sight, have marked Eid — an occasion when toned down celebrations this year would have been appropriate for more than one reason. Special Assistant to the Prime Minister on Health Dr Zafar Mirza has warned that if the current trajectory of coronavirus cases persisted, “strict lockdowns” may have to be reimposed across the country.

There are now around 60,000 confirmed Covid-19 cases in Pakistan, a mere week after we reached the 50,000 milestone. This despite testing for the disease having dipped considerably during the festival holidays: from 16,387 on May 21, it came down to 10,049 on Eid, and 7,252 the day after. Testing needs to be scaled up once again, and quickly. Moreover, the Tracking, Testing and Quarantine strategy must focus on areas where clusters have already been detected so the infection transmission rate can be locally contained. However, that we stand at this juncture — where health professionals are warning of hospitals rapidly approaching saturation point with Covid-19 patients — should surprise no one. The federal government has given selective attention to information. For instance, it has used the relaxation of lockdowns in several European countries to justify the correctness of its stance, arguing that even rich nations have realised that lockdowns are not the answer to the pandemic. However, it has conveniently ignored that these countries began to lift restrictions only after the ‘flattening of the curve’, thereby giving a breather to their over-stressed health systems.

This pandemic has cut a swathe across the globe; but Pakistan was not among the first countries to be badly affected. We could have been ahead of the game by observing how Iran, Italy and Spain were dealing with its fallout. However, the federal government has taken a muddled approach — indeed, a partisan approach where Sindh is concerned — instead of showing consistent, assured leadership based on empirical data rather than populist posturing. If, as Dr Mirza apprehends, strict lockdowns have to be reinstated, the government needs to be very clear about their parameters and impress upon the need for provinces to enforce them properly. The hemming and hawing thus far has reduced the concept of a lockdown to a joke — a dangerous one at that. This is the time to try and plug as many loopholes as possible. There are, for instance, reports the government is considering testing only symptomatic passengers from among those being repatriated from abroad. This is a highly risky strategy, given that many are arriving from countries where the virus is on a rampage. Each and every passenger must be tested. We simply cannot afford to be complacent.

Published in Dawn, May 28th, 2020