No infection control

June 07, 2020


IF someone were to draw on everything the world has learned about Covid-19 in the past six months and write a playbook about what not to do in the event of a high-fatality pandemic, our government’s strategy could comfortably feature as a case study of what happens when the wrong decisions are made. Where many countries rightly rely on data, mass testing, and science-led strategies to enforce lockdowns and limit the spread of Covid-19, our government has been defensive, slow to act and adopted a hands-off approach in which citizens are left to protect themselves. This week, the prime minister sent the same message: that people should protect themselves and that there will be no lockdown. He also appeared to imply that countries that locked down were somehow impractical. “What did these countries gain from strict lockdown? Their people lost jobs, poverty increased while cases of the coronavirus continued to increase there,” he said, in a statement that contradicts the falling graph of Covid-19 infection rates and deaths in many countries including the UK, Italy, France and Spain.

That the government’s approach has not changed even when Pakistan’s daily death rate is climbing and the total number of Covid-19 cases (advancing rapidly towards the 100,000 mark) has surpassed those of China, a country with a population of over a billion people, is troubling. It betrays denial on part of the government and is at odds with everything epidemiologists have advised. What is more alarming is that the authorities ignored the fact that many countries have lowered transmission and death rates by enforcing strict lockdowns and distancing. The crucial ‘R number’, a key factor used by many countries gauging the coronavirus pandemic which refers to the ‘effective reproduction number’ of Covid-19, is largely missing from the national conversation. An R figure that is even slightly greater than one can lead quickly to a large number of cases due to the virus’s exponential growth. Where many countries have understood this as a crucial threshold and have committed to locking down again if the figure surpasses one, Dr Zafar Mirza has admitted that Pakistan’s R value is two — with no lockdown or restrictions in sight. What is even more worrying is that the government has abandoned its earlier policy to quarantine international travellers coming to Pakistan — a decision which will increase both new and community transmission cases. Travellers will now arrive at the airport and go straight home without waiting for their Covid-19 results, possibly infecting members of their household, who will, in turn, infect many others.

The coming weeks look very grim. The government’s undeclared adoption of herd immunity may destroy the social and healthcare fabric of this country and further cripple the economy and the poor whose plight is used as a justification for doing little to prevent the virus from spreading.

Published in Dawn, June 7th, 2020