Flight from reality

08 Jun 2020

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The writer is a former ambassador to the US, UK and UN.
The writer is a former ambassador to the US, UK and UN.

WITH the country reeling from a surge in coronavirus cases and fatalities the government has chosen to remain in a state of denial about the more serious turn the health crisis is now taking. In the past one month, coronavirus cases have seen a four-fold increase, with Pakistan overtaking China in Covid-19 infections. The number of fatalities has trebled in the past fortnight alone. Yet the government decided to follow a risky course and lift most restrictions while acknowledging at the same time that coronavirus cases will multiply.

The government’s distractions from managing the crisis also seem to be increasing by the day. It has been engaged in ad nauseam arguments over the sugar commission report, allegations of malfeasance against opposition leaders and, all the while, directing partisan attacks against the Sindh government.

This perhaps is unsurprising. From the outset, the government seemed to play down the gravity of the health emergency and kept sending mixed public messages. The various political fronts engaging the government’s attention also had the effect of shifting the public and media’s focus from the health crisis. Instead, it spawned a business-as-usual environment.

The government seems to have been guided in its response to the pandemic by several assumptions. One, that Pakistan was much better off than the world’s worst affected countries and that this situation would somehow be self-sustaining. By making the hardest-hit countries the frame of reference officials appeared to lull themselves — and the public — into a sense of complacency. Today Pakistan happens to be number 17 out of 188 countries in confirmed coronavirus cases. Pointing to the worse-off countries and not those doing better than Pakistan seemed disingenuous as it meant setting the lowest bar for crisis management. Assuming that the virus spread and severity would be far less in Pakistan than in the most impacted countries, the possibility of a delayed steep curve emerging was apparently discounted.

The government needs to learn from its mistakes, not repeat them.

Another assumption of the government seemed to be that so long as it assembled enough hospital beds and equipment the rest would take care of itself. Of course, enhancing medical facilities to cope with Covid-19 patients was necessary, and NDMA spearheaded an impressive effort. But it was not sufficient, as this needed to be part of a coherent and consistent strategy to contain the virus. That required an early intervention — not debate — to lockdown in order to stop the spread of infection and ensure public compliance with SOPs in the so-called smart lockdown phase. This turned out to be neither smart nor a lockdown. A responsible strategy warranted early implementation of a rigorously enforced national lockdown when the outbreak began and a gradual easing, calibrated with a sustained decline in virus cases. Timing was crucial as the experience of countries who effectively managed the crisis shows.

But the government’s pandemic response remained muddled while a robust nationwide health awareness campaign was conspicuous by its absence. Arcane televised briefings by officials were deemed sufficient to educate the public. Official claims about the number of ventilators acquired were never accompanied by necessary explanations about whether there were enough health personnel with expertise to operate these. Did officials think they were plug and play gadgets?

Most importantly, the premise on which the government fashioned its response was to view the pandemic through an economic and not a public health prism. It certainly made sense for actions to ameliorate the economic damage from the crisis and help the most vulnerable, but the overriding priority had to be to save lives. Containing the virus was the surest way to mitigate the economic fallout and not the other way around. Latest research findings also suggest that stricter early lockdowns for a limited period are less damaging for the economy than lax but longer shutdowns.

Not only did the government impose the initial lockdown half-heartedly but in prematurely reopening the economy — and tourism — it exposed the country to the risk of an exponential spread of the virus. This unfortunately is what is happening now. Justifying this by pointing to countries who also eased restrictions misses the point that most had done so when the virus curve was beginning to flatten, not rise, as the medical community has continued to insist here. But repeated warnings by doctors that new cases would multiply by slack government efforts to implement social distancing policy were cast aside in the name of saving the economy.

The ostensible official concern for the economic plight of the underprivileged overlooked the inescapable reality that they would be the most exposed to the virus by reopening business in the midst of the pandemic as they were not ensconced in socially distanced office spaces but clustered on factory floors or marketplaces.

Then the various political distractions the government became mired in, reinforced the impression that its Covid-19 approach was to increasingly leave it to people to protect themselves. The public expectation of the government was that it would single-mindedly focus on the health crisis and leave politics for another day. But the opposite has been the case. Just when the virus began to surge more relentlessly the previous front-line role of health officials in the media seemed to recede — their voices drowned out by the shrill noise of certain federal government spokesmen who revelled in using insult as their favourite mode of political expression.

Again, this preoccupation with non-pandemic matters sent an unintended message to the public that the virus was no longer such a danger that needed the government’s undivided attention. This at a time when an increasing number of doctors and health workers were losing their lives to Covid-19 and the medical community was warning that the healthcare system could be overwhelmed if cases kept rising in the absence of decisive government intervention.

With the danger looming of a worsening health crisis the government needs to review its policy of loosening social distancing restrictions and take measures to ensure strict compliance with SOPs. This should not be haphazard as some panicky steps being taken now indicate. The government needs to learn from its mistakes, not repeat them.

The writer is a former ambassador to the US, UK and UN.

Published in Dawn, June 8th, 2020