Red zone files: Burden of inevitability

Published June 11, 2020
This flame will have to burn itself out.  — PM Office/File
This flame will have to burn itself out. — PM Office/File

This flame will have to burn itself out. As Covid-19 cases skyrocket and death toll hovers near a hundred per day, some things are becoming clear. For instance, the near-certain disappointment of those who want a lockdown — howsoever limited — to slow the spread of infections. The World Health Organisation (WHO) may have in its distilled wisdom fired off a letter to various governments in Pakistan urging a two-week lockdown, but clearly the organisation has scant understanding of the political dynamics of Pakistan. The WHO also doesn’t have to keep an eye on the next election.

On Wednesday, PM’s adviser on health services Dr Zafar Mirza swatted down the WHO letter with the resigned ease of a man who knows this isn’t a problem that will trouble him, or his government. There are bigger proverbial fish to fry or, more precisely, to nab. Covid-19 is a problem but it is not the only problem. The government in Islamabad feels it must balance the focus on the infection with others matters of the state.

If lockdown is off the table, two questions arise: first, why? Second, what now? The first question has become a quasi-academic one, unless, of course a miracle were to happen; the second one will measure success or failure in the number of lives saved or lost. A trophy to lift or a cross to bear, the PTI government stands alone.

Which is why every little clue dropped or hint offered by the leadership opens up to an analysis of today’s grim situation. It all now depends which side of the political divide — or corona divide — you are. It’s a weird matrix of politics crisscrossed with mortality; partisanship blended with infection; ideology colliding with medical science — and it is all happening here in a system that even at the best of times groans under the weight of its own inadequacies.

Take for instance the minor issue of when Covid-19 will peak. It is a difficult question to begin with. Or was at least when it was originally asked of Dr Mirza more than two months ago. At that time, he had predicted the peak to hit sometime in end May. What he probably did not know at that time — and neither did anyone else save perhaps a few — that the PTI government would open mosques in Ramazan and almost everything else on Eid. The original May peak was bound to get pushed up further.

Then in end May another senior cabinet minister said he expected the virus to peak by end June. He had factored in the Ramazan and Eid spike that is only now uncoiling like a snarling python. The elusive peak now had a fairly definitive time frame. Except that it did not. Earlier this week, Prime Minister Imran Khan himself said on TV the peak was now expected end July/August.

What is going on?

The government says no need to panic. Infections may be spreading at one of the fastest rates in the world, but deaths are not. Yes, nearly a hundred people dying every day is huge, and yet it is relative in terms of Covid-19 fatalities in many other countries. So why panic? Well, say many people, panic because we seem to be running out of hospital space. Media is dripping with stories of well-known hospitals putting up ‘No vacancy’ signs while patients rush from one place to another in a desperate search for medical help. Not true, says the government. Check out the spanking new — and horribly reviewed — Neghayban app that guides people where medical facilities are available. In Islamabad and Rawalpindi, for instance, hospitals do have excess capacity, according to reporters who cover the health beat. They say doctors are strict in terms of who they admit to the hospital, which may be one reason that people who are turned away complain of no space being available.

Planning Minister Asad Umar, who heads the National Command and Operation Centre, explains the situation: “It is evident that operational execution in hospitals is a central issue. Two things being done to deal with that is deployment of support staff from the army to improve hospital-level coordination at all hospitals dealing with Covid-19. Second we will be announcing tomorrow a package of support actions for doctors and hospitals.”

And yet, the question still remains: what now? The answer, as per officials in the Red Zone, is that the government will ‘manage’ the virus. This means two things: a) citizens should ensure they follow SOPs to slow the spread of the virus; b) government will ensure hospitals do not run out of space. To those people who ask what the government’s strategy to combat Covid-19 is, the answer has finally become clear.

Mr Umar describes the policy like this: “We are now doubling down on the three central pillars of our strategy — disease spread control, health care capacity building and ensuring required information is made available to citizens and emergency responders.”

The federal government has asked the provinces to tighten administrative compliance enforcement of SOPs, he says. “Tomorrow we will get more aggressive in asking them to take quarantine actions because what they are doing is nowhere close to what should be done,” he admits.

What if the citizens don’t keep their part of the bargain? Ah, well spin doctors say difficult questions that can lead to needless apportioning of the blame should be avoided at a time as grim as now.

What cannot however be avoided is the growing pressure on the education sector. Schools are closed till July but Education Minister Shafqat Mehmood says it seems rather unlikely they would open on that date. “I am meeting all provincial education ministers in the first week of July to take stock of the situation,” the federal minister says. Private schools are up in arms. The smaller ones are under serious threat of going under. Religious leaders are also breathing down the government’s neck to permit madressahs to open. Much money is being lost in fees and donations. But at a time when more than 5,000 Pak­is­tanis are testing positive every day and the elusive peak is nowhere in sight, the government does not want to take the kind of risk it did by opening mosques and bazaars. Look where that risk got them. Right?

Mr Mehmood says some ideas for a gradual opening of schools are on the table though. These include opening some professional institutes, or perhaps starting senior classes where students can be expected to comply with SOPs. However, all this depends on when the infection graph starts to flatten. That could be a while.

Till then, the government wants you to take care of yourself and your family. The Prime Minister has said things will get worse. He is right. They already are. But the government maintains this was predicted and modelled and strategized. Inevitability tends to generate its own herd-like acceptance.

Published in Dawn, June 11th, 2020

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