More testing needed

July 01, 2020

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Reports that new coronavirus cases are decreasing across the country are indeed welcome, but this latest trend must be analysed to get a clear picture of the threat from the infection. According to the National Command and Control Centre chair Asad Umar, the four parameters through which the spread of the virus can be gauged — that is, the number of daily positive cases, number of admitted patients, number of patients on ventilators and number of deaths — have all shown a decrease. While the news of fewer patients being critically ill is undoubtedly positive, the figures for ‘lower daily positive cases’ must be examined further. Anecdotal or circumstantial evidence which suggests that fewer people are approaching hospitals and testing labs should not be the benchmark for assessing the situation.

While there could be multiple explanations behind the low demand for Covid-19 tests, the government’s approach to testing and getting an accurate picture of the spread of Covid-19 in communities should not be linked to the demand for tests. Instead, the health authorities must conduct Covid-19 tests at random in communities across the country and see what the data reveals. In New Zealand, a country with a population about 50 times smaller than that of Pakistan, the average daily testing in the month of April was about 3,500 — a test per person ratio which, if applied here, would amount to about 175,000 daily tests. In a more densely populated country such as Vietnam, the testing ratio of 791 tests for every confirmed case, too, is in sharp contrast to Pakistan’s numbers which show six tests for every confirmed case. While these countries may differ in size, what Vietnam and New Zealand have in common are the fact that both have kept Covid-19 infections low.

New Zealand, which had recently celebrated no new cases, is still aggressively testing and contact tracing travellers entering the country. This information shows that, regardless of the extent of demand for Covid-19 tests, Pakistan’s testing capacity must increase. That authorities were unable to cross the figure of 31,000 tests in a single day is disappointing, and an area where more work needs to be done urgently. The goal for 100,000 tests by July is far from being met, with the recent week recording between just 20,000 to 25,000 tests. According to WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, “Although many countries have made some progress, globally the pandemic is actually speeding up.” Without a cure and with no accurate analysis about the reportedly low figures in Pakistan, precautionary measures and testing for Covid-19 cannot be eased. As the virus spreads in other countries, Pakistan must be vigilant and aggressive in its approach to curb its spread. Complacency in testing and premature celebrations which are not backed by data and science will send the wrong message, and give the public a false sense of security.

Published in Dawn, July 1st, 2020