Misplaced optimism or good news?

19 Jul 2020


THE government’s recent assertion that the rate of confirmed Covid-19 cases in the country is declining merits closer examination. According to the planning minister and NCOC chair, Asad Umar, the positivity ratio — determined by the number of people testing positive for the coronavirus out of the total number tested in a day — has gone down. The minister asserted that, whereas in mid-June the rate of those testing positive was 22pc, that percentage has now dropped to around 9pc as only 2,145 people out of the 24,262 tested on July 15 had been confirmed positive. Mr Umar also shared a breakdown of the Covid-19 data from June 1 to June 15 to demonstrate that daily average tests at 23,403 in that period resulted in approximately 5,056 positive cases. Yet from July 1 to July 15, he said, 22,969 daily tests returned 3,097 positive cases. His response to the opposition parties who were criticising the low Covid-19 figures as a result of fewer tests was that the low positivity ratio reflects the success of the government’s preventive measures. This lowering of the ratio, while ostensibly welcome news, warrants a thorough examination which is only possible in one way: the constant collection and detailed analyses of data.

Experts all over the world have demonstrated that virus trends can only be forecast by reading data — which is gathered when mass testing is conducted over a period of time. At present, Pakistan’s trajectory of confirmed Covid-19 cases is outwardly encouraging, yet appears to be an anomaly when compared to the trends in the rest of the world where mass testing has revealed alarmingly high transmission rates. The low reported figures in the country have left health experts here puzzled, and many of them have speculated about the possible causes. One has suggested that the decline could be associated with the presence of a kind of “non-specific immunity” that is unique to the Pakistani population. However, such theories must be proven before they can be accepted as reality, and the road to collecting facts towards that end is mass testing. A survey conducted by the National Institute of Health in Islamabad contradicts the government’s view as it suggests that the number of people infected in the capital could be around 300,000 — the vast majority of whom are asymptomatic. This survey should compel authorities to ramp up daily testing, which is still between 23,000 and 24,000 — a daily testing figure which is one-fifth the number of the previously announced target of 100,000 daily tests.

In the absence of mass testing, speculation and claims of victory have little value. Instead of cherry-picking the version of the Covid-19 trajectory which is most acceptable, the authorities must commit to quadrupling the number of daily tests to ascertain what the actual spread of the virus is in Pakistan. Anything short of that will create a false sense of security.

Published in Dawn, July 19th, 2020