EVEN as the pandemic wreaks havoc in other countries, Pakistan appears to have brought its Covid-19 figures under control and braved the so-called ‘peak’ without the catastrophically high fatalities and hospitalisations seen in Europe, the UK and now Brazil and the US. The data from the National Command and Operations Centre is encouraging: daily deaths and new cases appear to have fallen in the last four weeks and hospitalisations have come down since June. While the positivity ratio during mid-June — which is now deemed to have been the peak phase — was 23pc it is now reported at 7pc. Even the R0 number, indicating how contagious a disease is, now stands at 0.74 after clocking in at 1.5 in May. These figures are reassuring, as they show that, though post-Eidul Fitr cases, deaths and hospitalisations soared, later interventions and SOP enforcement prevented a doomsday scenario. As optimistic as the government may feel about the current downward curve, however, the ‘good news’ must be viewed with caution and should in no way validate a casual attitude towards tackling the coronavirus in the future. While it can be claimed that smart lockdowns are effective and restrictions on mass gatherings at wedding halls, cinema houses and restaurants have kept the curve low, there is a lot about the downward trajectory in Pakistan that is a mystery. A senior doctor, who has been advising the government, admitted as much when he said that much of where Pakistan stands now on the Covid-19 trajectory remains unexplained.
It is not really clear why the tide turned as even during the peak lockdown period, mask-wearing was not mandatory and worshippers were gathering in mosques. Questions about Pakistanis having some miracle immunity, a BCG vaccine link or the virus mutating into a less lethal version remain unanswered and ought to be scientifically explored. In neighbouring India, where climatic conditions, prevalence of BCG vaccinations and a younger population are comparable to Pakistan, the Covid-19 trajectory has been starkly different and more lethal.
With so much unknown, authorities must remain vigilant and reflect on what worked and what could have been done better. A centralised decision-making body which works with the provinces, the decision to enforce smart lockdowns and keep certain sectors shut and the initial mandatory testing of incoming travellers were good steps. However, the lowering of daily tests, the government’s foot-dragging on lockdowns and the mixed messaging on Covid-19 were clear errors. The next big test is around the corner with Eid and Muharram, two ‘super-spreading’ occasions where thousands may congregate and enforcement of SOPs will be challenging. The government must chalk out an appropriate mitigation strategy for these events and not waver in its commitment to keep the numbers low in the coming months. The numbers are low now but will not remain so if vigilance is relaxed.
Published in Dawn, July 26th, 2020