Welcome turnaround

07 Aug 2020

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NEARLY five months after the first Covid-19 cases were detected in Pakistan, all indicators suggest that we have managed to prevent the all-out pandemic-induced healthcare calamity that was feared. With cases consistently falling, the positivity ratio in decline and critical care units designated for Covid-19 patients clearing out, it appears that the measures to curb the spread of the virus have been successful. Latest figures shared by the government are encouraging: 91pc of ventilators in the country are lying unutilised and at present, although there are more than 20,000 active cases, only 1,300 or so are being treated at hospitals.

This is indeed a welcome development — and one that the government, especially the National Command and Operation Centre, deserves credit for. In this, the work of NCOC head Asad Umar, advisers and provincial heads is notable, as they tenaciously worked together against a shared national threat despite some bitter differences. After some foot-dragging and fumbling, the authorities managed to get their act together and, under great pressure, formulated and implemented a plan to contain the virus. The criticism against public officials was both necessary and valid, and gave the federal and provincial authorities the impetus to confront a grim reality and act quickly. Pakistan began grappling with Covid-19 a month or so after it wreaked havoc in other countries, giving rise to fears of what the virus would do to a country of our size and vulnerability. After all, Pakistan has a massive population, a fragile healthcare system and a weak economy. Millions of people live in closely packed homes with large families. A significant proportion of the population has underlying conditions such as diabetes. Many communities also face acute water shortages, which meant that both social distancing and frequent handwashing were huge challenges. All these factors made Pakistan especially susceptible to the fast-spreading, high-fatality virus. Fortunately, that doomsday scenario was avoided. Some good decisions were taken: the testing and quarantining of all international passengers, the track and trace system, closures and strict lockdowns in some cities and then smart lockdowns in hotspots. While the prime minister’s initial messaging left a lot to be desired, in his more recent statements about the virus he reinforced its lethality. All these actions were important and have delivered results.

Now, as we follow other countries in moving forward, vigilance is of utmost importance. Mask wearing and social distancing must be enforced. Testing, which remained far lower than acceptable even at its peak, must be increased and made accessible. With Pakistan entering something of a Covid-19 twilight zone, it is important to acknowledge the very real and devastating consequences of the pandemic. Overburdened healthcare workers, fatalities in the medical community and the death of over 6,000 people are more than just sobering statistics of the gloom and doom unleashed by the pandemic.

Published in Dawn, August 7th, 2020