Collateral damage

10 Aug 2020

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THE Covid-19 outbreak has thus far claimed 700,000 lives across the world but the true magnitude of its impact will be felt in the months to come. As governments — including Pakistan’s — divert their financial and health resources towards fighting the pandemic, severe collateral damage from these endeavours is being incurred by the primary healthcare infrastructure that plays a key role in the diagnosis and treatment of prevalent infectious diseases. According to a story in The New York Times, around 80pc of the programmes intended for the treatment of tuberculosis, malaria and HIV have reported disruptions worldwide, giving rise to the possibility of increased deaths and development of drug resistance in patients. Tuberculosis claims around 1.5m lives every year across the world (more than any other infectious disease) but the three-month lockdown and gradual return to normalcy over subsequent months will result in 1.4m additional deaths worldwide. Similarly, experts have also predicted that the death toll from malaria could double while 500,000 additional deaths would be caused by HIV/AIDS due to interruptions in treatment cycles.

The burden of the resurgence of these diseases will fall disproportionately on poorer and developing countries such as Pakistan. In fact, the issue is doubly concerning because of our already shambolic health infrastructure. Even before the pandemic, Pakistan was reporting the fifth highest number of tuberculosis cases worldwide and the fourth highest of multidrug-resistant TB. The Global AIDS Update 2020 has already warned of a sharp increase in HIV/AIDS cases in Pakistan, and the current monsoon spell will be followed by the yearly surge in malaria and dengue. Similarly, in 2019 polio cases in Pakistan were up by more than1000pc; this year, immunisation campaigns have remained suspended for the past three months. The worst of Covid-19 may be over but our existing health problems appear to have increased manifold. With the lockdown lifted, the authorities must immediately focus on tackling existing infectious diseases to contain the damage the pandemic has caused in their eradication efforts.

Published in Dawn, August 10th, 2020