IN the past week, Pakistan crossed the half-million mark for Covid-19 cases in the country. After a spike in deaths and heightened positivity ratios over several weeks, we are now seeing a slowdown. Still, daily Covid-19-related deaths are clocking in between 30 and 50, with new infections between 1,500 and 3,000. Although we have statistically fared better than many Western countries and even some regional states, our data has been historically weak due to low testing. This unfortunate half-a-million milestone in the pandemic, coupled with a death toll of over 10,000, could have been much lower.
From the start of the pandemic, Pakistan’s daily total testing has been very low. In the early days, the government had vowed to reach the target of 100,000 daily tests, but failed to live up to its pledge. At its highest, daily countrywide testing has been around 50,000, that too for a few days. In the past week, daily testing has been 35,000-45,000 — a sorry figure considering the sheer size of our population. At 32 tests per 1,000, Pakistan’s per capita testing is lower than Iran and India that clock in at 95 and 129 respectively. The entire point of increased testing is to test everyone, even those who may be unaware that they are infected, so that they can isolate themselves and prevent the virus from spreading to others in their community. With low testing, we have entered a data fog, which essentially means that decisions are being made on the basis of weak information. In the past, officials have claimed people are reluctant to get tested and that the demand is low, a scenario which points to a failure in public messaging on Covid-19. As the government prepares to reopen schools and universities, it must ramp up testing. A mass testing strategy is more critical now than before, as it will accurately identify which areas are Covid-19 hotspots. Based on this information, the authorities can make data-led decisions regarding the enforcement of targeted lockdowns in specific schools or localities. The current testing is far too low, given the unrestricted public activity and mass gatherings in the country. The government must make tests available and accessible, if it wants to limit the loss to lives and livelihoods. No doubt, there are countries which have had far worse trajectories, but we must strive to be like those who have performed at least reasonably well and not compare ourselves to the worst.
Published in Dawn, January 12th, 2021