MEET the 23-year-old entrepreneur. He’s not a celebrity, neither a man of news nor even a socially active young man.
But exactly a year ago, his mild fever and coughing shook more than 220 million people across the country. From people in power corridors to the security establishment and from national economic managers to health experts, his health became a point of concern for everyone.
It was Feb 26, 2020, when Syed Muhammad Yahya Jafferi became the first registered patient of the novel coronavirus in Pakistan. It was the fourth day since he had returned to Karachi from Iran by air and his condition marked the arrival of Covid-19 in the country. And thus began one of the most challenging years in Pakistan’s history.
“I returned from Iran on Feb 22 ,” said Mr Jafferi at his software house in Gulshan-i-Iqbal, where he looks after the company’s research and development wing.
“I was not feeling well but ignored everything. When I was given a go-ahead at the airport and allowed to go home, amid strict monitoring of passengers coming from abroad, I felt further relaxed that nothing was wrong.
“I even attended my university for the next two days. But when my condition didn’t improve, I went to a private hospital on Feb 26, where the [Covid-19] test was being conducted. I was tested in the morning and asked to stay at the hospital till the report was finalised. And you know what happened next,” he told Dawn.
In fact, every Pakistani knows what happened next. It was the day when what was happening abroad changed the life of Pakistanis as well. And the impact of what happened that day is still being felt in one way or the other.
From Feb 26, 2020 onwards, routine life in the country, amid the growing fear and growing number of coronavirus patients, started slowing down and by March 23 a lockdown had been imposed almost across the entire country.
Those who had monitored things closely recall those “scary days” and remember how challenging it was to prepare the nation for the approaching crisis, which in time even brought the world’s economic powers to their knees.
Being Sindh’s education minister, Saeed Ghani was not just the one who took perhaps the most important virus-related decision, when he announced the closure of educational institutions across the province, but was among the most well-known personalities who contracted the disease himself. He went into isolation in March 2020 for more than a week.
“It was never [an] easy [decision],” he recalled. “Keeping children away from their education and that too for a long period was definitely a [tough] decision to make. But the Sindh government had taken that decision the very first day — come what may, we have to save people’s lives,” said the minister.
“It was everyone’s contribution in the [provincial] government to devise the strategy and implement the tough decisions. Salute to everyone who made his or her contribution to save people’s lives. There are so many unsung heroes and we must appreciate them,” he remarked.
After infecting more than half a million people, from out of the over 8m tested across the country, and claiming over 12,000 lives in a year, the virus is still very much here in Pakistan, although its rate is slowing down. And amid vaccination the disease is becoming less deadly.
Why the virus, which went on the rampage in other parts of the world, remained much less infectious and fatal in Pakistan requires a scientific debate that would take time to reach a satisfactory conclusion.
However, the lessons that should be drawn from the entire experience are on the fingertips of those who matter.
Chief of the Indus Hospital Network Prof Dr Abdul Bari Khan was one of the men who were instrumental in designing the strategy that was formulated to meet the challenges posed by Covid-19. He believes that in addition to many tragedies and miseries the pandemic brought opportunities that could lead to a healthier, safer and more prosperous Pakistan.
“Honestly speaking it was a concerted effort from everyone which kept us safe to a large extent,” he said. “There was definitely a difference of opinion and there was so much debate about the strategy and the decisions that needed to be taken, but at the end of the day everyone contributed his or her bit to the cause. This has also brought opportunities for us.
“Our health system got some [additional] capacity and we moved on from surgical mask production to ventilator manufacturing. We still lack excellence but things have moved forward and this momentum should continue,” said Dr Khan.
As the country has finally launched a vaccination programme, with the first jabs being given to healthcare workers, many have begun to see a ray of hope. However, many are still listening more to hearsay than to scientific advice.
Mr Jafferi, being the country’s first registered Covid-19 patient, was also the first Pakistani to go through this dilemma. “When I was admitted, I decided to learn about the virus,” he said.
“I read and read a lot. After that exercise I felt there was so much panic in society because of these [mainstream] and social media… Sometimes I think of coming forward and telling people to stay calm and follow the scientific guidelines and rules.
“Similar is the case with this issue of vaccination. The nations are tested in such times and it’s an opportunity to prove ourselves,” he added calmly.
Published in Dawn, February 26th, 2021