IF the coronavirus has taught the world anything, it is that the old maxim ‘health is wealth’ is true. Though Pakistan has fared relatively better than other countries in terms of mortalities caused by Covid-19, the infection has still extracted a huge toll on the public by reducing their already limited access to healthcare facilities. Unfortunately, investment in public health has never been a top priority for those in power. Hence, the health-related findings of the latest Economic Survey hardly come as a surprise. According to the data, Pakistan lags behind its neighbours, even war-torn Afghanistan, in the most basic health indicators. The country has the lowest life expectancy in the region — 67.3 years. On the other hand, it has the highest infant mortality rate — 55.7 out of 1,000 live births in the region, as compared to 46 in Afghanistan, 28 in India, 25 in Bangladesh and only six in Sri Lanka. Similarly, the under-five mortality rate remains the highest in the region. In Pakistan, 69 children (per 1,000) die before their fifth birthday, as compared to 60 in Afghanistan, 34 in India, 30 in Bangladesh, 28 in Bhutan and seven each in China and Sri Lanka. And yet, public health spending remains far below international standards. According to the Economic Survey, health expenditure in 2018-19 was 1.1pc and 1.2pc in 2019-20. The WHO recommends that governments spend at least 6pc of their GDP on health.

The pandemic brought with it great adversity, but it also proved to be a litmus test for health systems around the world. In Pakistan’s case, it turned out that the public health infrastructure needed considerable investment and improvement in disease surveillance, diagnostic facilities, training of health personnel in critical care of patients and vaccine development. The fact that Pakistan fared relatively better than other countries in terms of the Covid-19 infection should not make it complacent. The government must learn from the pandemic’s lessons, and seize the opportunity to make a lasting impact on the lives of millions of Pakistanis.

Published in Dawn, June 12th, 2021

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