ISLAMABAD: As the Covid-19 positivity rate hits insane levels in some cities, government officials blame a decline in testing for skewed figures.
They believe that both citizens and the health authorities have started taking the pandemic “as a normal disease” thanks to pandemic fatigue, an expected and natural response to a prolonged public health crisis.
Official data released on Sunday showed that Pakistan logged 650 Covid cases over the last 24 hours, lower than the 818 infections recorded a day earlier.
The countrywide positivity ratio, at 3.88 per cent, was also down from 4.47pc a day ago. According to the National Institute of Health (NIH), 16,755 tests were conducted during the last 24 hours.
Swabi shows 43pc positivity based on only seven tests
While the city-wise data painted an abysmal picture, with Swabi reporting 43pc positivity, a key member of the government’s Covid task force said such figures should be ignored given the meagre number of tests.
For instance, the 43pc figure arrived as only seven tests were conducted in Swabi, of which three came out as positive. Similarly, a positivity rate of 7pc in Muzaffarabad was based on three positive results out of the 43 samples.
“It’s unfortunate that we put more emphasis on the positivity rate than the number of tests,” Dr Javed Akram, member scientific task force on Covid-19, told Dawn.
“The seven samples collected in Swabi should be ignored considering the city’s population,” he said. “The fact is that only Karachi, Lahore and Islamabad have been doing proper testing, but to me, even that is not up to the mark.”
He said that according to different sampling methods, every fourth or fifth house and shop from the starting point should be included in the data and then all people present there should be tested.
“The size of the sample matters rather than the positivity rate. We should not forget that 30pc of the people never develop symptoms as they are asymptomatic but they continue to spread the virus,” Dr Akram said.
He noted that the number of tests had almost reduced to a third to 17,000 from 50,000 in February, which showed fatigue on part of both citizens and health authorities.
Private labs, which were earlier conducting a large number of tests, were now mostly testing passengers travelling abroad, he said.
Dr Akram said the Omicron variant of the coronavirus was still dominant in Pakistan, its subvariants B-4 and B-5 were spreading in most countries.
“We need to understand that while Covid’s virulence has been diminished with the passage of time, its transmissibility has increased. So now we can only control the virus by holding massive testing,” he said.
Dr Akram, who is also the vice chancellor of the University of Health Sciences, said the media had also stopped giving importance to Covid.
Cases double every five days
An official of the Ministry of National Health Services, requesting not to be named, said the number of Covid cases was doubling every five days, hospitalisations have started increasing and deaths have also reappeared.
Against this backdrop, “it’s worrisome that testing beyond Karachi, Islamabad and Lahore shows no signs of improvement despite repeated push”, he said.
He also called shutting down the National Command and Operation Centre (NCOC) a major setback. The previous government disbanded the NCOC, which was overseeing the country’s Covid response, as the infection’s numbers reached the lowest since the start of the outbreak in early 2020.
“The NCOC was practically being run by the army, with the Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) pushing the media to run stories and campaigns on the pandemic and give awareness to masses that how important it was to get tested, vaccinated and strictly adhere to the standard operating procedures (SOPs),” he said.
With the NCOC gone, the health ministry couldn’t manage the media the way ISPR was doing it, the official said, adding that with the passage of time, citizens started thinking that the pandemic had been eradicated.
Although the centre had now been revived, it was still being chaired by the federal health minister, he said.
Muqaddam Khan from Swabi also contributed to this report
Published in Dawn, July 4th, 2022