By Ayesha Ijaz Khan
As the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak shifts from Asia
to Europe, it is instructive to compare how different countries have reacted to
the global pandemic. In Wuhan, China, where the virulent disease originated
late last year, Dr. Li Wenliang, one of the first doctors to sound the alarm
about the outbreak, was censured and silenced by Chinese police. Had the
government encouraged the transparent communication he had initiated, China
could have put in place the strict quarantine measures it took earlier, thereby
saving many more lives.
According to a study quoted in the Guardian on 11 March 2020, “Research finds huge impact of interventions on spread of Covid-19,” if China had put in place difficult measures such as early detection, isolation and travel restrictions a week earlier, 66 percent fewer people would have been infected, and the same measures brought in three weeks earlier could have reduced cases by 95 percent.
Nevertheless, if the time China lost by not being transparent about the disease was a consequence of authoritarianism, so was the rapid mobilization of its workforce and the construction of two new hospitals within a span of twelve days to deal with the public health emergency. Europe and North America remain awestruck by that accomplishment and acknowledge that it cannot be replicated.
Until recently, it was also unthinkable for democratic societies to curtail the free movement of their citizens. And while a robust media and citizen rights mandate that European and American governments are more transparent about public health issues, on the flip-side, these governments find it very difficult to impose restrictions curtailing individual liberty.
But dilly-dallying on strict containment measures cost Italy dearly, over stretching its national health service to the point where the fatality percentage rate in Italy far exceeds that of China. While some in Europe learned lessons from the unfortunate Italian experience, others, like the UK, have not taken the necessary measures for social distancing, thus risking lives.
When the most developed countries of the world are having difficulty coping with this virus, how does a country like Pakistan with scant resources react?
First, there must be transparency. The government has to be honest about the number of people it has tested for the virus. By testing 15,000 people a day, South Korea remains the gold standard in testing, and those efforts have massively paid off in combating the virus in that country. Understandably, Pakistan cannot match that but the Sindh government has done a good job given limited resources. Until recently however, the Punjab government was reporting zero cases. Testing is imperative, as the World Health Organisation chief recently said: “You cannot fight this fire blindfolded.”
It is essential therefore to test not just those with travel
history but also their contacts. This disease is highly contagious and once it
enters a country’s borders, community spread is inevitable. For Zafar
Mirza to claim therefore, as he recently did on television, that all cases in
Pakistan were travelers coming from abroad was not just premature but also
unprofessional. At times like these, it is better to be humble rather
Second, social distancing measures are a must but they should be prioritized. Adequate quarantine facilities are more important than shutting down schools. Moreover, there cannot be exceptions for religious rituals at this time. Many Muslim countries have stopped prayers in congregation and asked people to pray at home.
Finally and most importantly, Pakistan will need to step up its preparedness for public health emergencies.
This has historically been a neglected area and the PTI government further cut the healthcare budget upon assuming office. When the whole world is facing an existential threat, it is not the best time to hang on to petty political grudges with opposition foes or those in the media who do not toe the line.
Prime Minister Imran Khan addressed the nation three weeks late, and instead of taking responsibility and concrete action, we heard pet phrases like “ghabrana nahi hai” (don’t be worried).
Pakistan will need to ramp up its intensive care facilities in the weeks to come. Training and protective gear for health workers is equally necessary, as two out of every five infections in China were found in healthcare providers. Funds recently allocated by the government to build its own image on the internet, for example, should immediately be diverted to preparing for this calamity.
The military too can play a constructive role. Since the coronavirus outbreak, many countries, Canada and India, to name a couple, have used military bases as quarantine facilities. The US has called upon the National Guard to deliver food in the New Rochelle containment area in New York. And in the UK too, there has been talk of the military stepping up to build field hospitals to cope. Curiously in Pakistan, a Major General heads the National Institute of Health, but so far the military has not been asked to help on the scale that it has in other countries.
China has shown us that the coronavirus can be overcome with discipline and preparedness. Yet not all countries will be able to manage that, as the case of Iran next door is before us, where cases continue to surge and deaths continue to mount. The government needs to get its act together.
(Ayesha Ijaz Khan is a lawyer who lives in London. She comments frequently on Pakistani politics. Twitter: @ayeshaijazkhan)