By Wajid Shamsul Hasan
Writing in the well-read World Healthcare Journal, my review of the pandemic world over and especially Pakistan drew a bleak picture. By the end of May and beginning of June, the total number of coronovirus cases in Pakistan had almost bypassed 70,000 with nearly 2500 casualties. As I lamented, the PTI government was trying to keep to itself the reasons why the graph has risen so steeply over the last few weeks. Perhaps it was reluctant to actually share the number of deaths, rightly so for fear of panic.
Most likely whoever takes a closer look into the major reasons pertaining to the pandemic will agree with me that firstly, continued lack of awareness about the serious nature of the virus. One regrets to say masses do not respect nor observe social distancing protocols (SOPs), so it’s only natural that more would catch the virus. Doctors vehemently warned the authorities of the lethal perils of easing lockdown.
I believe that if only the public had behaved more responsibly when social interaction restarted, there’s no doubt things would not have been so bad that the Prime Minister would have to appear with such frequency to lecture his countrymen to take the threat seriously. Secondly, it was a colossal blunder by the Federal government to delay lockdown, followed by further easing of lockdown despite the opposition from the medical community. Now, having introduced relaxation of the lockdown measures, the Prime Minister warns of the dire consequences of Covid-19 if SOPs are not followed strictly.
Six million plus people in more than 202 countries are afflicted, with nearly 390,000 dead. Pakistan, despite being close to China, was Covid-19-free until February 26 when a young man tested positive after returning from Iran. Covid-19 spiked soon afterwards as the Khan Government allowed more pilgrims who tested positive to enter from Iran. Unlike Islamabad, Sindh province had a clear and effective policy of pursuing lockdown with social distancing, closure of schools, offices, businesses, shopping malls, bazaars, and suspension of prayers in mosques, whereas the Federal government persistently opposed these measures and its functionaries carried on a vicious campaign against lockdown.
It was noticeable that Sindh virtually gave a lead to the provinces in measures to curb Covid-19. Sindh’s effective handling of the pandemic led to instant appreciation from WHO Director General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus and other representatives who advised member countries to take a lesson from Sindh.
Currently, the way pandemic is surging in an alarming manner and Pakistan is heading towards a Covid-19 emergency with the response from its Prime Minister and government falling too short of the challenge.
Medical experts believe that the country could face a crisis of enormous magnitude if it fails to act properly without further loss of time.
It is very depressing to note that Pakistanis seem to be taking the pandemic too lightly. Prime Minister Imran Khan’s last address to the nation was too complacent in asking people to learn to live with Covid-19, not to panic and to be prepared mentally to survive for a year. It is going to be a battle to save people from Covid-19 at one end without letting them die of hunger on the other. He has so far not come up with a concrete policy to blunt Covid-19’s march.
In comparison, Sindh Chief Minister Murad Ali Shah’s persistent measures to impose lockdown – self-distancing, banning of prayers in mosques, closure of schools, businesses etc—have proven to be most effective. His initiate got blunted by the Federal governments counter productive easing of lockdown.
Pakistan urgently needs a collective approach to the pandemic by strictly imposing SOPs regarding social distancing and lockdown, and equipping doctors and paramedics with PPE to stop further casualties. Pakistan now manages to manufacture ventilators, face masks, gloves and gowns locally.
Lockdown did not have ready acceptability among the people and when it came to banning of religious congregations in mosques, the clerics came up with tough resistance. President Dr Arif Alvi, had to intervene with religious leaders to come up with an SOP that could prohibit congregations in mosques, especially in the month of Ramadan when prayers become more than routine, mandating the prayers to be held at home backed by religious edicts (fatwa) by the Ulema.
It is Pakistan’s good fortune that Saudi Arabia, as the custodians of Harmein Sharifeen—holiest of Muslim religious establishment of Holy Ka’aba in Mecca and Masjid-e-Nabvi (Prophet’s Mosque) in Medina, had taken the initiative of closing down both the places thus making it easier to impose lockdown elsewhere.
Hardest hit are daily wage earners living below the poverty line. Now the lockdown has been eased from June 1 but, as warned by the Pakistan Medical Association, relaxation has been responsible for multiplying number of deaths and infecting a larger number of people.
The most alarming aspect is the increasing number of casualties among doctors and nurses. It seems inevitable that the Federal government shall have to review its decision of relaxing lockdown urgently.
In view of the gravity of the situation, the Army Chief General Javed Qamar Bajwa has rightly intervened and involved the Pakistan army in the war against coronovirus. He has established a Covid-19 Command & Control Centre under a three-star general to keep monitoring the situation.
It must be mentioned here that Pakistan has a minimal and lamentable healthcare system and it was almost facing collapse when struck by the virus. In this period of national emergency, several makeshift treatment and isolation centres with several thousand beds have been established, but they require lot of funding and assistance to successfully run them. Besides, there are permanent hindrances in the fight against Covid-19, religious and social taboos, plus the disbelief of the masses who question the reality of Covid-19. Their reaction is much like the reaction of mullas over the successful walk by astronaut Neil Armstrong on the moon.
I remembering mulla cimmunity blaring from the pulpits that the moon walk was American propaganda.
Pakistan today has become one of the most vulnerable countries in the crisis. It needs to be helped to increase the capacity of hospitals, the number of ICU beds, ventilators and immunity build up facilities and protective gear for doctors and paramedics, not ruling out another spike in cases in the future.
Notwithstanding the environmental considerations, Pakistan’s poverty level, lack of running water, toileting facilities, and dense occupancy in a house– all combine to pose the most potent risk factors inviting all sort of diseases.
(Author is former High Commissioner of Pakistan to UK and a veteran journalist)