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Pakistani Officials Should Stop Downplaying The Severity Of Coronavirus Outbreak

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Omer Bhatti argues that the coronavirus situation in Pakistan does not appear that serious because not enough people have been tested in the country to verify their COVID 19 status. Across the planet, the number of tests has been directly proportional with the number of cases.

Deniability of a public emergency – a global health pandemic in this case – and public messages  denouncing the sheer monstrosity and enormity of this emergency rest on the assumption that only a few people in Pakistan are suffering from the COVID 19, a novel strand of the Coronavirus. Implausible deniability of an existing crisis, whether economic or medical, is engrained in most government officials, leaders and bureaucracy.  For e.g. it is being argued across Pakistani social media that the outbreak hasn’t happened due to an extremely low number of infected patients – far away from 3 digit figures.

While that may seem terribly appealing at the first glance, it is most likely a false conclusion. This is primarily because not enough people have been tested in Pakistan to verify their COVID 19 status. Across the planet, the number of tests has been directly proportional with the number of cases. South Korea has tested around 234,000 people since February with around 7700 confirmed positive. Italy started conducting aggressive number of tests revealing more than 12,000 infections with about 61,000 tests starting in the latter half of February. The ease with which COVID 19 spreads and transmits i.e. via cough/sneezing in public, close contact with the infected, touching virus laden surfaces is all but ensures the number of infections in metropolitan cities like Lahore and Karachi is higher than reported.

It is therefore not a question of if, but when the results are available to see. Therefore, it is overwhelmingly important to conduct regular tests across the country. A corollary of that Pakistan treats and quarantines infected patients before they spread the virus to other people. Tracking, and quarantining the contacts of the infected patients is quintessential to the process so that masses can be shielded from infected personnel. This is only the first step for Pakistan to be able to spread the virus at a much slower rate than in other countries like Italy, Iran and China early on.

Lessons need to be quickly learnt at this stage. On the neighbouring border, Iran’s terrifying tussle with COVID-19 also sketches the incredible importance of ensuring protective measures are taken at the critical juncture, which is now. In Iran, leaders denied that the virus would turn into a serious outbreak as long as 2 weeks ago. Now, with the total number of infected personnel standing at more than 10,000, and with more than 400 people dead, Iran is struggling to control one of the worst outbreaks in the world.

The virus started in the holy city of Qom, where thousands of pilgrims from Iran and around the Middle East travel each day. Two days after the first deaths and cases of the virus were reported in Qom, Iran held parliamentary elections, which are widely believed to have been the cause of the virus spreading to other provinces. On the comparative, if Iranian leaders had not fallen prey to implausible deniability and enacted a South Korean/Chinese style model of rapid, large scale testing, imposing quarantine on the infected, cancelling major public events: the story could have been much different.

This is exactly why Pakistan’s next step should be to cancel all major public events because they serve as breeding grounds for spreading infectious diseases due to close contact and close proximity. This includes cancelling the Pakistan Super League.

Taiwan is appearing to be another success story. The agencies there used phone tracking to enforce mandatory quarantine on those with risky travel history to contain the spread of coronavirus hence with just 48 confirmed cases of infection to date. This is despite the fact that it is located just 130km from mainland China, the centre of the virus outbreak.

The logistical nightmare in case of a significant outbreak will prove to be crippling. Per government statistics and Gallup figures from as recent as 2015, the total number of hospital beds across public hospitals is approximately 118,869. A midsized outbreak, which would then peak soon, could debilitate the health infrastructure completely as patients in large numbers flood in to be treated in major urban and rural areas with very limited beds.

But Pakistan, unlike China which had the capacity to build 2,000-bed hospitals, lock down 750 million people, and fly in thousands of medical staff and Italy who have a well-resourced healthcare sector, neither has the capacity nor the resources. But for starters, Pakistan needs to logistically equip itself to face the crisis as by

a) Order testing kits so more people can be tested to figure out the exact nature of the outbreak.

b) Import significant amount of hospital beds to avoid a shortfall.

‘’Not great, not terrible,” claimed Anatoly Dyatlov, the nuclear scientist and reactor specialist present on the Chernobyl Nuclear reactor by viewing an early radiation reading of 3.6 roentgen. Roentgen is the unit used to effectively measure radiation. The World, and Russian scientific experts later found out that the real level was a terrifying 15,000 roentgen per hour. This was twice the radiation of the Hiroshima atomic bomb. The same happened in Wuhan, China where COVID 19 was ignored as major emergency in its early days because the number of infected simply didn’t seem too high.

It is crucial that with the benefit of hindsight and more knowledge on the matter, Pakistan prepares for the pandemic and acts now.

 

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