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Containing Coronavirus: What Pakistan Can Learn From Germany

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There are many lessons for Pakistan that it can learn from Germany especially on how the latter took strict and unpopular measures to curb the spread of coronavirus and is now able to safely relax most of the restrictions, writes Waqas Ahmed.

“The situation is serious. Take it seriously. Since German unification, no, since the Second World War, there has been no challenge to our nation that has demanded such a degree of common and united action,” German chancellor Angela Merkel said in her address to German public on March 18. While Merkel was giving this statement, an ugly debate on lockdown was going on in Pakistan. In his first address to the nation regarding Coronavirus, Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan said that the virus is not lethal, it is dangerous only for the elderly and young people should not worry.

This global pandemic has led the world into an unprecedented crisis in recent history but it has also provided the world an opportunity to learn. It would be a mistake if we do not learn and evolve for the better of our planet after this pandemic is over. There are many lessons for Pakistan that it can learn from Germany especially on how they took strict and unpopular measures to curb the spread of coronavirus and now able to safely relax most of the restrictions.

First confirmed case in Germany was reported on January 27, 2020 and since than it has affected over 165 thousand Germans, taking the lives of nearly 7300 people. Within two days of the first case, the German Health Minister Jens Spahn told reporters “We are on alert and well prepared. We are in regular contact at the international and European levels, as well as with the German federal states”.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel addressed the public the same day when WHO declared COVID-19 a global pandemic. In a press conference on March 11, she warned that 60 to 70 percent of German population could be infected. Her statement was taken seriously by public and they supported her decision of supporting a lockdown.

In an effort to limit the spread of coronavirus, Germany’s federal states announced the closure of all schools and daycare centers from March 16 till the end of Easter holidays. As of March 22, the number of confirmed coronavirus cases in Germany was more than 24000 with more than 90 deaths. In a telephone conference between Angela Merkel and the leaders of all German states, the new restrictions were agreed on March 22. The most pivotal restriction was the contact ban and the resolution stated “Staying in public places is only permitted alone, with another person not living in the household or with members of one’s own household”. In public, wherever possible, a minimum distance of at least 1.5 meter must be maintained from people other than relatives from their own household. “It is possible to go to work, receive emergency care, go shopping, visit the doctor, participate in meetings, necessary appointments and examinations, do individual sports and exercise in the fresh air – as well as other necessary activities,” read the resolution. All public gatherings including concerts, sporting and other events were cancelled with immediate effect until August 31.

“Groups of people celebrating not only in public places, but also in apartments and private facilities are unacceptable,” said Merkel. All the cafes, restaurants, pubs, and hotels for the tourists were closed, however the collection of take-away food remained permitted. Hefty fines and penalties up to €25000 were announced for those who were caught breaking the restrictions.

Following the instructions given by the World Health Organisation in true letter and spirit became the factor behind the success of the German government. Test, track and isolate was the comprehensive strategy adopted for keeping the death toll relatively low, which earned Germany much deserving praise from the entire world.

Germans understood the gravity of the situation and showed great self-discipline by spending at least one month in a national house arrest. All these strict measures helped Germany to get back on track of normalcy.

From April 20, bookshops, florists, fashion stores, bike and car outlets and other shops smaller than 800 sqm. were permitted to reopen. A few schools allowed the final-year students to rejoin the school and sit in exams. The public as well as the students were instructed to wear face-masks in public areas and schools. Most of the restrictions have been revoked by May 6, and new regulations allow opening up different industries including gastronomy and tourism, schools, sporting activities, but what is common in all is that social distancing and hygiene regulations must be practiced.

On the other hand, Pakistan government underestimated the pandemic. Though Pakistan is a neighboring country to China where since December last year corona virus had created a menace, still the authorities in Pakistan were not serious. And by the time the first case in Pakistan was reported on February 26 by the health officials there seemed to be no national policy to curb the spread of corona virus.

“I can confirm first two cases of coronavirus in Pakistan. Both cases are being taken care of according to clinical standard protocols and both of them are stable. No need to panic, things are under control,” tweeted Zafar Mirza, the Pakistani federal health minister.

Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan on March 22 ruled out complete lockdown in the country, saying it will create chaos and urged people to self-quarantine to contain the spread of the coronavirus. The virus had claimed four lives and infected around 650 people in Pakistan by this time.

Addressing the nation as cases of the patient count surged across the country, Khan reiterated that lockdown will create chaos as more than 25 per cent people are living below the poverty line and their lives will be shattered. Mixed and confused messages coming from the Prime Minister created a lot of disorder as he could not understand the difference between a smart lockdown and curfew and in this confusion the DG ISPR conducted a press conference and announced a lockdown in the country.

More disarray was created because of the constant friction between the federal and the Sindh governments. The government of Sindh announced a lockdown in the province for 14 days from March 23, ordering all public transport, markets, offices, shopping malls, restaurants, and public areas to be shut down. In the middle of all this, PM Imran Khan was also blaming the Indian premier on his decision of a complete lockdown and misquoted him that the Indian PM has apologized to the Indian nation for the lockdown, though it was not the case. As of today, 24000 Pakistanis have been infected and 564 have died. Imran Khan has announced to lift the lockdown restrictions from 9th May when in reality the lockdown was only in papers with virtually no social distancing in shopping areas, mosques or in public places.

The pivotal lesson that Pakistan can learn from Germany is to get help from medical and scientific experts as well and try to increase the testing capacity. Though it is not expected of Pakistan to conduct 500000 tests in one week like Germany but testing is the only mechanism to track and isolate the infected patients. Fahd Husain, a renowned journalist, got access to the NCOC (National Command and Operations Centre) and later wrote on April 29 in Dawn that “NCOC could do better with more medical experts. In its present form the focus appears to swerve instinctively towards administrative solutions. Covid-19 is essentially a public health issue. If a few top epidemiologists and other specialists were members of NCOC; the decision-making would be enriched and balance the administrative approach with a purely medical one.”

The way Angela Merkel handled the Coronavirus crisis has renewed the confidence of the Germans in their chancellor which had been struggling for months. Merkel’s popularity surged to as much as 80 percent. Some outsider observers have dubbed Merkel the country’s “scientist-in-chief” as she took the right and the strongest decisions at the right time unlike leaders of other countries like the US & the UK.

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Naya Daur