What Went Wrong With The Covid-19 Policy In Pakistan?
Mazhar Abbas analyses how the coronavirus situation in Pakistan went wrong. From the easing of lockdown to the governments’s downplaying of the contagion and the problem with the healthcare system.
Widespread pandemics expose the fissures in the healthcare system – timely detection of disease, availability of basic healthcare, tracing contacts, quarantine and isolation procedures – and preparedness beyond the health sector.
Dr. Zafar Mirza, special Assistant to the Prime Minister of Pakistan on Health, erroneously claimed that the nation’s healthcare facilities were adequately resourced to tackle any outbreak. However, his blasé attitude was exposed to the earlier stages of the pandemic outbreak. The arrangements made by the government, unlike its claims, are not enough to mitigate the loss of life and economic hardship. This is revealed from the number of affected cases 66,457 and casualties 1,395, and a few protests.
Between December 31, 2019, and February 26, 2020, when China and Pakistan respectively, had reported their first Covid-19 cases, there was enough time for the later to prepare its policy response and alternative strategies to contain the spread of the virus. Undoubtedly, health is a devolved subject; nevertheless, in such a pandemic, the federal government was expected to lead the nation throughout this crisis.
Conversely, confused alone, the federal government gave in to the pressures of social, religious, and economic interests. It is estimated that unprepared policy response, lack of coherent strategy, poor coordination between federating units would result in increasing cases with an expected rise in death rate.
Despite handling the Wuhan episode efficiently, where the government refused to give in to the pressure from various quarters of evacuating 500–800 students, the government gravely mishandled the return of coronavirus infected pilgrims and businessmen from Iran. Pakistan’s Southwestern neighbour, Iran, reported a mass COVID-19 outbreak. Subsequently, those returning were kept together at the Taftan border without having done testing, isolating, and quarantining. Around 8000 of them were found positive when they were tested positive by the provincial governments who are expected to have spread the virus to those whom they were traveling with. The story of the pilgrims returning from Saudi Arabia goes along the same lines. It has also been reported that some of the positive patients bribed the airport staff to reach home and caused the virus to spread around their families.
At the same time, local transmission of the disease had started as well. Punjab government failed to stop a congregation of Tablighi Jama’at at Raiwind in Lahore that was attended by around 150,000 people. 1,926 of them from Pakistan, some of them were tested positive in India and Gaza (Palestine) as well. Thus, they became a source of carrying and spreading the virus nationally and internationally.
In the meantime, the federal government responded by closing western borders (with Iran and Afghanistan), prohibiting large gatherings, closing educational institutions, and cancelling the Pakistan Day parade. Unlike the federal government that went for a partial lockdown on 13th March, the Sindh Government went for a complete lockdown on 24th March, while Punjab a milder form of the lockdown. Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KPK) followed the federal government. Different lockdown policies adopted by the governments generated confusion among the masses.
Supporters of the complete lockdown hail the decision of the provincial government of Sindh by arguing that this policy worked out both in China and New Zealand. While, others, including the Prime Minister, arguing that Pakistan, with a flailing economy, cannot afford a complete lockdown for a month or so. As pledged, Imran Khan turned towards smart lockdown on 4th May despite reporting more than 1,300 new coronavirus cases over the past 24 hours. Furthermore, he reopened more industries and small businesses and clothes and shoe markets on 9th May. As a result, the flooded markets and urban centers caused further spreading of the pandemic that is revealed from the high number of reported cases during the last one and a half weeks.
Additionally, most critical services, including healthcare, health infrastructure, and social protection, are responsibilities of the provincial governments. While border control and aviation remain with the federal government, and provinces lack jurisdiction to tighten surveillance at airports. So privation of consensus and cooperation among the federal government and federating units not only complicated things but also left the federal government to play a minimum role.
Besides, the majority of Muslim countries, including Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, have shut down mosques for prayers. However, the Pakistani state surrendered to the pressure exerted by the religious wings and allowed them to perform prayers in mosques with some Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs). How would these SOPs be implemented? Neither the government nor the religious communities chalked out any plan. Some footages and images show the violation of these SOPs in various mosques across the country.
Moreover, the first COVID-19 case in Camp Jail Lahore was reported on 20th March. He was caught in drugs scam in Italy and deported to Pakistan. Instead of conducting his test and sending it to a quarantine center, he was sent to Camp Jail, where he reportedly spread the virus to more than 60 prisoners.
The number of virus contracted prisoners rose to 97 on 21st April across the country. Since then, authorities have stopped reporting on the virus in prisons. It is pertinent to mention here that overcrowded Pakistani prisons are an apposite environment for spreading this contagious disease.
Last but not the least, Pakistan, without consulting the medical practitioners, has turned towards herd immunity and lifted lockdown in the second week of May. However, the government did neither research on herd immunity nor chalked out any policy. In addition, the rickety healthcare system, weak structural organisation, lack of human capital, and fragile economy are incapable of bearing the burden of people affected as a result of this policy. Coupled with this, lack of education and awareness are not supportive of this strategy. This is manifested from the violation of basic SOPs (issued by the government) like social distancing, use of masks, sanitisers, and what not, in the markets and shops.
To conclude, lethargic attitude, inactive role, and wrong policies caused the spread of the Covid-19 in the country. Had the mainstream leadership been proactive, the possibility of containing the spread of the virus could have been improved.