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The Trouble With ‘Smart’ Lockdowns: Global Lessons For Pakistan

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Carolyn Orban, a medical anthropologist at the University of Missouri, in Columbia said, referring to the 1918 flu pandemic which consumed 50 million people all over the world – including 675,000 Americans, “As with all pandemics, in 1918 you had a tension between biological reality and socioeconomic reality. Biology is not changeable, but the behaviour is. So yes, social distancing was absolutely a thing in 1918, and where it was practiced, it worked.” Orban said that a large number of people simply did not trust the strategy of social distancing because they got bored of not seeing their friends and families and the influence of the special interest groups who were worried about their potential monetary losses due to the social distancing. The evidence is presented by some historians who quoted some private letters written during the time of the pandemic, by family members to each other. “The mother is saying, ‘We all need to be patient, lay low and wait it out,’ while the daughter is saying that she’s had enough of no school and no friends, and she’s planning a Halloween party, just as the highest number of deaths are happening,” Orban explained.

The world is observing very similar debates and pressures again during this COVID-19 pandemic. The main question is: what is the best strategy to contain COVID-19? The whole argument about the lockdown or Shelter-In-Place is getting into a deadlock.

After the number of cases began to grow in the US, and the debate on how to control the growing pandemic heated up, in the state of California, during March, Governor Gavin Newsom initially ordered the Shelter-In-Place in six counties where the cases were growing faster and then in a week, he imposed the Shelter-In-Place order in the whole state when more reports began to emerge from other cities. That was the time when New York, New Jersey, and some other states were debating as to what should be the strategy to control the spreading pandemic. New York’s Governor Andrew Cuomo virtually rejected the Shelter-In-Place idea because, in his view, it would not work in New York, People would regardless go to contiguous states and spread the virus. within days the daily cases in California started to go down, while New York became the epicenter of the virus. After New York almost all over the US, Shelter-In-Place was observed which significantly slowed down the spread. Once the lockdown was relaxed again in May, the new cases started to grow again.

“We’re very concerned that our public health message isn’t resonating. We continue to try to figure out how to penetrate the message with different groups. The pictures that the chairwoman showed me are great examples of serious problems,” said the head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Dr. Robert Redfield, when on June 4, during the congressional hearing, a congresswoman showed him photos of groups of people at the Lake of the Ozarks in Missouri over Memorial Day weekend and crowds in Florida that had assembled to watch the May 30 launch of the SpaceX Dragon crew capsule.

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In California, although the cases are suddenly growing rapidly – according to one report, from the middle of the last week of May to early June – just in a week’s time, almost 40% more new cases were recorded all over the state. Still, a systematic opening of the businesses is underway In Los Angeles and San Francisco. Large groups are seen going to visit beaches and other areas, which is significantly reducing the effectiveness of restrictions on travel between the counties adjacent to each other. After the riots and demonstrations in the reaction to George Floyd’s death, healthcare experts are worried that the US will see a jump in new cases even further within the coming week or so. In Silicon Valley, most of the tech companies are recommending that their employees work from home unless they absolutely have to come to work to perform their jobs. If they come, their body temperatures are checked at the entrance, they are provided with face masks which is mandatory for every employee inside the building, everyone has to keep disinfecting their hands using highly concentrated (over 70% alcohol) hand sanitizers which are provided and at the door and every employee has to sign a medical declaration that they did not have any flu-like symptoms when they enter the building. While in the office, they are not allowed to have social gatherings, office visits or even the use of meeting rooms and coffee rooms.

One clear lesson can be learned from the 1918-20 Spanish Flu pandemic and 2020 COVID-19 pandemic: that to contain the disease, social distancing may be the only way. The more people go out and interact, the more chances there are for it to spread.

Another lesson is that there is no such thing as a “Smart Lockdown”. People cannot be forced to follow the protocols unless they are asked to stay at home and they are deprived of their access to public places like malls, beaches and other neighbourhoods of their interests. It is true that the lockdowns affect the economies and people who live on daily wages have no other way to make money. But priorities should always be the saving of lives. Instead of opening everything, there must be some restrictions on people’s movements until the vaccines are available. The myth that high temperatures will destroy the strength of the virus is already proven to be wrong because if that was true, southern California (where the highest number of cases in California are recorded), Texas, Florida, etc would have had the fewest reported cases. Looking at the map of the US and the world, one can infer that thickly populated areas and areas of tourist attractions have a very large number of cases compared to those which are not too attractive for tourists and are lightly populated. Just looking at California map, the Los Angeles, Orange, and Riverside counties have the highest number of cases reported, while the northern part – other than San Francisco — has a fewer cases.

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So what is there for Pakistan to learn?

Recently, in one of the private-channel TV shows in Pakistan, the anchorperson asked her panel about their opinion on the best strategy to contain the virus. Some of the panelists, who usually present themselves not as independent analysts but more of the government’s self-declared spokespersons, began justifying the government’s action of so-called “smart lockdown” while the others demonstrated some reluctance in answering the question.

In Pakistan, the federal government simply could not develop any clear strategy to fight COVID-19. From day one, the government was under pressure from the business community and struggling with its dwindling economy because of its incompetence and inability to prioritize important issues.

First, the Prime Minister insisted that COVID-19 is only a flu and it can be harmful only to people over 75. Then he publically opposed the idea of lockdown. The next day after he opposed it, the Army’s spokesperson announced a country-wide lockdown. It was somewhat unusual for the country which claims to be a democracy that the politically elected PM would order one thing and the next day the military would order something in total contrast. Later, the PM came back again and told the people of Pakistan in his televised speech that he was not in favour of a lockdown but some “elites” forced the decision. Then he changed his stance and allowed the markets to open with some standard operating procedures (SOPs). The next day, the world saw huge crowds in the markets, malls, and other tourist attractions without any respect for the SOPs. Then the Supreme Court intervened and ordered to open even those businesses which were still closed. After the new cases began to shoot up, once again the PM asked for the new SOPs but in the same speech, he urged to reopen all the tourist spots and guest houses in the country. The Gilgit-Baltistan government are refusing to open the businesses because their Coronavirus cases are barely 900 with no loss of life. They fear that if the tourist resorts are opened, the spread of the disease, brought by the tourists, will be rampant.

Pakistan will have to come to terms with the reality that a pandemic is a pandemic and it will spread in the same way as it does anywhere else in the world. There is nothing special about Pakistan or its people and no reason to believe that the virus would treat them differently than it treated others.

The government’s idea of a “smart lockdown” is flawed because people do not follow SOPs established by the government unless there is a serious accountability process attached to them. Pakistan needs a real strategy.

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Naya Daur