It's Too Late To Talk About A 'Smart Lockdown'. Someone Please Inform Prime Minister

It's Too Late To Talk About A 'Smart Lockdown'. Someone Please Inform Prime Minister
"Singapore failed to take into account one vulnerable segment of society. The virus made sure the mistake didn't go unpunished. We have remained oblivious to the plight of all vulnerable groups in this country", writes Muhammad Nafees

‘Don’t work hard; work smart’. This is what managements tell their staff all over the world. Developed countries also prefer an efficient workforce over a cheap one, knowing the long-term benefits of such a policy. I am sure this is also the reason behind PM’s ‘smart lockdown’ idea. The idea, on paper, is great and no sane person can disagree with it. But the question is: How will this act of maintaining the balance between these two crucial challenges be achieved?

Flying remained a dream for man for millennia but it remained unrealized until a practical method was developed through the dedicated efforts of the scientists to achieve this goal. What we are currently dealing with in the form of COVID-19 is quite complex. It’s an unprecedented threat to human lives from a tiny virus whose modus operandi is yet a mystery. It can reside in the body of its victims without even giving a sign of its presence but in many cases, it forces its victims to seek medical help. It does not discriminate based on class, color, or religion. It has an outreach that goes from one end of the globe to the other and no climatic condition can deter its onward march.

The latest experience of Singapore is an eye-opener for many countries. A few weeks ago, Singapore was being cited as an example for the world in the fight against COVID-19. Despite being very close to China where the Coronavirus had first made its appearance, Singapore was one of the few countries that had managed to contain the spread of this pandemic by strictly adhering to aggressive and innovative disaster management practices. The day the news of ‘Wuhan infection’ (10 January) came to light, Singapore immediately took precautionary measures. The very first thing it did was to place a strict testing system at the airports to identify infected people entering the country from Chinese cities. The officials took it upon themselves to board planes arriving from China to assess passengers and quarantine them where required.

Preparing for the worst-case scenario, the Singapore government made a proactive plan to stockpile supplies and recruit hundreds of reserve soldiers to engage in the production of surgical gloves and N95 masks. By the end of January, they had 44 million surgical masks and 2 million N95 masks in stock and their testing capacity had reached 2,200 cases each day. The first case of COVID-19 surfaced in Singapore on 22 January and by 20 March, there were only 345 verified cases and no fatalities at all – a success they had managed to achieve without disturbing normal life in the country. China, on the other hand, had to opt for a different method to fight this outbreak. Wuhan district was placed under complete lockdown and all other places showing signs of the spread were also forced to follow the same procedure. Despite all these strict measures, the number of cases recorded in China by 20 March 2020 was 80,967 and the death toll had reached 3,248.

Singapore had emerged as one of the most successful countries to have restricted the spread of this pandemic without applying the kind of strict measures China had used. But while they were still rejoicing, a sudden upsurge in the number of cases took the Singaporeans by surprise. The government had shown laxity for only one week and the virus made sure that the mistake didn’t go unpunished.

On 9 April, Singapore reported 200 cases of COVID-19 that were detected in South Asian migrant workers and as a precautionary measure, the government quarantined four large dormitory complexes, housing tens of thousands of mostly South Asian workers. (Singapore has a large migrant workforce from China and South Asia. Out of 300,000 migrant construction workers in Singapore, 200,000 are from China and the rest of them are mostly from South Asian countries who live in crowded quarters with more than one occupant each. Writing on the miserable condition of the migrant workers in Singapore, the International Business Times made these observations: “The way Singapore treats its foreign workers is not First World but Third World. The government has allowed its employers to transport them in flatbed trucks with no seats. They stay in overcrowded dormitories and are packed like sardines with 12 persons to a room.")

The smart anti-COVID-19 policy of Singapore neglected the unfortunate workers due to Singapore’s traditional attitude towards them but mother-nature decided not to discriminate between the privileged and the unprivileged classes, unmasking an ugly and neglected reality of Singapore. Between 20 March and 28 April, Singapore recorded 14,606 new cases – nearly 490 new cases per day on average – and 14 fatalities. It’s far more serious a situation than what Singapore had experienced when COVID-19 was at its peak in the region. Yet, Singapore is managing this new wave of the pandemic in a far efficient compared with Pakistan.

Someone needs to tell Prime Minister Imran Khan that it is too late to talk of smart lockdowns. Singapore failed to take into account one vulnerable segment of society. We have remained oblivious to the plight of all vulnerable groups in this country. Smart moves demand smart and proactive actions. Did we take any proactive measures? The answer is in negative. Most of the infected people coming from Iran and other countries couldn’t be traced and quarantined at the entry points. We couldn’t stop the massive Tablighi Ijtema at Raiwind in March. We failed to stockpile PPEs in time. Each of these failures is now going to cost us.

Every day, we get reports of doctors, paramedics, and other health workers being quarantined throughout the country. This shows the kind of protection they are being provided.  According to NDMA, 4000 ventilators are currently available in the country and 700 more are due to arrive by June end. Since 16 April, more than 622 new cases, on average, are being added daily to the tally. If this trend continues at the same rate, nearly 40,000 more cases will have emerged by the end of June. Would 4,000 ventilators be enough for these patients?

We are now left with very few options to fight this onslaught by the virus. One of them is to keep fighting the pandemic on a day-to-day basis and take action as and when the virus strikes. Another option is to make a realistic assessment of the vulnerable segments of the society, like health workers, security personnel, factory workers, couriers, refugees, prisoners, and slum dwellers, etc., and start mass testing them for the virus. We also have to protect all those persons whose job requirements make it necessary for them to go out and perform their duties even during the lockdown.

People have great hopes and expectations from the government and failing to live up to these expectations will be very harmful to both the rulers and the ruled. This is a challenge that will test the mettle of all the key players in this fight against the pandemic.

The author is a freelance journalist and researcher. He is affiliated with the Center for Research and Security Studies as Senior Research Fellow. Earlier, he worked for a multi-national company GE Aviation, USA in Karachi for nearly three decades.