From the beginning there has been something amiss in Pakistan’s response strategy to contain the coronavirus crisis. An inept government and a non-cooperative public have proved a deadly combination. The result is the mounting number of Covid-19 cases and fatalities.
With over 180,000 cases, Pakistan has passed the official count in China, the first country hit by the scourge. Official estimates say that at the present rate, the infections may reach about a million by the end of July.
To begin with, the government’s contradictory public messaging created a lot of confusion and people generally did not take the emerging threat seriously. Matters were made worse by a slanging match between the federal government and the Sindh administration which stood in negation of any action taken by the Centre. Along the way, some of the government ministers tried to underplay the virus threat which was highly irresponsible in a country of 220 million people with a weak healthcare system.
The problem is that large sections of Pakistanis still have not yet shown adequate awareness of the seriousness of the situation. During Eid holidays, families came out in large numbers along with their young ones for shopping. Health workers warned of the risks involved in the overcrowding of bazaars, but nobody cared, with the result that within two weeks the number of positive cases rose exponentially.
Pakistan now has the 16th highest number of coronavirus cases in the world, while the government remains clueless about how best to tackle the situation. A number of weird conspiracy theories and the emergence of a growing tribe of quacks and quick fixers have made the situation worse. For example, an impression has gained ground among a section of society that reporting their symptoms to a hospital or a health worker means certain death. Some people also believe that the government is trying to show more fatalities in order to collect money from international aid agencies and donor countries.
There is a general tendency to follow dangerously fatalist and superstitious approaches rather than paying heed to science and health experts. In order to dissipate the cobweb of superstitions and rumours, the government needs to come out with a unified statement and an orderly policy to inform, educate, and protect the masses. But this has not yet been done.
High government officials’ unclear and ambiguous public statements and flip-flopping announcements – a lockdown, a smart lockdown and finally no lockdown, all without flattening the Covid-19 curve — further deepened the disbelief among the people about the official capacity to deal with the situation.
When the epidemic broke out in December 2019 in China, Pakistan’s northeastern neighbor, and a little later in Iran, the government allowed free entry to pilgrims returning home from abroad. This was the beginning of the epidemic in Pakistan. As late as March, the government of the Punjab allowed a religious congregation in Lahore which was attended by over 100,000 devotees from all over the world. The pilgrims, who returned from abroad, later turned out to become the main agents of spreading the virus to other cities. Health experts kept ringing alarm bells about the threat and asked for a strict lockdown. But their voice was not heard, rather it was drowned out by the tales of economic woes of the business community, and calls from clerics asking believers to return to mosques for congregational prayers.
As things stand today, we are in the midst of a full-blown epidemic crisis which does not brook any leniency or carelessness on the part of the authorities. According to an official report, “no workplace and residential area is disease-free” in the city of Lahore. The same goes for other major cities.
One can understand PM Imran Khan’s concern when he speaks of the problems of the daily-wage earning class hit by the lockdown, but in view of the exponential rise in the number of corona cases over the last few weeks, a judicious mix of measures needs to be developed to contain the worsening health crisis while allowing limited economic activities for the most needy and deserving.
In the prevailing circumstances, a two-pronged strategy is required. One, for the smart lockdown to succeed, the standard operating procedures should be ruthlessly applied and all violators should be fined heavily and/or arrested. We are an undisciplined nation and brazenly break the rules made for our own safety. Harsh measures are the need of the day.
Secondly, we need to launch a mass awareness campaign to educate the people about the critical nature of the health threat we face. To this end, the government should constitute panels of medical experts who should be on the TV 24/7 to communicate to the people basic information on the symptoms, diagnosis, treatment and preventive strategies to combat the coronavirus. The programmes should also have phone-in sessions to give advice and answer questions from members of the public.
The goal should be to spread authentic information and build confidence among the people as to how best to protect themeselves from an invisible enemy lurking in every corner. There are many apps, websites, TV ads, social media messaging, etc. but people need a 24-hour question-and-answer forum.