The forecast outside is of black ice and Pakistan is on a slippery slope on skis. Our initial response to the crisis of COVID-19 was quintessential Pakistan. We buried our heads in the sand and pretended that it didn’t exist, or it wasn’t serious enough to merit a strategic policy. We played it down as just a common flu but now we worry that this flu might wreak havoc in the country. Our initial assessment was woefully wrong.

But now as I write this column, there are a total of 2714 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Pakistan. A lot of these cases are self-reported where the patient themselves comes in reporting to be ill. This is a red flag as this could mean the reported numbers of positive patients is a gross underestimate. Once the government starts testing the masses, that is when we will come to know the true extent to which this disease has spread across the country.

To lockdown or to not lockdown, a partial one or a curfew like lockdown? We wasted precious time over this even when a lockdown was being enforced in parts of the country. At a time when we most need clarity of thought and conviction from the top down, we are ambivalent even in the first stage of our response. It is indeed noble to care for the livelihood of the poor, but dead men don’t pay debts. There is no other way to flatten the curve of the spread of the virus as it has come to be known all over the world now. And if successful, flattening the curve will only buy us more time to put into action a well thought out response. A lockdown is not the solution. It will only help create an environment for managing the pandemic such that our hospitals and paramedical staff can cope with the influx of patients.

We have already had a doctor – Osama Riaz – martyred fighting this disease in the line of duty. He might not have contracted the disease himself had there been Personal Protection Equipment (PPE) at his disposal. Even several days after his sad demise there are many countless doctors crying hoarse over the lack of personal protection while treating COVID-19 patients. Local engineers and textile firms are now being mobilised to prepare PPEs, low-cost ventilators and Corona detection kits-in the midst of this pandemic. Is this the preparation we were told was in place to tackle this novel virus head-on?

The next stage of our battle will require for us to test the population on a massive scale. Those who test positive for the coronavirus will have to be quarantined and a very accurate contact history search will have to be carried out. From the public places they will have visited to the people they would have been in contact with, a very elaborate mechanism for track, trace and quarantine will have to be established and implemented. The lockdown can then partially be eased in those areas were testing reveals negative cases. However, collection of accurate, actionable and timely data in this regard will be crucial.

Privacy of our citizens will also be a huge concern, as well as the stigma that people will be quick to attach to Corona positive patients. We need to avoid scaring and dehumanising patients of this pandemic which may consequentially further spread the disease. It will be interesting to see if the government considers publicly announcing the movement patterns of corona-positive patients so that those who have been in their vicinity can come in to be tested, thus saving on time.

The government has done well to announce a financial package to cushion the impact of the financial downturn that is to come. The involvement of the armed forces is another praiseworthy step. It is the only institution in the country with a proven track record to deliver when natural calamities have struck the nation.

The recently announced corona relief fund depends solely on the goodwill of the people. For it to be successful the incumbent setup must regain the lost trust of the public and the best recourse for that is to strive for a collective national response. Mere sloganeering will not achieve that. All stakeholders including the opposition will have to be onboarded with the government’s strategy and that will not be possible if there is an overwhelming feeling that a segment of the opposition is being unfairly treated. There will be other more opportune times for sensational optics. The nation is looking for leadership in such a time of crisis. Will the people concerned please stand up?