Although COVID-19 is not yet over, the world has changed, and governments have already started asking questions such as; what went wrong? What could have been done better? How can a similar scenario be avoided or mitigated in the future? However, as a nation, as usual, we are stuck in the blame game and political bickering. Following the international lead, the government—both at federal and provincial levels—along with taking steps to control and contain COVID-19, should now be thinking about operating in a post-COVID-19 environment, with the possibility that this contagion might not go away soon, and a similar contagion might appear in the future. There are unambiguous lessons to be learnt from the present COVID-19 contagion.

First, the contagion spread due to lax border controls. Hence, in the future, SOPs should be made which should be automatically in operation whenever a contagion is reported at the international level. Also, these SOPs should identify countries with high levels of diseases such as hepatitis and TB so that people arriving from these countries may be screened. This is especially true in the case of our neighbours, with whom we have extensive movement across borders. Facilities may be set up on our side of the border to facilitate screening and inoculation.

Second, there was an apparent failure of national and provincial disaster management authorities to devise a unified strategy to control the contagion. The National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA), with its mandate to respond to national emergencies, should have had prepared a national plan for approval by the National Disaster Management Commission (NDMC), of which the PM is the head and the chief ministers are members. Later, NDMA could have coordinated with the concerned ministries and provincial authorities to implement the approved plan. However, due to a lack of integrated political leadership, there was a cacophony of claims. The NDMA was holding rather belated press briefings, ministers were airing their opinions on the situation, while the Prime Minister and chief ministers were, and still are, trailblazing in their paths.

Third, most of the information on COVID-19 such as the patient’s symptoms, possible medicinal treatment, quarantine and SOPs came from international health bodies such as the World Health Organisation or from countries where the contagion had already reached pandemic level, such as China and Italy. However, our institutions—whether national or provincial, failed to generate timely information for local dissemination. Similarly, affected countries generated statistical data on COVID-19 patients according to their age, race, etc, which helped show which segments of the population were more susceptible to the pandemic. Our institutions have failed to compile such data. Such an exercise would have proved useful in controlling any future contagion, while not forgetting that diseases such as hepatitis and diabetes are already running amok in our country, and we need concerted national-level efforts to control these diseases. Also, there is much discussion in print and electronic media of a worst-case scenario statistical model depicting the population level to be affected by COVID-19 in Pakistan, created by a famous UK institute. However, the question is; why could our national and provincial institutions not comment on such statistical maps, let alone produce possible statistical models of COVID-19 spread scenarios?

Fourth, the contagion forced a prolonged lockdown which led to massive layoffs and left the government scrambling to provide aid to the vulnerable population of the society. This problem was no more accentuated than in our neighbour, India, where thousands and thousands of daily wagers lost their jobs due to the COVID-19 lockdown and were forced to walk hundreds of kilometres—along with their families—back to their ancestral towns. Many died on their way. Although a disaster of such magnitude did not happen in our country, identifying the vulnerable strata of society was hindered by the absence of digital data of the entire population.

In short, the fight against COVID-19 turned out to be more political gimmickry, with politicians taking centre-stage and the people suffering, as usual. On the contrary, this contagion should have been handled by teams of professionals, both at the national and provincial level. The teams should have consisted of, among others, epidemiologists, statisticians, managers, and should have: handled press briefings, fed the national and provincial governments a unified strategy and collected and collated statistical data to adjust and modify the contagion control strategy according to the changing ground conditions and international feedback. Accordingly, the experience gained could have helped in controlling existing and future contagions.

In retrospect, we need to strengthen the capabilities of our national institutions and have key performance indicators in place to regularly monitor the performance of national and provincial institutions. Further, SOPs should be established at national and provincial levels to handle emergencies. Also, we need to develop digital data of our population which would help to provide inputs to any strategies and plans which might be needed to put into place in case of any emergency or disaster.