Approximately, two and a half months after the first COVID-19 case was reported in Pakistan, the number of people affected by this virus has increased to a mammoth 139,230 (WHO stats). Dangerous spread of misinformation, lopsided and incompetent government response, ignorance and cluelessness of the general population, and reckless and, at times, absurd conspiracy theories, are only some of the obstacles the country faces in the colossal challenge it faces against the COVID-19 pandemic.

The spread of the virus started largely due to the perilous and irresponsible mishandling of the pilgrims who had returned from Iran, where the pandemic was already Reported as being dangerously high. It seems that since then, the government has been handling the pandemic poorly, and it has been one unsafe and hazardous decision after another.

PM Imran Khan has been precariously inept and substandard in his handling of the COVID-19 pandemic in Pakistan. In spite of continuous calls for a complete lockdown from the medical practitioners and experts, Khan has refused to pay heed to these appeals, focusing, instead, on the economic repercussions the lockdown may lead to. Khan and his team have issued comprehensive standards of procedure (SOPs) to be followed, while businesses and commerce activities are being carried out, as per usual.

One sympathizes with and understands Khan’s rhetoric, that a complete lockdown could have adverse effects on the already staggering economy of Pakistan, which, in turn could lead to devastating economic consequences for the poor.

"Out of a population of 220 million, almost 150 million are counted among the most vulnerable section” Khan has said. “… non-formal sector, daily wagers, weekly wagers, whose families are dependent on them earning money so that they could eat."

However, it should be noted that there is an exceedingly likely possibility that not imposing a lockdown may lead to a catastrophic collapse of the already weak healthcare infrastructure of the country. In spite of the insistence of the government that enough medical equipment to fight the pandemic is available, the ground realities as stated by the medical professionals seem to differ. There is also a massive shortage of healthcare facilities in the more rural areas of the country, in which most of the population resides.

The government did impose a “smart” lockdown for two weeks, and PM Khan has claimed that it did nothing to control the spread of the virus. However, the lockdown was not imposed under strict measures and there were many instances of people violating it. Hence, the lack of curtailment of the virus cannot be blamed on the ineffectiveness of a lockdown, but on the implementation of it.

PM Khan maintains regular business and commerce activities should continue while following the strict SOPs issued by the government. The implementation of these SOPs, however, is almost an impossible task. Owing to factors such as lack of education and rampant dissemination of conspiracy theories, a lot of misinformation seems to be going around the general public. Many people believe the COVID-19 pandemic to be a hoax by foreign forces. It is due to such propaganda that Pakistan is one of the few countries which has been unable to eradicate polio. Another false information being spread is that Pakistan is misreporting COVID-19 related fatalities, in order to gather larger aid from international donor agencies. There is yet another faction that believes that no such thing as COVID-19 exists.

Such misinformation and spread of propaganda has been exacerbated by the lack of clarity and authority in the information provided by the government at the advent of the pandemic in the country. The seriousness of the virus was initially downplayed by Khan, and some have even criticized the slogan, “we must not fear the Corona Virus; instead we must fight it”, for making the virus seem less threatening than it actually is.

PM Khan’s insistence that the lockdown would be disastrous for the daily wage earners seems even less veritable, when the expenses for COVID-19 treatment in the country are looked at. Entertainer, Fakhre-Alam, recently reported on the exorbitant cost a private hospital had charged his friend for treatment of the virus. It should be kept in mind that private hospitals are where the best equipment and facilities for COVID treatment are. For the daily wager who cannot afford the lockdown, such an excessive cost for treatment would be even less bearable.

Citizens of Pakistan have a well-known record of being charitable, and have been altruistically donating to the cause. The government, too, through its Ehsaas program, has tried helping out those who are grappling with poverty. However, these measures have seen limited results, owing to numerous hindrances. Charitable donations need to be handed person-to-person, which means without proper equipment, this practice would be dangerous. Furthermore, the Ehsaas program requires an active mobile connection, as well as the ability to read the Urdu language. Given the low literacy rate of the country, it is difficult to cater to the entire population through these measures.

Medical practitioners have been particularly vocal against the government’s hesitance to impose a complete lockdown. They have expressed their fear that the lack of lockdown, and favouring the economy over people’s lives may result in a serious health crisis and ramifications. While the government has insisted there is no scarcity of medical equipment for COVID-19, medical practitioners have been lamenting the lack of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) available for them.

Surgical masks are being sold at a relatively higher price, which the daily wage earners, whom Khan keeps mentioning would not be able to afford. Government needs to ensure price-control on masks, especially, but also other such equipment, in order to make these available to the general public. In addition, strict measures to ensure that everyone is wearing masks, carrying out social distancing, and maintaining the other items of the SOPs provided by the government. The plans and actions that were employed to ensure seatbelt and helmets were being used, need to be engaged for wearing protective equipment, as well.

The COVID-19 is global pandemic, one that has caused a worldwide panic and dread. Lack of vaccine and information available, as well as the spread of misinformation has overwhelmed economies all around the world. It is imperative that the government expedite a strategic plan in dealing with this pandemic by employing an evidence and data-based response. The government needs to rethink its priorities and disseminate authoritative and factual messages to the general public, as well as, impose stricter measures, lest the pandemic reach astronomical magnitude.