Our COVID-19 response strategy

While the number of COVID-19 cases in Pakistan has increased exponentially, the government is being severely criticised by the opposition parties for its failure to contain the spread of the virus in the country. As of June 14, there are as many as 132,405 confirmed coronavirus cases, and the death toll has risen to 2,551 in Pakistan. Thus, Pakistan has just become the fifteenth worst-hit country by coronavirus in the world. It is really alarming that more than 5 thousand such cases have now started surfacing every day in the country. A large number of parliamentarians, ministers, public officials, media persons, celebrities and health workers have been tested positive. As our public sector and private hospitals are overwhelmed with COVID-19 patients, the government looks somehow clueless about how to deal with this extraordinary situation. At present, there is hardly any viable national response strategy to meet the formidable challenge of fighting this deadly pandemic in Pakistan.

The current spike in coronavirus cases in Pakistan is being largely attributed to the government’s policy to gradually ease lockdown restrictions without ensuring the effective enforcement of COVID-19 safety SOPs in the country. We have just observed people of Pakistan recklessly flouting such SOPs in their ordinary daily pursuits. The World Health Organisation (WHO) has also recently expressed its concern over the government’s decision of easing lockdown restrictions in Pakistan without fulfilling conditions precedent for relaxing such restrictions. It has urged Pakistan to re-impose some kind of public lockdown restrictions to curb the spread of the disease. It has suggested to the Punjab government imposing “intermittent” lockdowns of “two weeks on, two weeks off” to effectively combat the virus in the province. Furthermore, it has also advised the government to enhance its daily testing capacity to 50 thousand to precisely assess the actual prevalence of Coronavirus across the country.

My column titled “The case for easing lockdown” appeared in this newspaper on April 13, this year. In this column, I keenly made a case for evolving a strategy for easing or relaxing lockdown restrictions imposed across the country since March 24. I advised the government to gradually relax restrictions for few sectors of economy after devising and enforcing COVID-19 safety protocols/SOPs for each sector. I suggested opting for a policy of targeted lockdown whereby only a selected or affected area might be quarantined or cordoned off if a significant number of confirmed or suspected cases were reported rather than imposing a nationwide lockdown in the country. I also suggested enhancing the institutional capacity of National Command and Operation Centre (NCOC) besides forming some vigilance committees at district level to effectively monitor and evaluate the threat. The government later adopted and announced a similar strategy after naming it a “smart lockdown”. The targeted “tracking, tracing, testing and quarantine (TTQ)” was the salient feature of the government’s new strategy.

The primary reason for my advocacy for relaxing lockdown restriction in the country was, of course, mitigating the adverse impact of these restrictions on the county’s economy as well as private businesses which were already not performing so well. Secondly, the government had also failed in evolving any viable strategy to provide some kind financial assistance to a large number of affected Pakistanis. It remained obsessed with absurd ideas like constituting a “Corona Relief Tiger Force” to provide relief to corona-affected people. Nevertheless, I also advised the government to switch back to a strict lockdown if the situation worsened in the country.

Unluckily, we have yet not succeeded in responding to the coronavirus challenge in Pakistan as one nation. The government and the opposition remained divided over finalising the nitty-gritty of a response strategy to fight this deadly pandemic. So, as it often happens, politics took precedence over the pandemic. Our politicos remained busy in playing politics over this sensitive issue to serve their narrow political ends. The government still looks in no conciliatory mood in making the opposition parties part of the formal consultative process to wage a united war against the pandemic. On the other hand, these opposition parties are only busy in criticising the government’s anti-pandemic policies rather than playing any constructive role in a time of national crisis. Political rhetoric continues to rule the roost.

The provincial governments were indeed supposed to take a number of necessary measures to combat coronavirus, ranging from capacity enhancement of their healthcare system to ensuring compliance of COVID-19 safety SOPs. Regrettably enough, they did not bother to seriously improve the state of their healthcare system to accommodate maximum number of patients. Also, they could not effectively enforce safety protocols once the federal government decided to ease lockdown restrictions across the country last month. Making things worse, the apex court also chose to intervene in what was essentially an executive matter by further relaxing lockdown restrictions. In fact, we have yet to witness the so-called smart lockdown anywhere in the country as announced by the federal government. Consequently, a free-for-all situation has developed where nobody is willing to take the pandemic seriously.

Since our healthcare system is no longer in a position to absorb more COVID-19 patients, some concrete actions must be taken to put an end on the exponential growth of cases in Pakistan. The government should seriously revisit its current response strategy against the virus by imposing some public restrictions besides ensuring compliance of preventive SOPs across the country. At this stage, the government should evolve a multi-pronged strategy involving some multi-level lockdown restrictions models to be imposed in different cities and areas keeping in view the nature and magnitude of the threat of transmission there. Such threat perception should now alone determine the level of public restrictions to be imposed in any particular city in the country for at least next two months. I believe the time for imposing the so-called smart lockdown is over. Now, we have to take decisions for each city in its entirety rather than identifying the “hotspots” within cities to impose partial lockdown restrictions.

There have been some alarming reports about the high prevalence rate of coronavirus cases in Lahore. The recent surge in the number of cases in the city has essentially reinforced such reports. Indeed, we cannot afford to allow Lahore to become an epicentre of coronavirus spread in the country. Therefore, it is advisable to impose stricter level-1 public restriction in Lahore for next few weeks. We also need to impose level-2 restrictions in other major cities including Karachi. Similarly, the level-3 restrictions may be advised for rest of the country. Notwithstanding any level of such public restrictions, the concerned authorities should strictly make people wear face masks and maintain safe distance at public places. A Command and Control Centre should be established in each province to effectively monitor the enforcement of preventive protocols besides improving the capacity of our healthcare system to absorb more patients across the country.

Mohsin Raza Malik
The writer is a lawyer. He can be contacted at mohsinraza.malik@gmail.com

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