The Coronavirus Debacle

Source: ARY News

Covid-19 or the disease caused by the Cov-SARS-2 Coronavirus was declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization on March 11. Perhaps but probably a bit too late. It was a bit too late because only then had governments around the world had started to take the threat of the coronavirus epidemic seriously.

The last new year’s eve, I suspected that 2020 would prove to be an ominous year, but never in my wildest imagination could I expect the Chinese authorities to report the first coronavirus case to the WHO on December 31. The outbreak occurred somewhere in November 2019 and was named covid-19, caused by the Cov-SARS-2 virus that closely resembled the virus causing the SARS epidemic in 2003. The Chinese Communist Party initially tried repressing it, even punished the doctor who blew the whistle to alert about the threat. However, the sheer number of casualties and patients went out of hand and soon even a communication ban could not prevent the impact. The world was cautiously and horrifyingly watching the videos of people dragged away to the quarantine. China had dealt with more than one epidemic in the recent past. They probably knew what they were doing or so it seemed.

On March 8, many of us in Pakistan were at the Aurat Azadi March. Many others were attending weddings, religious and political congregations. I knew on the back of my mind that it was dangerous but considering the social and political atmosphere of the country, it had become too important to miss. However, in the retrospect, organizing the march was risky, if not a mistake. The pandemic had reached Pakistan’s borders already and even days later some of the March’s organizers were calling on the government for a shutdown.

Like most populist and conservative governments around the world, the trend we are currently seeing in Brazil and Mexico, the government of Pakistan remained in denial for a long time. The same was true for Italy and Iran. The same was true for Spain and the United States. The same is true for India. Realizing

While Ashraf Ghani was taking oath after getting reelected in Afghanistan in a controversial and close election amid explosions, and while Pakistani people were outraging about Mohsin Dawar and Ali Wazir attending the inauguration, and while Pakistan was mostly obsessed with Aurat March placards and PSL, the coronavirus had reached Pakistani borders.

On March 9, Pakistan only had 5 cases and nobody in the country was talking about it.

Even nobody in the United States was taking it seriously other than California, the state which probably had the earliest cases.

By this time, the novel coronavirus epidemic had reached disastrous proportions in Iran and Italy, countries which had also remained in denial about the threat. Meanwhile, the outbreak has been largely controlled in South Korea and Singapore, which had a tough February with it. They carried out very aggressive testing after meticulously tracking cases and limiting the infection. Japan followed the same path. Meanwhile, China would still take a couple of weeks to come close to easing an extremely strict shutdown in the Hubei province.

The 5 known cases had entered Pakistan through the Taftan border in Baluchistan from the afflicted province of Qom. These were pilgrims visiting holy shrines in Iran and returning. While many expect the Baluchistan government to handle the quarantine of these pilgrims, their entry and disaster relief was a federal subject, especially considering the funds involved.

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Nevertheless, Dr. Zafar Mirza, visited the Taftan camp on February 28 and expressed his satisfaction over the facilities. Days later, the quarantined patients escaped citing unbearable living and sanitary conditions. Many of them were later subjected to a similar detention camp-like facility in Dera Ghazi Khan. While nobody is necessarily blaming the pilgrims or another religious congregation, and that the pandemic had to find its way in the country in one way or another, the Taftan debacle certainly helped propagate the infection.

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By this time, many of the pilgrims arrived in Sindh and were sent to a quarantine center established in Sukkur. The Sindh Government, perhaps the first among the provincial governments to realize the gravity of the crisis, started pressing the federal government over a nationwide lockdown.

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However, religious groups continued to pose problems for the government, as is evident by the protest of the quarantined pilgrims and violation of protective protocol at the Sukkur Quarantine Center, a feat by the Sindh government usually maligned for incompetence.

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Until March 19, while the Sindh government was making strides to control the coronavirus cases, the Punjab government was still not taking the crisis seriously. The Punjab government was acting as if the infection in Sindh could not reach Punjab, with even its officials ignoring social distancing advice instead of informing the public. As a matter of fact, revelations about the approach of the Punjab Chief Minister created quite a bit of media hype.

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Apart from that, around the same time, the federal government was still wondering about the extent of the problem, while the staff of the largest hospital in Islamabad issued a grave warning about the challenge ahead. Later several doctors in that hospital would get infected and quarantined.

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Around that time, the federal government had completely different priorities, such as shipping cooked desi food to the stranded Pakistani students in Wuhan.

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To add insult to injury, the annual Tableeghi Ijtema at Raiwind near Lahore was to take place for which Muslim missionaries and preaching delegates had arrived from all around the world. It is not like your formal conferences with good accommodation facilities, but an informal gathering with a center of gathering with compromised hygiene and sanitation. Many social and political commentators and media called on the government to ban the congregation but the Punjab government allowed it to happen. Later, the tableeghi jamaat would cause dozens, if not hundreds or thousands, of infections in Punjab, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, and even Sindh. Even two positive cases from Gaza Strip are reported to have attended the tableeghi congregation in Pakistan.

After the pandemic status was declared by WHO on March 11, the media had started making noise about the coronavirus threat. It ignited a new debate pressured by certain circles within the media and the Sindh Government on whether to enforce a nationwide lockdown or not. The absence of the Prime Minister in terms of communicating to the nation was also criticized until things got even worse when he did address the nation.

In an address to the nation that could be considered to be misleading the people, he declared that covid-19 was just a form of flu. He did not recommend a lockdown or even appealed to the religious clerics or tableeghi jamaat to suspend their religious congregations, but stressed social distancing and precaution at the same time. All in all, he downplayed the crisis in the manner of any conservative government currently in power around the world without a word to assure the provinces that the federal government was with them.

Misrepresenting the demands of lockdown as effectively a “curfew,” he declared that a complete lockdown was impossible for Pakistan considering a huge number of the population lives below the poverty line. However, despite the risk of people going hungry and out of work and possible food shortages, there was no assurance from the national leader. Even the young Ammar Rashid of the Awami Workers Party had better ideas for the labor and working class.

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It was perhaps this reason that the very next day, the military, Imran Khan’s original installers, had to intervene and announced their own lockdown plan, assuring that the armed force is prepared to take on this crisis. The Punjab government also announced a 14-day lockdown  Either the government was playing good cop, bad cop with the people or the Prime Minister was completely out of touch with the necessary policy for fighting the outbreak.

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The citizen breathed a sigh of relief when his next address had some hope of a relief package, including income relief for the underprivileged. However, that too was plagued with partisanship. While the Prime Minister did the right thing to announce. He kept on insisting that a complete lockdown will be impossible because of. Talking to media in the Prime Minister House, he had earlier implied that the curfew will remain to be the last resort. However, when addressing the nation, he remains to be confused about the lockdown, which is inevitable in the situation and not something anybody is asking for out of pleasure.

Incompetence is one thing, a PTI trait that most people in the country have come to learn by now, but intentional partisan divisiveness in a crisis and misinformation amount to malfeasance. The Prime Minister has repeatedly told the public that the covid-19 pandemic was just like another flu. This was obviously false information that nobody should believe. Here is how covid-19 is different from and more dangerous than flu.

Paradoxically, the confused leader has also repeatedly been appealing people to self-isolate and to maintain social distancing. The only consolation is that his record on public advice was not as atrocious as Boris Johnson, who tested positive for covid-19. Still, Imran Khan’s federal government remained lax on the Friday prayers issue until the provinces were forced to take measures to ban congregations without locking the mosques down.

While we stand firmly behind our government to overcome the pandemic crisis, the least the public can expect from the government is honesty. Unfortunately, most of the innocent people of Pakistan have no clue what kind of a pandemic disaster is potentially threatening their lives. Hardly any country in the world has the means to properly fight this crisis but misleading the public, especially about the protective precautions. And even his solutions such as the “Tiger Force,” a youth recruitment drive to take rations and awareness campaigns to communities, reek of partisan bias and have already been rejected by the opposition.

The government must continue to learn lessons from its mistakes and ensure that the people have supply relief as well as universal basic income delivered to their doorstep.

By the end of March, we have more than 2,000 cases of coronavirus and more than 20 deaths. If we do not take stricter measures, offer a viable channel of aid relief through the military, and do not flatten the curve, we could be waiting for a disaster the likes of which we have never seen before.