War against virus

By Tariq Khosa

TO do or not to do… that is the dilemma facing Prime Minister Imran Khan and he is not alone. Many rich economies ground to a halt under stringent lockdowns to contain the contagion but most of the low- and middle-income countries have decided they can’t afford an all-out war against coronavirus.

Mr Khan represents the class of world leaders who are desperately trying to strike a balance between death by disease or hunger. According to him, South Asia is “faced with the stark choice between a lockdown to control the virus and ensuring that people don’t die of hunger and our economy doesn’t collapse”.

In Turkey, people between the ages of 20 and 65 years are still on the job even as the number of infected people soars. A senior minister of Indonesia says that for nations that lack a social security net, “full lockdowns will only lead to more hunger, starvations and deaths”.

Covid-19 emerged in Wuhan, China, in December last year. The World Health Organisation (WHO) declared it as a global pandemic on March 11. Over 2.3 million people stand infected worldwide today, with more than 150,000 deaths from the virus. In Pakistan, the first case was detected on Feb 26. Initially, an emergency operation cell was established in the Ministry of National Health Services under Special Assistant to the Prime Minister Dr Zafar Mirza. As the disease spread, an Emergency Core Group on Coronavirus was set up, again in the health ministry and under the same special assistant.

Unfortunately, Pakistan had passed the point where aggressive, targeted efforts at tracking and containment, like those pursued in China and South Korea, could have a realistic chance of success. Calls for voluntary social distancing did not produce the desired results. Eventually, the gravity of the situation led the federal government to convene a session of the National Security Committee (NSC) on March 13. Patchwork approaches had proven inadequate in the absence of a national plan of action.

My message to the prime minister conveyed through a member of NSC was clear: we need a national lockdown, initially for two weeks in order to protect the citizens. He had to buy time to develop palliative treatments, acquire more test kits and ventilators needed nationwide. Emphasis was placed on gathering data about affected areas and people at risk.

Initial slow response of the government had allowed the virus to spread across the country and it would require a concerted national strategy to ‘flatten the curve’. In order to prevent the hospitals from being overwhelmed, the restrictions had to be sweeping and uniform across provincial jurisdictions.

Finally, an institutional mechanism was put in place and a National Coordination Committee (NCC) on Covid-19 was established under the PM. It was followed by setting up of the National Command and Operations Centre under the NCC. Chaired by Minister for Planning, Development and Special Incentives and convened under a serving lieutenant general of the army, Pakistan finally had a coherent institutional coordination and operational strategy in place.

Being a member of the Federal Relief Commission constituted in the wake of the massive earthquake in 2005, which was based in the PM’s Office under a serving major general, I can say with confidence that Pakistan’s armed forces are well-equipped and trained to cope with such grave emergencies. It is heartening to note that the military as a disciplined institution is devoting all its resources in supporting the government to overcome the pandemic challenge.

It took 67 days from the beginning of the outbreak in China in late December 2019 for the virus to infect the first 100,000 people. In comparison, it took 11 days for the second 100,000 cases and just four days for the third 100,000 cases to be recorded across the world. The number of cases is believed to represent only a fraction of the true number of infections, with many countries, including Pakistan, only testing the affected people in need of hospitalisation. Pakistan has tested about 70,000 suspected cases, about 250 per million people, far more than India (129 per million) but much less than Iran (2,755 per million).

According to our health czar Dr Mirza, we are testing about 2,500 to 3,000 suspected cases on a daily basis now and the testing capacity is likely to enhance to 25,000 daily by the end of this month. More tests are likely to reveal more infections. To cope with that challenge, Pakistan must improve the health emergency response system, including intensive care facilities equipped with adequate number of ventilators.

The prime minister and his team have taken a huge risk by easing the lockdown from April 15 after calculating that the number of deaths from the disease so far has been less than that estimated a few weeks back. They want to safeguard the livelihood of the poor and disadvantaged sections of society.

The government has so far lost one-third of its revenues and exports have dropped by 50 per cent due to shutdowns. The rupee is badly facing the pressure of devaluation. According to Ruchir Sharma, the developing countries are facing unique challenges. They don’t have the resources to put forth stimulus packages in an imminent deep recession. “Their crowded living conditions make it hard to slow the pandemic with social distancing rules,” says Sharma and adds “if emerging nations do impose lockdowns, their weak welfare systems can’t support unemployed workers for long”.

Winning the war against the virus requires shared sacrifice and tremendous short-term hardship for the nation. Failure would entail devastating loss of life and prolonged and deep economic pain. This is the time to lead the nation under stress. A smart nationwide lockdown is the only effective tactic left to face a viral adversary that is constantly on the move. We have yet to “flatten the curve” and our leadership has taken a big risk knowing that easing restrictions could mean a sudden spike in viral infections that could overwhelm our limited health facilities.

This raises the issue of compliance. For interventions to work, people have to comply and they have to sustain that compliance, which largely depends on voluntary efforts and individual behaviour. If the public is going to comply overtime, they will have to be led, inspired or compelled. Trust in authority should not be allowed to disintegrate. A government run with integrity, competence and compassion will save lives and livelihoods. Here is a message for the team leading the national effort: Manage the unavoidable so that you can avoid the unmanageable.

This brings me to the issue of crime and contagion. The pandemic is having a profound impact on society and it is bound to influence and shape organised crime and illicit economy. During the first few weeks of the viral attack on society, the impacts may be difficult to fully comprehend and appropriate responses difficult to gauge. However, it seems clear that the pandemic has reduced some organised criminal activities while simultaneously providing opportunities for new ones, and these changes are bound to have long-term consequences, especially for vulnerable and disadvantaged sections of our society. Law enforcement agencies, especially police, must adopt a proactive preventive and professional strategy during these testing times.

My message to our political leadership during this crisis is simple: sink your differences and combat the contagion together. We are at war with an invisible enemy far more deadly than the terrorists against whom we have met substantial success through national resolve.

The writer is a former IG Police and currently director of the National Initiative against Organised Crime in Pakistan. He is the author of The Faltering State and Inconvenient Truths

Published in Dawn, April 20th, 2020