Author : Sushant Sareen

Expert Speak Health Express
Published on Mar 18, 2020
Pakistan’s tryst with COVID19

On March 15, when Pakistan's de facto health minister Zafar Mirza joined the SAARC leaders video conference on the crisis created by the spread of the COVID19 virus with its origin in Wuhan, Pakistan seemed to be sitting pretty. The pandemic sweeping many parts of the world seemed to only affected Pakistan tangentially. Mirza crowed about Pakistan's efforts to contain the spread of the COVID19 virus and this seemed to be borne out by the numbers – only 30 odd confirmed cases in all of Pakistan. This was very surprising given Pakistan’s close relationship with China, the presence of Chinese workers on various projects all over Pakistan, and the huge numbers of people moving for official and business purposes between the two countries. It was even more surprising because in Pakistan's west – Iran – COVID19 had  already spread magnanimously. The number of infected people in Iran was increasing geometrically. What was more worrying, was the fact that the epicentre of the outbreak in Iran seemed to be religious centres like Qom, from where a large number of Pakistani pilgrims were returning home, even before Pakistan woke up to the crisis and decided to close the border. Therefore, the number of 30 infected patients seemed utterly incongruous, especially since Pakistan had been rather tardy in taking the measures required to contain the outbreak of the virus.

A day after the SAARC video conference, the number of COVID19 cases rose sharply to 52. Many of these additions to the tally were people who had come from Iran. But panic bells started ringing when after another day the number went up four-fold to touch 237 confirmed cases. A bulk of these cases are in Sindh and most of those affected are pilgrims who had come in from Iran. Interestingly, the Sindh government has been the most pro-active in taking steps to contain the spread of the virus, a fact acknowledged even by Mirza. And yet, the speed at which the virus is spreading in Sindh points to the systemic failure in monitoring the thousands of Pakistanis returning from Iran. According to the Sindh government, the quarantine facilities created in Taftan in Balochistan are quite pathetic. A virtual tent city was created in the middle of the desert to quarantine the returnees, but there were a lot of slippages. As a result, many of the infected people transferred the virus in various parts of Pakistan. Even otherwise, the conditions in the camp were so unhygienic that even a non-infected person was likely to either contract the virus, or even some other disease.

Given the clampdown on the media and the tight control over what news can be disseminated – after a couple of stories about how Chinese workers were suspected of being infected by the virus in Punjab, there has been complete silence about the possibility of Chinese carrying the virus into Pakistan – the only source of information coming out of the region is on social media. More than focusing on containing the spread of the virus in Pakistan, the focus has been on going out of the way to appease the Chinese, express solidarity with them, and ensure that they don’t get embarrassed even if it means forsaking Pakistani citizens. Given this policy, the mainstream media has mainly been reporting government handouts, conveying an impression  that Pakistan has everything under control, when clearly it doesn’t. Even the spread of the virus to a place like the shia-dominated Gilgit Baltistan region of Pakistan occupied Kashmir can be traced to Iran. This is despite the fact that Gilgit Baltistan shares a border with China. But, since the border was closed in part because of winter, and in part because of the COVID19 outbreak, it appears there has been no flow of the virus from China to this region.

The other area of concern for Pakistan is Afghanistan. For now the border has been sealed. But given that many virus carriers from Iran were from Afghanistan, who in turn might have infected the thousands who cross the Durand line daily into Pakistan, it is being feared there could be an outbreak in the Pashtun belt of Pakistan in the days ahead. This is also because even though a health emergency has been declared in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, this step might have been taken a little too late in the day. In Punjab meanwhile there have been only a handful of reported cases, but it is now being suspected that nearly around 800 returnees from Iran who have been kept in quarantine in Dera Ghazi Khan might be COVID19 positive.

The thing is that until now, it seems most of the infected people are either those who have travelled to one of the COVID19 hotspots or people who have come in contact with them – family members etc. But whether many of these people have transmitted the virus to the community at large remains unknown for now and will  probably be known within the next two weeks. The fact that many of those returning from Iran were allowed into Pakistan without proper screening, and even those from European countries might have gone untraced and mixed with their communities raises even greater concerns of the infection going viral very quickly.

Compounding the problem for Pakistan is the fact that there are serious questions about how well prepared, even how aware, the authorities are of the problem they could be confronting, especially in light of the quite dysfunctional health system in the country. Then there are the cultural factors that make ‘social distancing’ difficult. Add to this a sense of false bravado and bluster that makes a virtue out of ignoring basic precautions. And finally, misplaced priorities of the government – targeting, even jailing, critics and opponents, reluctance to shut down religious gatherings (including in mosques) and the delay in calling off spectacles like the T20 cricket league, to name just a few – all have come in the way of containing the virus when there was still time.

Pakistan is one of the three polio endemic countries in the world. Political violence, vaccine boycotts  and mass disinformation campaigns have marred the country’s efforts and led to a resurgence of the disease recently. In a time when people’s trust in the health system is low, it remains to be seen how Pakistan implements measures like isolation and contact tracing, often through the same polio eradication teams. While a lot has been made about the first-ever National Security Committee meeting held on an issue of public health, the meeting came about as a result of the military’s concerns that the Imran Khan government wasn’t displaying the requisite seriousness to meet the challenge posed by the COVID19 crisis. Until the NSC meeting, Imran seemed quite nonchalant about this crisis, as a result of which there was a general sense of drift in synergising efforts to contain the crisis.

Having wasted precious time, it remains to be seen if Pakistan will be lucky enough to escape the ravages of the virus that originated in their ‘Iron Brother’, or Pakistan will gladly bear the price of its ‘higher than Himalayas, deeper than oceans’, and now lethal as COVID19 virus’ friendship with China.

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Sushant Sareen

Sushant Sareen

Sushant Sareen is Senior Fellow at Observer Research Foundation. His published works include: Balochistan: Forgotten War, Forsaken People (Monograph, 2017) Corridor Calculus: China-Pakistan Economic Corridor & China’s comprador   ...

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