A gloomy outlook – Abdul Sattar


Ignoring the impassioned appeals of the medical community, the federal and provincial governments have eased the lockdown prompting people to throng markets, shops and other places. The ease was announced at a time when the country was already witnessing a phenomenal surge in corona cases that are likely to haunt our doctors, nurses and paramedical staff. Our health system risks getting overwhelmed while fatalities may also rise as our faltering health system will not be able to handle the flood of patients that might show up at hospitals and clinics.

Our leaders, masquerading as messiahs of the masses, seem least concerned about the plight of people and the medical community. Images of Punjab Governor Muhammad Sarwar and his tedious acolytes visiting a hospital of the province with all his comrades wearing N-95 masks and the doctor talking to them with a mere surgical mask clearly indicate the apathy of our ruling elite towards the front-line warriors, several of whom have already laid their lives while hundreds have caught the various. It is difficult to understand why the government does not consider all hospital staff as front-line workers, providing PPEs to only those posted at isolation wards.

A wise course would be to consider every patient a potential carrier. Such patients interact not only with doctors but front desk clerks, nurses and other staff members as well. Many patients came to hospitals with heart, kidney, liver and other problems but also turned out to be corona carriers upon tests. Therefore, all staff at hospitals should be declared as front-line workers and be provided with PPEs.

The hunger strike of doctors in Punjab demanding PPEs and press conferences of the medical community did not deter the government from taking this imprudent decision that may have deadly ramifications in the coming times. Ironically, the government is not ready to extend the required facilities to the warriors who are risking their lives for the sake of the nation’s future. Adviser to the PM on Health Dr Zafar Mirza revealed some time back that the country had 500,000 N95 masks. The question is: where have those masks gone? Where were they distributed if the majority of the medical community is working with simple surgical masks which are not an effective defence against this deadly virus? One may argue that if N95 provides a strong defesse against the virus then what is harm in extending it to the medical community?

The government made tall claims about the provision of PPEs. We were told that so and so department is ready to produce PPEs but doctors still complain a lack of such essential equipment. Doctors in Quetta, Peshawar, Karachi and Lahore claim to be raising funds to buy these equipment. The government should come up with the total number of PPEs, stating clearly which hospitals received such equipment and in what quantity.

As the outbreak ravages through the country, it is clear that we are going to badly need ventilators. We were told that the country had over 2000 ventilators and more were being imported but all provinces are complaining about the lack of such lifesaving devices. Karachi, the largest city of the country with over 15 million population, is believed to have less than one hundred ventilators while the entire province with over 30 million souls is said to have a few hundred lifesaving devices. Sindh Health Minister Dr Azra is warning about the shortage of high dependency beds which are crucial in fighting the battle once the situation gets worse.

Now with the easing of the lockdown, the number of cases is likely to witness a steep rise. The country saw the highest number of cases in the past few days. A report some days ago claimed that the country would have around 150,000 cases by the end of May while some international organizations believe it could rise as high as 200,000 by mid July if effective preventive measures are not taken but it seems that instead of taking such steps the state is leaving it up to citizens to deal with this apocalyptic disease that has even unnerved the best minds in the advanced capitalist world.

The government’s concern about the plight of poor people is understandable. It is concerned about the possible closure of around 1000 institutions that might render around 18 million people jobless besides pushing 70 million below the poverty line. But lavish bailout packages for the country’s elite fly in the face of Prime Minister Imran Khan’s claims regarding the government’s concern for poor masses. If he were genuinely worried about the hapless souls, he would have allocated the entire bailout package to mitigate the sufferings of slum dwellers and other sections of marginalized communities. It is strange that the elite benefit during the tenure of all governments, no matter who is at the helm of affairs. It is not too late. The government could reverse the package pumping that money into welfare programmes for the poor and imposing a strict lockdown until we witness the downward trend in the cases.

The state is also shying away from presenting a true picture of corona cases which is not possible without enhancing the testing capacity. We were told that it would be raised to 25000 cases a day. Now we are told that our testing capacity is 30000 tests a day but the pace of testing contradicts this claim. Instead of vigorously testing people like South Korea we are reducing the number of testing. In Balochistan, it is now very low while Punjab also reduced the number of tests some days ago, inviting the ire of various sections. Italy with a population of around 60 million conducted more than 2.3 million tests, Spain with a population of 46.94 million conducted 1.9 million tests while with a population of over 200 million, we only conducted 244,778 tests by May 7. No policy can work until we have a true picture of cases for which we must enhance our capacity on war footing basis.

To arrest the spread, we must put an end to this home quarantine. We should rather test people, isolating the affected people and shifting them to special corona wards. It seems that home quarantine is not working. Kaptaan did not turn the PM House into a university. It is time this expensive villa is converted into a quarantine center. Governor houses, chief minister houses, parliament lodges and all hostels for elected representatives should also be converted into quarantine homes. If the government lacks funding then let it come from the pocket of those who plundered the nation’s wealth in sugar, wheat and IPP scams.

The government should impose heavy penalties on all such people, diverting the money to corona battle. If timely action is not taken then Pakistan risks becoming another Italy or, God forbid, maybe even worse than that. In addition to that, thousands of doctors and paramedical staff should be recruited on an urgent basis instead of forcing the medical community to work for 12 hours.

The writer is a freelance journalist.

Email: egalitarianism444@ gmail.com