COVID-19: Lessons from China
Javed Hafeez
Coronavirus has spread like a forest fire in many parts of the world. With the death toll almost at 12,000 people, it is the most serious epidemic to hit the globe after the Spanish Flu of the early 20th century. The mutated form of the virus is not as deadly as previous strains of influenza but its main challenge lies in its fast expansion. It is already challenging the capacity of many governmental medical systems and also compelling humans to change their social interaction patterns. Apart from that, economic and commercial activity has been hit hard globally.
However, Chinese control of this epidemic was as impressive as its spread was dramatic. Chinese authorities distributed millions of facemasks, erected big medical facilities within days, used surveillance drones to track movements of citizens in the infected region and ran an intensive awareness campaign through media. They also developed a cell phone application that tells citizens whether any infected person had been in their vicinity on a particular day. The city of Wuhan has remained locked down for months. It is a huge logistics exercise to supply food and other essentials to those confined to their homes. However, that impressive task was accomplished and the number of deaths in China, due to Coronavirus, is now at a minimum with no new local infections reported in Wuhan.
Pakistan, by comparison, still remains one of the less affected nations. The number of confirmed cases stands currently at roughly 530 people and three persons have succumbed to death. The bulk of these infections occurred among those who had traveled to Iran recently. There are thousands of Chinese people working in Pakistan but not a single case of this disease has been reported in their community. Pakistan’s borders with Iran, India and Afghanistan are closed but the government has decided to re-open the Pak-China border.
Pakistan was a little late in grasping the severity of the situation. Moreover, it was ill prepared to tackle thousands of citizens who rushed back, by land route, to cross Taftan border with Iran. Sindh province has a majority of confirmed cases and its government has risen to the occasion. All educational institutions, wedding halls and shopping malls have been closed for the time being. The idea is to inhibit the community based transmission of the virus. People have been advised to confine themselves to their homes over the weekends. However, the compliance to governmental advice leaves much to be desired. Let me admit that we Pakistanis are not as disciplined a lot as the Chinese are.
A lockdown of Pakistani cities on the pattern of Wuhan or Milan in Italy is well nigh impossible. Daily interaction at family level and within friends is part of Pakistani social norms. Over and above, visiting a sick relative is deemed a social duty. Moreover, those who work on daily wages must leave their homes to earn their livelihood. Similarly, people who own small businesses cannot afford to keep their workplaces shut for any length of time. Prime Minister Imran Khan is well aware of that and has, therefore, ruled out that option. A concerted campaign is being run on print and electronic media to publicize preventive measures. Pakistan has made a coronavirus health certificate mandatory for all passengers coming by air, but on Saturday, the government suspended all incoming international flights for a period of two weeks. Europe is a major destination for Pakistani textiles and garments. Import orders from countries like Italy have been affected and that is bound to impact Pakistani exports negatively. The government may also have to compensate factory workers who may lose their jobs for some time.
Though Pakistan cannot duplicate the Chinese model of containing this deadly virus, it can learn quite a few lessons. First, is the importance accorded by China to preventative measures. This could be achieved by limiting inter-city travel and creating more isolation centers for the patients. The second lesson is that digital technology can be effectively used to trace the movements of citizens, particularly those already infected. The third lesson is that Standard Operating Procedures, once agreed upon, must be followed in letter and spirit. Pakistan also needs to improve center-provincial and inter-provincial co-ordination. Fortunately, opposition leaders are fully cognizant of the fact that the grim situation calls for national level co-operation. People’s Party leader Bilawal Bhutto stole the lead in this regard and was nationally applauded. Former Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi has also offered his party’s co-operation to fight this menace. Things are moving in the right direction.