Pakistan’s response to the Pandemic, Originated from Wuhan-China in 2019, Corona Virus had been declared a pandemic by the WHO on 11th of March, 2020 (BBC, 2020). Till date, more than 32 million cases of the virus have been detected worldwide (Al-Jazeera, 2020), severely affecting the lives of the people. Pakistan makes it to one of the most badly affected countries by the outbreak of Covid-19. With the first two cases being reported on the 26th of February, 2020, there has been a significant increase in the number which has reached a total of 309,581 confirmed cases with a death rate of 2.1% as of today (GoP, 2020). The impact of the virus on the health of the people is clearly evident from these striking digits. At the same time, it has been an overwhelming experience even for those who have not contracted the virus and managed to remain safe from it. The outbreak has critically impacted the lives of the people in Pakistan and the socio-economic effects are being felt with a great intensity. This essay aims to discuss the impacts of Covid-19 on the health, economic and social sectors of the country alongside the policies and actions taken by the government to fight them. Further this essay will also discuss how the response of the government towards the crisis situation has been and how did the policy levers performed.
After a strict country-wide lockdown was imposed on the 23rd of March, everything came to halt. The businesses and trade stopped, the MSMEs (Micro, small and medium sized enterprises) and daily wagers faced a severe setback as the country got hit by serious economic crises. According to a general analysis, Mehran Men were the most vulnerable; they had to experience immediate layoffs, salary cuts, no relaxation in rental expenses along with bearing private school fees to keep their children’s education dreams alive. Adding to this was the fear and stigma attached with contracting the virus which has also affected the psycho-social well-being of the people, resulting in reported cases of suicides (Farooq, et al., 2020). As a nation, we might be able to cope up with SOP’s and the new normal but the after effects on the economy and mental health would last long. Interestingly, in Pakistan there is an economic disparity where we have three major societal segments. A- lower B- Middle and C- Upper class. We call the middle class (The Mehran Men) the most vulnerable one because of following reasons:
1- They drive the country with their employment
2- Run majority small to medium businesses
3- Pay wages to lower-societal labor segment
4- Have to pay installments for electronics, house rental, shop rental and car mortgage
5- Cannot keep their kids out of school, have to bare fees
6- Respectfully obey upper level bosses by accepting salary cuts and going home on forced leaves
7- Work from home, further blurring the lines of work & home time, which adds to menace of work life balance.
First puncture to Pakistan’s Covid-19 shield
There’s no doubt in the fact that the government has kept the pandemic as one of the top most concerns and have taken some notable actions to curb its spread and affects. However, despite all these efforts, some major lapses existed at every step (Javed, Sarwer, Soto, & Mashwani, 2020). The major negligence at the government’s end was to let the pilgrims from Iran enter Pakistan through the Taftaan border. Handling and dealing done at the quarantine centers near this border was where the government badly failed and we witnessed a spike of cases in the country. Therefore, it won’t be wrong to state that the Pakistani government could have handled the situation of Covid-19 in a much responsible manner and the cases reported due to person-to-person transmission within the country could have been controlled at the initial level.
Major challenges encountered
With the outbreak of the virus came a number of challenges for the country. The biggest challenge, for the government and health authorities, that came in along with the surge of coronavirus cases was the lack of medical equipment, beds and ventilators which led to the collapse of the national health system. It is a known fact that Pakistan is one of those countries which spend the least on its health sector. At the time of the outbreak, the health sector was already under stress with a ratio of one bed to 1,608 people and one doctor to 963 people (UNDP, 2020, p. 8). With a population of over 210 million, the country was short of testing equipment, ventilators, life saving medical equipment and protective gears for the medical staff, and so had to depend on China for these. There’s no doubt that Pakistan had taken rigorous measures to cope up with the lack of resources and specialised hospitals by converting the dormitories, hotels and expo centers into quarantine centers in major cities of the country (Waris & Basit , 2020). Ventilators, hand sanitizers and masks were also made available at an urgent basis within the country. But unfortunately, these did not prove to be sufficient to cope up with the rising cases.
How an emergency national health policy backfired?
Moreover, the immunizations of the diseases like Polio and Measles also had to stop due to the rapid spread of the corona virus and because basic PPEs were unavailable to the vaccinators. Already, annually 4000 children in Pakistan do not get vaccinated. With the standing polio cases at 146 in 2019 (UNDP, 2020), the scenario created by the outbreak posed a serious threat to the children. As reported by Dr. Afzal; a pediatrician in KPK, there has been an increase in the reported cases of these vaccine-preventable diseases (Mukhtar, 2020).
Apart from the health sector, the global as well as the national economy had to face a severe set back due to the outbreak. With the Corona Virus outbreak, it has been reported that Pakistan has already lost one third of its revenue and there is a 50% drop in the exports of the country (Junaidi, 2020). Moreover, as per the reports of the World Bank, the GDP growth is expected to fall by 1.3% for the FY20 and if the virus continues for a much longer time period, the GDP may contract by 2.2% (Bank, 2020). While everyone is going through major economic crises, the most vulnerable ones have been the daily wagers and MSME’s. With the announcement of lockdown came financial struggle for them. Approximately 4 million people are daily wagers in Karachi alone, with another 4 million in punjab, which are largely hit by the outbreak (Shafi, Liu, & Ren, 2020). According to the Pakistan Labour Force survey of 2017-18, the unemployment rate was 5.8% which have had a noticeable increase during the pandemic. This is because the demand and supply of resources greatly reduced, there was a shortage of raw materials and problems were faced in regards to the logistics (Shafi, Liu, & Ren, 2020). The trade was temporarily stopped and the businesses had to face a severe loss due to the cancellation of export products. This resulted in many people losing their jobs. According to the Ministry of Planning, 12.3 million to 18.5 million are expected to lose their job as a consequence of the outbreak (Latif, 2020).
Impacts on well-being of masses
This economic recession, combined with the fear of contracting the novel virus have had a huge impact on the mental health and psycho-social well-being of the people. In Pakistan, the nation-wide lockdown resulted in job insecurities, food shortages and extreme levels of poverty leading to a number of suicide cases in the country. Since January 2020, a total of 29 suicide cases were reported, out of which 16 were linked to the pandemic, as per the data of July 2020 (Mamun & Ullah , 2020). 12 of these people suffered from economic crisis whereas the other 04 had the fear of contracting the disease.
While lockdown and social distancing had played a significant role in safeguarding the physical health, it has adversely affected mental health. Physical isolation is one of the major factors that has caused the psychological distress within the people (Farooq, et al., 2020). Not being able to meet the loved ones till months had been nothing less than a traumatizing situation. Adding to this is the fact that the mental health patients had to face difficulties in order to get their regular treatments done due to the virus. Already the ratio of psychiatrists to mental health patients is one to 50,000 in the country with only 0.4% of the GDP allotted to the mental health sector (Farooq, et al., 2020). Fortunately, the mental health emergency had been recognized by the country and a number of steps had been taken to tackle this challenge. A mental health help line called ‘mental health telemedicine helpline’ was launched to help those in distress. Along with this, the website; http://covid.gov.pk/, constantly updated the citizens with authentic information regarding the virus and also provided measures to relieve anxiety and stress (Farooq, et al., 2020).
PM’s Ehsaas program initiative
Prime ministers ‘Ehsaas’ program had also been launched to provide economic, mental and social relief to the vulnerable groups alongside social platforms providing constant information on how to prevent contracting the virus and adopting a healthy life-style. Along with this, social media sites like WhatsApp and Skype had been the source of connection for the people, but these virtual communications cannot compensate for the physical meetings that are a huge stress reliever for these patients.
The literature shows some of the action the government had taken to control the effects of the virus on the lives and economy. A ‘National Action Plan for CoronaVirus Disease (Covid-19) Pakistan’ was also introduced in March which laid down the objectives, frameworks and policies to be adopted during the time of crisis. However, this essay is of the stance that the respective departments and the government could have dealt with the pandemic in a much more responsible manner, saving a number of lives and minimizing the element of chaos and distress created within the country.
Development of coronavirus wave
A- Poor travel associated policies.
The first and the foremost mistake made by the government was allowing the pilgrims from Iran to enter Pakistan through the Taftaan border. It must not be forgotten that the first ever reported case within Pakistan was a travel associated case and the patient had traveled from Iran.
B- Incumbents lack of understanding on quarantine.
Later, there was a spike of reported cases from the quarantine centers located near the border. As per the reports on the 25th of March, at least 51% of the cases were traced back to the Taftaan quarantine camps where, despite the threat of contracting the virus, people were pooled in a single space and there was an inadequate amount of screening (Hashim, 2020). A pilgrim at the Taftaan camp reported to Al-Jazeera that 5 people were living in a single camp and there was no proper separation of the healthy from those who were infected.
C- Lack of availability of protective gears to health staff.
Then, another highly irresponsible step at the end of the health sector was to force the doctors and the para-medical staff to work without any protective gears, making them vulnerable to the virus (Hashim, Pakistan arrests doctors protesting for coronavirus medical gear, 2020). Initially, only 1,200 kits were provided to the frontline doctors and when they came out for a strike, young doctors were arrested in Quetta and put under prison (Dawn, 2020). A total of 58 healthcare providers including 42 doctors and 13 paramedical and other staff have lost lives to the virus by 2nd July and a total of 5,367 healthcare providers had contracted the virus (Bhatti, 2020). The fear of contracting the virus due to lack of protective measures also led one young doctor to commit suicide in Sindh (Gulzar, 2020). This clearly shows the lack of preparedness the government had to fight the pandemic. The health sector lacked infrastructure and the critical-care staff was limited. The patients were mishandled by the un-qualified staff and their lives were placed at sake. Still the new budget reserved less than 1% of the GDP for the healthcare sector, as stated in the annual report of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (Basharat, 2020).
Economics impacts of Covid-19
To counteract the negative effects of the crisis, the government of Pakistan had taken loans of millions of dollars from its G20 creditors, IMF, World Bank, Asian Development Bank and Islamic Development Bank. Out of these, the dollar 200 million package approved by the World Bank was solely focused towards reducing the effects in the social and health sectors whereas the disbursement of dollar 1.386 billion by the IMF was a financial support to boost the countries foreign exchange reserves (Basu, 2020). Despite huge grants from the international community, the government had miserably failed in coping up with the socio-economic impacts. There had been an inconsistent implementation of the policies, the ‘National Action Plan for CoronaVirus Disease (Covid-19) Pakistan’ was not followed and the healthcare facilities remained insufficient throughout the pandemic. Even the rupees 12,000 package that was distributed among the poor people lacked proper planning. Benazir Income Support Program, BISP was modified into Prime Minister’s Ehsaas program and the relief money was distributed to only those who were registered under BISP (Basu, 2020). The rest continued to suffer from extreme levels of hunger and poverty. This is because there was no reliable data present on the families that were affected by the Covid-19 crisis. Not only this, the WHO had recommended to conduct a total of 20 million tests out of which only around 2.5 million had been conducted, as per the data of 5th August (Basu, 2020). The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan also stated in its report that the government’s response to the pandemic had been unsatisfactory. Even the UNDP pointed out that ‘Pakistan wasn’t able to take decisive action against the scenario as its administrative and political structures lacked direct contact with the people at local level’ (Basu, 2020), exposing the flaws in the structure of our government.
Second puncture and lack of trust in the Health system
Furthermore, despite knowing the conditions of the country, the government lifted the lockdown just before the arrival of Eid-ul-Fitr which resulted in a spike of cases. After the celebrations of the festival ended, every family had some members which carried symptoms of the virus. But the trust in the institutions of government had been shattered to such an extent that people refrained from getting themselves checked as the conditions of the quarantine centers were worse off. If not the virus, people thought that they’ll die due to the mistreatment or depression if they handed themselves to the health workers.
Opening of academic institutions
Later, despite reporting an increase in the Corona viruses cases ten days before the academic institutions were scheduled to open, the government did not revise its decision and the institutions reopened, from the 15th of September, under strict SoP’s. Unfortunately, despite strict instructions issued by HEC, a spike in the number of reported cases are being witnessed within the academic institutions with 7,796 active cases by 26th of September. As per the news reports, a total of 22 institutions were closed within 48 hours of reopening, demonstrating how particular we as a nation are when it comes to adhering to the laws.
Split views on policy matters to handle future spread
Now there’s a clear picture of how this pandemic has torn the socio-economic fabric of the society, leaving millions of people largely affected. The world also now knows about the lack of coordination and agreement among the key authorities within the country. At the time of a crisis, it is the government and the leaders upon whom people look up to, but in the case of Pakistan the conflicting views of the key authorities led the citizens in a state of utter confusion. On the 23rd of March, a nation-wide lockdown was announced by the spoke’s person of Pakistan military whereas the Prime Minister himself opposed this idea just a day earlier. Similarly, there was no coordination in the actions taken by the provincial and the federal governments.
The media platforms are divided on their views about how successful different sectors and the government had been on their response to the pandemic. There’s no doubt that loans were taken, supplies were provided to the hospitals, new quarantine centers were built, telephone helplines were established and campaigns were launched throughout the country to guide the citizens about the virus and warn them about the do’s and don’ts, but despite these steps, what lacked the most within the government was the disaster management ability. Covid-19 has been a tool which unveiled the incompetence of the government. This pandemic has badly crushed the confidence and the trust the people once had in the government institutions and their abilities. Public now knows that if a disaster hits the country anytime soon, the government is least prepared to fight against it. In a country where the entire focus is on the political rivalries and letting the opposition down, there’s not much that the people could expect.
The cases in the country are still increasing with every passing day and the second wave is yet to come. Coronavirus have had a tremendous impact on the health, economic, social and political sectors of the country and it will take years to bring life back to normal, or; this might become the new normal. As a nation, what are we waiting for and how are we looking forward to cope with calamities like this pandemic? As a citizen of Pakistan what do you think? Share your views in the comment section.
Pakistan’s response to the Pandemic: References
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Bank, W. (2020). South Asia Economic Focus, Spring 2020 : The Cursed Blessing of Public Banks. Washington DC. Retrieved from https://openknowledge.worldbank.org/handle/10986/33478
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