The number of coronavirus infection cases and deaths has been rising rapidly, yet from the way the shoppers and shop owners behaved during the easing of lockdown, infections are likely to spike to unmanageable levels. Voicing a common concern, Special Assistant to the Prime Minister on Health Dr Zafar Mirza said, “it feels like the public has assumed that the virus has been eradicated." Expressing the regret that the people are not following the standard operating procedures (SOPs), he said after Eid holidays the government would again analyse the situation, and if needed, reconsider the relaxation, going on to appeal to the people to play their role in stopping the spread of the lethal virus.

Indeed, the people have been ignoring the guidelines issued by the health authorities. But the signals they get from the federal government leaders are also to blame for it. They have been making statements that seem to play down the severity of the threat like when the PM's Special Assistant said the number of cases across the country was a lot less than the projected estimates. Or when various PTI leaders make light of Sindh government's insistence on prolonging the lockdown. Or when the Federal Minister for Planning and Development Asad Umar averred that the coronavirus has not hit this country as badly as it has the US and several European countries. Or most importantly, when during a recent speech Prime Minister Imran Khan said that the decision to impose the lockdown was taken by the “elite without thinking of the poor." That seems to suggest the government has decided to let the disease run its course in hopes of achieving herd immunity, (a tried and failed strategy in the UK) without having the capacity to cope with the consequences. Already in Sindh, where the provincial government is more upfront with acknowledging the high incidence of Covid-19, hospitals are reported to be full beyond capacity. The National Disaster Management Authority Chairman Lt-Gen Mohammad Afzal, though, claimed on Tuesday that there were 10,944 ICU beds in 365 public sector hospitals, and 679 ICU beds in 52 private hospitals, and that currently only about 20 percent, or 2,211 ICU beds, were being used. Moreover, he said, public sector hospitals have 72,000 beds and private hospitals 6,000 beds which can be converted into ICU beds, if required. So far Pakistan has over 68,000 reported cases of Covid-19 and 1,441 deaths. But the numbers are increasing by the day. At this rate they are likely to inundate the healthcare system.

The government finds itself caught between the devil and the deep blue sea. Understandably, it has to strike a balance between saving lives and livelihoods. Already millions of people have lost their jobs, and nearly half of the small enterprises could go out of business. Experts warn that the coronavirus scourge will persist until a vaccine is found; meanwhile, people have to live with the virus. Ways have to be found to avoid it through tracing, testing and quarantining suspected infectees. The government's claims to be following that path, but the trouble started with its risky decisions such as unlocking of markets for long hours for Eid shopping and giving in to the demand of ulema to allow opening of mosques for mass prayers under SOPs. The government needs to take a tough stand in all such situations, allowing opening up in a careful manner. It must also impel people to adopt protective measures against the invisible enemy lurking all around.

Copyright Business Recorder, 2020