Covid Pakistan
Workers check disinfection tunnels at the Capital University of Science and Technology in Islamabad Image Credit: AFP

COVID-19 is making a comeback in Pakistan but very few are paying attention. The official warnings are growing and fresh media campaigns are on to tell a heedless public that the virulent virus is making use of dry and cold weather and is spreading fast. From the president down to local administrators and in between any number of ministers are ringing the alarm bells.

The interior minister, Ijaz Shah, three days ago suggested that a lockdown was inevitable in case infections continue to rise. Islamabad, the capital city, is back with shutdown schedules and penalties for violation of the all-mask policy. In one week alone nearly a dozen streets of the city were sealed on account of rising infections. Private sector experts are also in a state of heightened anxiety. A social media post that got exceptional circulation amid dripping political activity has a rather dark prognosis of COVID-19’s second wave in Pakistan.

More on Pakistan Second Wave

“I am a consultant physician in Chughtai Lab and can confirm that cases are increasing at very rapid pace. We are getting a lot of positive patients and daily we see lots of CAT scans with severe pneumonia due to COVID-19. As public have stopped following precautions and media is not actively showing anything, I fear massive damage. I did one survey on a doctors-only group where doctors from all across Pakistan participated and the comments were alarming. Cases are increasing rapidly in all cities and people are dying. I request you all to understand Corona has not gone yet. Please, please, please follow these precautions,” pleaded the good Smartian.

But for all its hype and projection, the get-serious-or-else message has few takers. The all-mask policy announced in Islamabad for instance has been an utter failure. Hardly anyone wears the mask and the threat of financial fines has not been implemented with any recognisable sincerity. Social distancing remains a mirage. Urban centers are filled with people who jostle for space in shopping malls and open-air grocery markets. Transport remains unaffected by the SOPs insisting on alternate seating. Medical stores do not report any significant increase in the sales of masks and sanitisers.

Quick and full reopening

This is so unlike the first wave of Corona which brought with its arrival mass scale fear and voluntary compliance. The streets were deserted and life in most parts of the country came to a grinding halt. Handwashing material, masks, gloves became precious items, and nebulisers sold for gold. As infections rose and death count averages looked ominously close to that of Italy and Spain, even stubborn and desperate business lobbies gave into national health demands. Even when officials tried to dilute the impact of the lockdown in the earlier phase, the pressure from the medical community, health professionals and political friends and foes alike was too much to openly back a quick and full reopening of the country.

It was only a surprising fall in infections and deaths around July and August in Pakistan that made the government to bring life back to normal. This was followed by much back-patting and congratulatory official meetings that noted with “satisfaction how well the Corona menace was defeated”.

The illusion that the virus had miraculously spared Pakistan even as it wrought havoc elsewhere has since been drummed so much that now the public does not take the second wave seriously. This is more so since nothing much seem to corroborate the official warnings about the deadly return of the virus. Death counts while going up, hover at two dozen a day. Hospital data is either not being shared properly with the central command Centre or simply does not back the claim that the COVID-19 second wave is becoming a tsunami.

More crucially, officials themselves talk at cross purposes. On the one hand they speak of the need for strict implementation of the SOPs and on the other hand allow most hubs of the COVID-19 spread to continue to operate. Marriage halls for instance are still functional and there is just a slight adjustment in their timings. Social gathering spots like coffee shops and tea house along with food markets are required to shutdown an hour or two early and that’s about all. Airports, trains, public and business transport has a business-as-usual outlook. Schools have just reopened after a weeklong break.

Impact on the economy

It appears that the governments at the Centre as well as at the provinces are themselves averse to the idea of raising the return-of-COVID red flag beyond a certain point lest it should have devastating impact on an already suffering economy. While speaking from both edges of the mouth in a pandemic situation isn’t the best way to get the official point of view registered, Pakistan’s economic situation is so precarious that another major shutdown can setback the country by many years. Already the first wave impact is acutely felt with nearly 15 million losing their jobs in the last six months, according to media reports.

Most officials that I have spoken with agree that Pakistan at present is in the “grey list” of the second wave from where it can slip further into a dangerous situation or come up stronger and better like it did earlier this year. “It all depends on how the public reacts to the messages we are sending out,” says a key member of the National Control and Command Centre that deals with national level initiatives and policy coordination on the subject.

“If they read the tea leaves accurately and listen to what we are saying, we will be safe. If not, we might land in the black list faster than we think.” But the problem is that the public would not listen to what the government is reluctant to say, and, more importantly, what it can’t see in the news. Until that happens COVID-19’s present phase will remain a secondary national issue, trailing behind economy and politics.

Syed Talat Hussain is a prominent Pakistani journalist and writer. He tweets at @TalatHussain12