The Great Covid-19 Mystery Of Pakistan

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Hospital staff pray before joining their shift, outside a hospital setup for coronavirus-infected patients in Quetta, Pakistan. | Photo Credit: AP

Given its initial infection rates, no one knows what thwarted a full coronavirus assault

Syed Talat Hussain

IN the history of recorded global pandemics, fewer turnarounds of infections are more spectacular than the one Pakistan is witnessing at present.

Before mid-July the country looked set to become a South Asian version of Spain or Iran in terms of COVID-19 spread.

The vicious virus after a slow start early this year made up for the lost time and began to take a heavy toll on the population, killing and infecting at quadrupling rates.

Hospitals were choking with patients; paramedics were sending out SOSs; policy planners, both at the centre and in the provinces, were bracing for mass scale deaths.

As prominent personalities — musicians, political leaders, writers, doctors, teachers, soldiers — fell to the onslaught of the pandemic, the ordinary mortals felt particular insecure. Some took refuge in the voodoo of local antidotes that ranged from black tea to wild bush oils.

Businesses shutdown and mobility of goods and services came to a grinding halt. As helplessness raged, some became brazen and expressed their fears by pretending that the virus did not exist even when they buried their loved ones after thinly attended last rites and according to strict protocols officials enforced.

But then, miraculously, in a span of 40 days — mid June to mid July onwards — the virus seemed to suddenly run out of homicidal steam.

Death, infections, and active cases graphs first plateaued and then declined precipitously as recovery rates moved in inverse proportion.

To get your head around this COVID-19 U-turn consider this: On the 13th of June 6,825 news cases were registered on a single day, which most likely was an underestimate because of the country’s low testing ratios.

Death count is down

Last week, these cases had shrunk to just 634. On June 19 the daily death metre showed 153, which again did not reflect the reality since many families chose not to take their dying to the hospitals. Last week the death count was 8.

Now if you land in Pakistan — you can because international flights have resumed — you would not know that the world is still in the midst of a pandemic that has killed hundreds of thousands, caused trillions of dollars trade and commerce losses, ruptured supply chains, and has rendered centres of the world economy paralysed with fears of an economic depression akin to the Great Depression.

The government has announced full restoration of economic, logistical, and business activity led by prime minister Imran Khan who lately has inaugurated some of the country’s biggest construction projects in a desperate attempt to bring out green shoots of employment and commercial activity.

You would also see the people, never fully compliant of the dozens of life-saving guidelines that WHO and local health officials drummed in vain, now not wearing masks or sticking to social distancing at all. Marriage halls have opened up with crazy booking schedules — one had 12 in a day — and schools are slated to resume studies next month.

Danger-not-over-please-take-care

Life never looked so normal in the last four months as it does now. The government has declared victory. And even though perfunctory ringtone ‘danger-not-over-please-take-care’ warnings continue to dominate national communication networks, very few take them seriously.

No less remarkable is the fact that no one really knows what has thwarted COVID-19’s attack on what looked like a perfect prey. From global health experts to prophets of doom making dire forecasts about Pakistan a month ago, everyone is baffled and clueless.

Even government’s own experts can’t agree on what caused this incredible change. One official, from the Khayber Pakhtoonkhwa (one of the earliest and worst hit by the pandemic), who did not want to be named, attributed the slowdown to the weather pattern.

According to him exceptional humidity (touching 86 at peak) combined with sizzling temperatures (40s that felt like 45s) held the virus spread in check or made it less virulent. According to him this enlarged the number of asymptomatic infections, and, among communities created local versions of herd immunity.

Another explanation is greater body resilience to the pandemic because of exposure to sunlight and Vitamin-D efficiency, which reportedly build shields against acute respiratory infections.

Yet another is the relatively lesser public gathering density in both urban and rural areas where outsider movement and intermingling with the locals for business and entertainment purposes is marginal.

Informal bio-bubbles

Pakistan has no subway system. Its cinemas and theatres, at any rate very few, are not famous for being abuzz with activity. Its inland travellers move pretty much in straight lines of home to work and back. Its domestic tourism is underdeveloped.

There is every possibility that the country’s hundreds of informal bio-bubbles prevented the virus from penetrating the social and economic cordons within which they exist. Remember the virus needs mobile carriers to spread. The fewer the carriers, the safer the localities.

But again these are speculations, some informed, some smart and others downright outrageous like the one that suggests the Chinese are secretly helping Pakistan to control COVID-19 because of their Belt and Road Project!

The reality is that for now COVID-19 is back-page news in Pakistan and the least important concern on the pressing public concern issues. We need another few months to be fully comfortable with the conclusion that this virus has somehow spared the country from the kind of calamity that Italy saw or the US is experiencing.

Pandemics can return with mutated vengeance. COVID-19 has proven many pundits wrong. Pakistan has many structural weaknesses in the health system and should not take things for granted.

The next few months can be crucial in deciding whether the nation is over the worst or is lulled into complacency by a temporary phase.

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