Planning minister says decision on relaxations to factor in burden of new patients on healthcare system
The federal government will decide on the future of ongoing movement restrictions to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus in a meeting of the National Coordination Committee on COVID-19 after consulting with all provinces, Planning Minister Asad Umar said on Sunday.
Addressing media, Umar said the existing lockdowns would continue until May 9, when a meeting of the NCOC would announce the future course of action. He said all decision-making would account for the capacity of the country’s healthcare facilities and would ensure it is not overburdened.
The minister said the government had significantly enhanced its healthcare infrastructure in recent weeks, adding the country currently has 1,400 ventilators for coronavirus patients, while 900 more would be added in two months. He claimed this was more than sufficient, as there were only 35 patients on ventilators at this time.
According to Umar, the country also has the capability to manufacture its own medical equipment, and would soon commence the domestic production of ventilators. He said there are 55 functional labs with the capacity to administer over 14,000 COVID-19 tests daily. Despite these claims, the government has yet to conduct more than 10,000 tests in a single day.
The planning minister said the government had implemented a test, track and quarantine system, which was already proving beneficial, as it had identified two virus hotspots in the federal capital.
Summarizing the overall impact of COVID-19, Umar said the daily death toll had reached approximately 24 fatalities, adding it had initially the average had been 2 deaths per day. However, he said, “we are living in a region which is blessed for unknown reason. If we compare number of deaths in the first 46 days of the disease, after attaining 100 cases, 414 persons per million population died in Spain, 305 in Italy, 256 in France, 248 in the U.K. and 106 persons per million population died in the U.S.”
In comparison, he said, Pakistan had suffered only two deaths, and India only one, per million populations in the first 46 days after 100 confirmed cases. Umar reiterated common, unverified theories circulating on social media, such as the hot weather, the BCG vaccine or being located in the malaria belt, as perhaps being responsible for the low fatality rate.
According to the minister, at the current fatality rate, around 720 people would die in a month across the country, against 4,800 who died in traffic accidents every month. “We have not banned road traffic due to fatal accidents,” he said, repeating a common talking point of the global rightwing, which ignores that this is a unique event that cannot be compared to regular, expected circumstances.
Despite spending much time explaining why the disease was not having much impact on Pakistan, Umar reiterated that precautionary measures must be taken to avoid it spreading. This kind of mixed messaging has become a hallmark of the incumbent government, which urges people to adopt preventative measures on one hand, while assuring them the situation is fine on the other.
Umar said the economic impact of the lockdowns on Pakistan was far more serious than on western countries. He said the government had no choice but to gradually ease movement restrictions to support people’s livelihoods.
He said the pandemic could cause the closure of up to one million institutions in Pakistan, rendering 18 million people jobless, and pushing up to 70 million below the poverty line. He also noted that as compared to March, in April the Board of Revenue’s collections had reduced by Rs. 119 billion.
However, Umar noted, not every business could be reopened immediately, as the health system might collapse. “But we need to open business gradually to maintain a balance in number of cases and economic activities,” he said, adding that European countries with much higher death tolls had also decided to relax lockdowns. This, of course, ignores that most of them have already reached the peak of infections, while Pakistan has yet to do the same.
“We need to do the same as people have started asking that what will happen if disease would not be controlled at all,” said Umar. “According to a Gallup survey, Pakistanis are being affected the most due to unemployment. We need to increase job opportunities and ensure that the health system does not collapse,” he said. What Umar failed to mention, however, is that the same Gallup poll found the majority of respondents favoring lockdowns to curb the spread of COVID-19—not relaxing restrictions to boost the economy at the expense of peoples’ lives.