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Preparing for the virus


March 3, 2020

At the moment, the coronavirus is standing at our doorsteps with reported cases in all neighbouring countries (as well as ours).

Iran has the second largest reported cases of the virus after China. Given our record of dealing with previous outbreaks of communicable diseases, it would be an uphill task for us in the case of a coronavirus outbreak.

As our record of tackling communicable diseases is awful, along with a weak health system, we should take extra precautionary measures to tackle the issue as it would be potentially impossible for us to handle an epidemic which can be transmitted by an asymptomatic carrier.

The main source of virus spread is from person-to-person by close contact, via respiratory droplets of the infected landing on the mouth or nose of people around the infected. It can also spread through infected surfaces or objects. Although sick people are most likely to spread the virus, carriers without symptoms of the disease may also spread the virus.

We can learn lessons from Singapore, which has one of the best healthcare systems in the world. Singapore is a small but well-connected country on the globe. It has at the moment a tally of 50 reported cases in the country. As a first step, the authorities tracked down the index case in Singapore and established the possible way of transmission of the virus.

In Pakistan, currently three cases of the coronavirus have been reported. These patients travelled to Iran and are now hospitalized in Karachi and Islamabad. Authorities are claiming that other people accompanying these patients have been identified and their screenings will be done. Apart from the screening of the accompanying people, all those people with whom these patients came in contact should be included in the screening process too.

Apparently, the patient admitted in Islamabad had travelled from Balochistan to Islamabad and might have some in close contact with numerous people during his travel; tracking all these people is an uphill task. Authorities should ensure screening at all our borders with neighbouring countries as all these countries have registered cases of the coronavirus.

Our preparedness to tackle any outbreak is always flimsy. We are among the two nations which haven’t yet eradicated polio. Similarly, we have been experiencing dengue outbreaks for more than a decade but we only focus on the primary preventive measures related to insecticide spraying and precautionary measures. The Wolbachia method, however, has not been used in Pakistan, which is a low-cost self-sustained method. In this method, Wolbachia-carrying mosquitoes are released in a community. Wolbachia invades and sustains itself inside mosquitoes where it induces a series of reproductive abnormalities within the host for increasing reproduction of female mosquitoes. Since Wobachia-carrying mosquitoes can’t transmit the disease, the incidence of dengue fever is thus eliminated.

Lack of public support has proven to be the main hurdle in the fight against polio and dengue fever; in the case of a coronavirus outbreak, this may become a nightmare and panic can easily trigger among the masses. Gaining public support and inculcating awareness regarding the disease is very important.

It is being reported that the prices of face masks have already risen. A widespread epidemic of the outbreak may throw the masses into a surge of panic in Pakistan. The government should take precautionary measures to handle the prospective hoarding of basic medical supplies and necessary daily-use items.

Given the severity of the outbreak, which many regard as a pandemic, the government should think seriously about the Hajj policy in the country. To reach a consensus on the issue, the government should establish liaison with renowned scholars so that in the case of emergency panic can be avoided. The Saudi government has already imposed a ban on Umrah and extra-precautionary measures for Hajj seem on the card. Even if the Saudi government does not impose any restriction on Hajj, we should devise a policy based on our own resources for screening of more than 100 thousand hajis returning home after Hajj.

For Pakistan, tackling a coronavirus outbreak with a weak healthcare system, fragile economy and practically no experience of dealing with epidemics would be a great challenge failing which would cause unimaginable damage. The government should not only work on the preventive side but should also work for other socio-political dimensions in the case of an outbreak.

The writer is an assistant professor at the Pakistan Institute of Development Economics (PIDE), Islamabad.