Pakistan’s response to the coronavirus has evolved from late January
Pakistan’s response to the coronavirus has evolved from late January, when it decided against evacuating 500 of its students from Wuhan, the epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic, due to concerns about community spread and potentially, the limitations of its public health system to deal with such an emergency. Circumstances changed in mid-February when Pakistan’s southwestern neighbor Iran reported a mass COVID-19 outbreaks. Every month, thousands of Pakistani citizens visit Iran for business or religious tourism. With Tehran struggling to respond to the spread of the virus, Pakistani pilgrims began returning home via air and overland routes. Thus, Islamabad was pushed into action and swiftly suspended flights from Iran—eventually closing the border—while commencing screening of passengers at airports. At the border town of Taftan, in Balochistan, a temporary isolation center with very basic facilities was set up to house the thousands of returnees from Iran. The inevitable happened on February 26, when the first positive case of COVID-19 was reported in the country.
Besides the initial inertia, some structural challenges have dogged Pakistan’s national response to COVID-19. Under the country’s decentralized constitutional system, provision of healthcare and health infrastructure are the responsibility of provincial governments, with the federal government only empowered to regulate the health sector. In the absence of a federally-led nationwide response, provincial governments were left to their own devices. Further, an ongoing economic recession and austerity-driven fiscal policy have complicated the federal government’s capacity to respond.
However, as COVID-19 rapidly spread across Pakistan, political pressure continued to build on the federal government to take the lead in response efforts. The first systematic response emerged on March 13, when the government convened an emergency meeting of the National Security Committee, an apex civil-military coordination body, and made the decisions to seal the border with Iran, prohibit large-scale public gatherings such as wedding ceremonies, institute social distancing to limit infections, and close down educational institutions across the country. Provincial governments set up quarantine centers in existing public buildings and evacuated college dorms in key cities. Moreover, Islamabad reached out to Beijing for provision of necessary test kits and other medical supplies to equip healthcare providers and hospitals.
Meanwhile, the National Coordination Committee (NCC) on coronavirus Friday met at the Ministry of Health here and reviewed the status of decisions taken by the National Security Committee (NSC) a day earlier in a bid to ensure fast-track implementation. “A coordinated national response to safeguard the health of the people of Pakistan is underway, with the federal and provincial governments and all relevant agencies working in unison to meet the challenge,” the PM’s Special Assistant on Health Dr Zafar Mirza is reported to have stated as chair of NCC.
The role of the media is of critical importance to ensure that only authentic and accurate information is provided to the people so panic can be avoided and risk averted he added.
Meanwhile, the Municipal Corporation of Islamabad (MCI) in a late evening session has announced to close all the public parks and picnic spots in the federal capital as a precautionary measure against coronavirus.
In the coming days, Pakistan’s decisions will continue to be guided by the rapidly developing COVID-19 situation at both the domestic and global level. As international financial institutions and multilateral agencies mobilize financial resources to support developing countries, Pakistan is likely to reach out for partial funding to bolster its national efforts to try to mitigate the short- to medium-term impact of COVID-19 on its struggling economy.