Women wearing protective masks walk along a street in the Iranian capital Tehran. Photo: Atta Kenare / AFP

Pakistan on Wednesday reported the first two cases of Covid-19. Since the coronavirus that causes this disease can easily be transmitted through people-to-people contact, it was always expected that it would eventually hit Pakistan as it has in neighboring countries, including Iran. However, the health system in Pakistan is not very efficient, and because of the government’s lack of interest in investing in the public health sector, people are largely forced to go to private hospitals, where the doctors prescribe unnecessary tests and medicines to earn commissions from the pharmaceutical companies.

Government hospitals are not only overcrowded but in most cases, expensive drugs and timely treatment are not provided because of a lack of resources. So the question arises: When China reported the outbreak of a novel coronavirus late last year and the World Health Organization (WHO) on January 30 declared the outbreak a public health emergency of international concern, what precautionary measures did the Pakistani government take? to handle this epidemic. Unlike other countries, it did not bring its stranded citizens back from Wuhan, the city in China where the outbreak first occurred.

That decision of the PTI (Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf) government has been widely criticized, but keeping in view the collective mindset of a society that does not believe in taking precautionary measures and leaves it to God to take deal with diseases and viruses, this was a good decision. Besides this, the government knew from the beginning that it had no capacity to treat Covid-19 patients.

However, the PTI government, despite closing its borders with Iran and placing thermal-imaging scanners at the airports to detect passengers with high temperatures, it never was able to stop people from entering Pakistan from Iran through China. As well, the thermal-imaging scanners are of limited use as Covid-19 symptoms do not appear until 10 to 14 days after infection with the virus, and in some cases people have shown no symptoms even after a period of 30 to 40 days.

The same has been the case with those people who travel by road from China to Pakistan, and many of them probably have already reached the country without being tested. However, the government does deserve credit in that despite the criticism after the first two cases were reported, it did not go into panic, and the special adviser to the prime minister on health, Dr Zafar Mirza, held a press conference to assure the masses that everything was under control.

That said, if the government could run awareness campaigns in local languages in print, electronic and digital media to teach the public about the precautionary measures to take so as to remain safe from the epidemic, it would help reduce the number of victims. The media, on the other hand, need to learn the art of reporting on epidemics, as up to now they have been busy spreading sensational news and creating fear just for the sake of ratings and the website hits.

This disease is not as deadly as the SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) coronavirus and the mortality rate of Covid-19 patients is less than with influenza or ebola. All the media have to do is show some maturity, and instead of disseminating news that creates insecurity about the disease that could eventually create panic and chaos in the country, they should help the masses understand the epidemic how to avoid getting infected.

The media outlets also need to adopt precautionary measures for their field reporters. Both electronic and digital media, with backing from the government, also need to debunk fake news or wrong information about the outbreak.

However, more than government and media, the masses need to change their collective mindset, as not only do the majority not believe in adopting precautionary measures, but they also look for the treatment of illness according to their religious belief systems. There are already messages doing the rounds on social media on how to remain safe by either reading religious prayers or by eating onion and ginger. This needs to stop, and people should be advised to adopt the standard procedures advised by the WHO.

Since the news broke of the emergence of Covid-19 in Pakistan, face masks are now being sold at whopping prices, and hoarders and black marketeers are earning more than 1,000% profits on their sales. It is time that the government launches a crackdown against the vendors and suppliers of face masks who are earning profits by risking the lives of people.

Another aspect of the outbreak is its impact on the already fragile economy of Pakistan and on the inflation rate. China’s economy has been hit hard by this outbreak and likely Iran will suffer the same if it is unable to stop the spread of this disease. The same is the case with Pakistan, and if this epidemic starts expanding, the stock market and exports will come to halt. If other countries close down the flights to and from Pakistan and the neighboring countries close their borders, food items and medicines will disappear and inflation will get out of control.

Of course, all this is hypothetical, as this outbreak has not spread on a vast level, but it is possible, and as more infections are reported, the government will need to take every possible scenario into the consideration and chalk out a plan.

Meanwhile, there is evidence that panic is spreading. This correspondent visited different areas of the federal capital Islamabad and the garrison city of Rawalpindi, and almost everyone was talking about the possible scenarios from the Covid-19 outbreak and the inability of the government to stop it as it does not have a good health structure or team.

Mostly people are afraid of the government’s inability to stop the virus from spreading, citing how the PTI government, which has not even been able to control the emergence of polio while the PTI provincial government in Punjab was unable to stop the dengue virus from re-emerging. This is perhaps the time that the government should take the masses into confidence and not let panic and speculation spread, as it will not only force people to stock food and other items but will also create panic among the businessmen and investors.

The outbreak could be handled better if the government starts establishing quarantine camps outside the populated areas, and it can always seek advice from the Beijing, which despite the propaganda against it, is fighting wholeheartedly against this epidemic.

The opposition parties also, instead of scoring points against the government for its ill-preparedness, need to extend their support to the government to devise short- and long-term crisis plans to counter the outbreak.

The Covid-19 outbreak and its impact on the global economy, including the possible effects on Pakistan’s economy, are a reminder that countries like Pakistan need to invest more in the health system. While this particular disease may not be especially lethal, a more life-threatening virus could emerge in the future, and only those countries with excellent health-care systems and institutions that can respond quickly to epidemics will be able to save their economies and the lives of their citizens.

For now, Covid-19 is a certainly problem, but contrary to the misinformation spreading all over the globe and especially in Pakistan, it is more damaging to the economies of the countries affected than to human lives, as the death rate is very low. Perhaps “do not panic” is the first preventive measure the masses and the government need to adopt in this situation. 

Imad Zafar is a columnist/commentator for newspapers. He is associated with TV channels, radio, newspapers, news agencies, and political, policy and media related think-tanks.