A tale of two lockdowns

Raja Omer Shabbir explains why the lockdown was effective in UK but not in Pakistan

A tale of two lockdowns
The government in Pakistan is vehemently defending its COVID-19 strategy, going as far as claiming credit for a well-timed and well thought out response. At the heart of this response is a dogged refusal to impose a strict lockdown even in the face of rising deaths and infections. Imran Khan’s government carries on with a business as usual approach, but the general public can’t help but wonder whose side is the government on? And would the current situation be as bad as it is now had there been more intent on the part of their government? This is the proverbial elephant in the room the government here refuses to acknowledge as the contagion ravages throughout the country.

Being a Pakistani temporarily based in the UK, I have a unique vantage point for comparing the official Corona response strategies of both countries. Both countries went into lockdown within a space of no more than ten days of each other, but there is a stark contrast in results. One country is past its peak of the virus, socioeconomic activity is resuming, and the lockdown is increasingly becoming a thing of the past, whereas for the other it seems the worst is yet to come with an alarming rise in daily infections and deaths, amidst no signs of flattening the peak. Pakistan is of course the latter in this scenario.

But, how is it that the UK has fared so much better than Pakistan when tackling Corona?

To put forth a bit of context, the UK went for a mitigation strategy at the start of their Corona outbreak with voluntary social distancing encouraged. This approach was quickly shelved after failing to get the desired level of response from the public, and keeping in view an influential study conducted at Imperial College London which predicted that if the UK did not adopt strict social distancing measures the health services would be overwhelmed, with a loss of hundreds of thousands of lives. And so, to not only protect the general population but also to protect the institution treating them, the NHS, a lockdown was imposed inside the country.

Once the lockdown was imposed here, the government never shied away from owning it. There has never been any public dillydallying over the decision to impose it from any quarter of the leadership team once it was put in place. Right from the onset the message was clear that the lockdown will not be eased unless there is certainty, backed by data, that the pandemic is slowing down and the chances of a second wave are minimal, and that the health system will be able to sustain itself once the lockdown is lifted. Never has the prime minister here implicitly or explicitly stated that the lockdown was not his choice, nor has he ever publicly expressed an overzealous urgency about the lifting of the lockdown just because the economy was taking a hit.

The slogan during the strictest phase of the lockdown was: Stay Home, Protect the NHS, Save Lives. This unequivocal marketing of the official strategy was very successful in giving the UK population clarity of thought and action over how they should go about their daily lives under the new normal. It also settled the debate in the country that public health will be given priority over the economy. Human life was not equated to a premium, no matter how old or weak.

Pakistan’s approach in its official response to COVID has ranged from denial that the pandemic even exists in the country, to trivializing it as a mere flu which will not impact us greatly owing to a young population demographic. Other myths which were equally popular initially, and never debunked, include the hot Pakistani climate being unsuitable for the spread of the virus and anti-malarial shots administered to a large section of the population making us immune to COVID. That there was no scientific basis supporting the validity of these hypothesis was never accounted for, and the number of positive cases now reflect the fallacy of our claims.

The lack of coordination amongst the centre and the provinces has also severely dented whatever little we have done to manage the crisis. Sindh wanted a strict lockdown for a prolonged period which the centre was opposed to. The remaining provinces took their cue from the centre and consequentially, the much-touted SOPs were openly flouted in the public as it received mixed signals from a half-baked national policy.

Till date the debate on smart versus a complete of lockdown rages on, and although it may be plausible that the government has gone for herd immunity, this has never been admitted officially. The resultant uncertainty has been detrimental to the economy whose health was presumably the sole reason a strict lockdown has never been imposed in the country. Our economy is set to contract for the first time in 68 years notwithstanding the pre-COVID downturn already witnessed. While the UK furlough scheme has surpassed 25 billion pounds we do not have such a luxury at our disposal. Further adding to economic strife is the rise in unemployment and loss of remittances from the countless Pakistanis made redundant in gulf states due to a crash in oil prices. Besides this air-travel, real-estate, the auto-industry, tourism, have all been adversely affected.

Testing capacity is another area where both Pakistan and the UK lagged at the start of their lockdowns. At the start of April, the UK’s testing capacity was just around 12,000 tests per day. By the end of the month they had reached the seemingly ambitious target of 100,000 tests per day. And as I finish writing this piece, the testing capacity has been confirmed by the BBC to be over 200,000 tests per day. In contrast, Pakistan is yet to touch the 50,000 tests/day mark. This lack of testing capacity effectively means Pakistan has no meaningful track and trace system in place which every country aspires to post lockdown for managing corona at a more granular level, and to avoid re-imposing a lockdown.

Public trust is another pillar of a successful suppression strategy against Corona. In the UK there is a daily briefing by the administration highlighting the number of new infections, deaths, and recoveries recorded and what, if any, future steps the authorities plan to undertake in its fight against the pandemic. These press briefings have greatly reinforced the trust of the public here in their government’s efforts. In Pakistan however, there is marked trust deficit between the public and those that are tasked with steering them out of this epidemic. The overwhelming sense of an alleged lack of seriousness on the part of the government does not bode well for it as it goes all out against this invisible enemy. A large section of COVID patients also prefers to stay at home instead of self-reporting, which is a practice now being encouraged in the UK as part of their track and trace policy. The fear of social stigma and boycott of infected patients, families and neighborhoods has contributed to the lack of cooperation from the public.

In order to successfully overcome this challenge a whole of nation response is required, and that is only possible if the masses, and especially those at the forefront of fighting this disease, the doctors and the health staff are confident that there is a government standing behind them doing all it can to support them as they battle it out for the nation’s survival. This is lacking and a health crisis has been turned into political crisis. We have choices even now, but we need to make the right ones.

The writer is a professional services consultant based in Islamabad. He tweets @raj_omer