by Misbah Saba Malik
ISLAMABAD, April 12 (Xinhua) -- Pakistan reported its first positive case of COVID-19 in the last week of February, and lockdown was imposed in most parts of the country after a gradual spike of virus-infected people was witnessed in March.
The sudden uncertain situation created a two-pronged challenge for the Pakistani government as it has to take care of the health sector, as well as provide financial assistance to a large chunk of population that lost jobs and money earning opportunities due to the lockdown.
Pakistan has reported over 5,100 COVID-19 positive patients across the country as of Sunday, whereas almost 90 people died of the disease and more than 1,000 recovered from it.
With emergence of the rising number of infected patients, Pakistan's health system needed an urgent attention of the government as the available health infrastructure did not have the capability to tackle the rising cases due to the lack of intensive care unit (ICU), ventilators, and necessary personal protection equipment for the frontline health workers.
According to the National Disaster Management Authority, the agency spearheading the fight against the novel coronavirus, Pakistan has placed orders for over 3,000 ventilators, after the emergence of COVID-19 cases, and some were received as a medical donation from friendly countries, mainly from China.
The health sector of the country has got the main focus of the authorities, and all provincial governments and the federal government released funds to buy medical supplies and facilitate the infected patients at hospitals. According to data released by the health ministry, Pakistan has 35 COVID-19 designated hospitals with over 25,000 beds in isolation and quarantine facilities.
The spread of the disease was rapid in the country and some health experts say that the spike should be a matter of great concern for authorities, while others hope that things will start improving when the lockdown period gets mature and people stay indoors during peak times of the outbreak.
"Sindh province recently passed its 14-day lockdown period. Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa provinces were a few days after it in imposing lockdown, so it will take time to control the disease spread. After the 4,000th patient was diagnosed with the disease, a slowdown in the cases was witnessed, so the lockdown is showing results, and the government should extend it till the disease is fully controlled," Shimail Daud, a healthcare expert, told Xinhua.
He said that Pakistan had a crippled health service as the usual annual budget allocation for the sector is much less than the requirement of the sector, but the government gave priority to the sector after the emergence of COVID-19, enabling it to stop the quick spread of the virus, and keep the mortality rate low.
"There is still a lot to be done. The country's testing capability is still less than 500 per million, and there is a dire need to enhance the testing capability so that all suspected patients can be tested of the disease. The government must invest more on kits to identify the infected people."
In a recent press briefing, Minister for Planning, Development and Special Initiatives Asad Umar said initially Pakistan was able to conduct 700 to 800 tests on a daily basis, but later the daily capacity was enhanced to 2,000 and they are striving to increase the testing capability to 25,000 a day by the end of the month, local media reported.
A doctor who has been assigned to set up ICU for COVID-19 patients in a state-run hospital in Faisalabad told Xinhua on condition of anonymity that medics and nurses are vulnerable to the disease, as they are not provided with enough personal protection equipment (PPE) from the government.
"Though the government is taking COVID-19 patients very seriously, and we have been directed to maintain ICU to shift the critical patients, and facilitate all the suspicious patients visiting the hospital, we doctors ourselves are afraid that without proper precautionary measures we may fall prey of the disease."
In a recent media interaction, Special Assistant to the Prime Minister on Health Zafar Mirza agreed that there is a shortage of protective equipment for doctors, adding that the federal government will directly provide protective equipment to the doctors in hospitals across the country, and things will get better gradually, as the recent health system did not have the necessities required to combat COVID-19, and it will take time to make things available at home.
Besides health, providing financial assistance to daily wagers is also a great challenge for the government as according to the Ministry of Planning, about 12.3 million to 18.5 million people are feared to lose their jobs due to the influence of the pandemic.
Closure of various businesses, education system and impact on industry due to low demand of Pakistani export products in international markets further aggravated the situation.
Prime Minister Imran Khan has announced a massive relief package of 1,200 billion rupees (about 7.21 billion U.S. dollars) to support poor people and business community hit hard economically by the crisis. The prime minister is also setting up a volunteer force to reach people with rations and cash in their areas.
Talking to Xinhua, Vaqar Ahmed, joint executive director at the Sustainable Development Policy Institute, an Islamabad-based think tank, said the government is taking a much-needed step to allocate cash for the poor class, but the process should be quickened to reach the deserving class.
Ahmed also suggested that the crisis caused by the pandemic seems to be prolonging, and it seems that further economic trouble is waiting for the government. In order to go through the tough time, the government may also think about asking for targeted international aid and donation from friendly countries and charity organizations.