Is Pakistan hiding its Coronavirus Problem?

The world is facing a global pandemic and the reactions of all democratic governments is to tell the truth to their people and try to mitigate the impact of this disaster. Pakistan, however, appears to be following the paths of allies like China and Egypt by denying or hiding facts. After weeks of refusing to admit that Pakistanis may be affected by the virus and refusing to shut down borders (especially with China) the government’s policy right now appears to be simply managing the ‘narrative’ not the reality.

On Friday, March 13, Prime Minister Imran Khan chaired a meeting of the National Security Committee (NSC) that was attended by the Chief of Army Staff (COAS) Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa and Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) Director General Lt-Gen Faiz Hameed provincial chief ministers, top advisors and cabinet members. “While there is a need for caution, there is no need for panic,” Khan advised the public. While urging the people to follow basic hygiene and precautionary measures, he assured them that the health of the people is the government’s foremost priority. He also tweeted that he would address the nation soon and that he is “personally overseeing measures to deal with Covid-19”.

Further, “It was decided to close borders with Iran and Afghanistan, allow only three airports – Karachi, Islamabad and Lahore – to operate international flights in limited numbers while other airports will see domestic flights, and ban public gatherings. The National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) has been tasked to coordinate with provincial governments and lead the fight against novel coronavirus. It was also decided to close all educational institutions until April 5.”

Despite what the federal government says, Pakistan took a very long time to seal its borders and has only tested 500 people to date. As of March 14 only 251 people had been tested in Sindh, 110 in Punjab, 30 in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, 18 in Balochistan, nine in Azad Jammu and Kashmir and 32 in G-B. The largest number of cases are in Sindh, with only 1 reported as of now in Punjab.

It is impossible that while Sindh has cases there are none in Punjab, what is more likely the government is hiding the facts.

As Salman Masood, New York Times correspondent in Pakistan, stated on social media:

This is akin to Egypt

The government’s priorities also appear skewed. While the government has cancelled the Pakistan Day celebrations on March 23, the Tableeghi Jamaat was allowed to go ahead with its annual congregation with 250,000 people congregating outside of Lahore

As of now the total number of confirmed coronavirus cases stands at 53 with the World Health Organization (WHO) warning that Pakistan faces immense challenges ahead to contain the viral outbreak. According to WHO, “Pakistan has a highly mobile population with mega cities and undeserved people.” These cases are spread across Pakistan’s provinces, with the largest number in Sindh, and all patients were individuals with recent travel history.

When the coronavirus first broke out in China and countries around the world evacuated their citizens including students from Wuhan, Pakistan refused to do so. Tens of thousands of Pakistani students’ study in China with around 1000 in Wuhan itself. The government of Pakistan refused to evacuate them. Further, many Pakistanis travel to Iran, another epicenter of the virus, and yet Pakistan refused to close its borders with Iran as well.

Pakistan’s government may be good at Public Relations (PR) management but are they good at pandemic management!