ASOn World Health Patient Safety Day today (September 17), the Covid-19 pandemic continues to be the most serious threat to public health globally.
New records are made each day. Worldwide cases have crossed 27million with over 890,000 patient lives lost. To Trump’s dismay, Covid-19 cases in the US have gone beyond 6 million.
India’s Modi is facing one of the toughest tests of his political life. Despite the world’s strictest lockdown, India has five million Covid-19 cases making it the world’s second worst-affected country. Pakistan is part of the world’s top 20 Covid-19 cases country with around 298,000 cases.
WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus recently said the pandemic could be over in under two years but warned that “no country can just pretend the pandemic is over”. This is a message for countries whose leadership is in danger of being complacent. They may lose their hard-won gains.
Pakistan is one such country where due to some natural phenomenon and also lack of extensive testing we see only hundreds of Covid-19 cases reported on daily basis. On the other hand, we have a very weak health system not adequately equipped to provide the coverage to the majority of the population who do not have financial means to pay for the Covid-19 treatment packages offered by private hospitals. Our performance on other health issues is not that great as we have not been able to eliminate infectious diseases particularly tuberculosis, hepatitis and most importantly polio which even African countries collectively have successfully eradicated.
Discovery of new treatments and vaccines could provide an escape from this pandemic. However, such discoveries will not give any immediate benefits to less developed countries like Pakistan. The experiences from the world’s previous epidemics and pandemics are sobering. During the H1N1 or swine flu outbreak in 2009, rich Western countries bought up virtually all available supplies of vaccine, leaving poorer countries fully exposed. With Covid-19, the stakes are far higher. It has spread across the globe without respect for flag or frontier.
The behaviour of the richer countries at the start of this pandemic was no different from 2009 as they were able to secure early access to diagnostic tests, protective equipment, and lifesaving critical equipment for their own populations. Many poor nations were not able to import ventilators and related equipment. So, what this means for us is to enhance the lifesaving capabilities of our own health systems as in reality we may be at the back of a very long queue to procure a reliable treatment or if vaccine is available.
In Pakistan, we continue to use a smart lockdown strategy as our main response to both saving lives and the livelihoods. However, we are now seeing thousands of schools and colleges reopening across the country. It is important to ensure now that our health system is suitably equipped to deal with the possibility of a second wave of the Covid-19 pandemic. It is not just a theoretical risk but a clear and present danger to general population.
Dr Kamran Pasha, a physician in acute and internal medicine, who divides his time working in the UK and Pakistan says that “availability of life saving equipment improves life chances of patients who are suffering complicated health issues due to Covid-19. So wider access to ventilators and other ICU equipment and drugs in government & private hospitals will hugely help in reducing death rates among the Covid-19 patients”.
Rough estimates suggest that there are around 3000 ventilators available in Pakistan. This is a woefully small number of ventilators despite the recent push post-Covid-19 by the government to import such equipment. For the prime minister’s smart lockdown policy to work, the government needs to work on a combined approach where the Ministry of Health, Ministry of Finance, and the FBR all work closely to make sure that they equip the hospitals with the resources necessary to help poor patients.
The opening of educational institutions and smart lockdown strategies now coupled together may increase Covid-19 cases. The most important step the government should take is to take a lead from the WHO chief’s assessment that the pandemic will take two years before it is over. In light of this, Pakistani authorities should at least extend by a year their earlier policy of exemptions of tax and import duties on lifesaving equipment including ventilators, BIPABS, oxygen kits, PPE and other associated items.
This critical care equipment helps doctors save the lives of seriously ill and poor patients. There is no doubt that the government will lose out on a small amount of taxes in the short term; however, the lives the government will help save are far more valuable both in terms of economics as well social benefits to the country.
The writer is a London-based analyst on South Asia.