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Dawn Editorial 12 April 2020

Dearth of test kits

ADEQUATE testing capability is integral to formulating a response to any health crisis. One can multiply that importance by several hundredfold in a pandemic situation. Sindh has been warning of a dire shortage of testing kits, and unless things change quickly, worse looms on the horizon. According to the provincial government, the stock of 6,000 kits available with both public and private hospitals in its jurisdiction is sufficient for less than two weeks. Meanwhile, Chief Minister Murad Ali Shah’s effort to procure 300,000 kits from China and the UK for use in the province remains in limbo without the centre’s authorisation for cargo flights to bring in the consignments. There must be a concerted effort to address the province’s predicament. Consider that in the latest 24-hour tally, 20pc of the tests conducted in Sindh came out positive.
Testing enables authorities to isolate the individual and stem the spread of the virus. We are entering a stage where coronavirus cases in the country are beginning to show an exponential increase, even with limited kits and diagnostic facilities. It took the first 10 days of this month for Covid-19 infections to nearly double from 2,238 to 4,263. Pakistan has so far tested around 250 per million of its population, far more than India (129 pm), but much less than Iran (2,755pm). A true picture of the contagion may well be eluding the authorities because they are trying to ration the testing, limiting it to individuals presenting symptoms of Covid-19, or at most, those suspected of having come into contact with an infectious person. Many asymptomatic cases are slipping under the radar, leading to a skewed epidemiological picture.
Minister for Planning Asad Umar at a press conference yesterday said Pakistan now has the capacity to carry out at least 100,000 Covid-19 tests at 26 labs across the country. He also added that material for 100,000 test kits had been received on Friday, of which 50,000 would be given to Sindh and 25,000 to Balochistan. While scaling up diagnostic capacity, the government must also take testing further afield beyond urban centres through mobile vans or by setting up diagnostic facilities in district hospitals. As Chinese health experts in meetings with Pakistani officials have repeatedly emphasised, testing is key to mounting an effective defence against the coronavirus. On Saturday, it was announced that several areas in Karachi’s District East were sealed because some residents had been diagnosed with Covid-19. Such scenarios are also increasingly taking place in other parts of the country. Enhanced diagnostic capacity can enable the authorities to make informed decisions about when an area-wise lockdown can be partially lifted, or even imposed in the first place. Unless mass testing — covering at least a substantial representative sample of the population — is instituted, we may be faced at some point with a widespread, unmanageable explosion of cases.


Quack supplies

A COTTAGE industry is cropping up around the provision of materials for the sanitisation of hands and surfaces, as demand shoots up across the country on account of the Covid-19 pandemic. We now have sugar mills and a brewery trying to enter the hand sanitiser market, while fibre glass manufacturers and fabricators are getting into the business of supplying disinfectant walk-through gates to an increasing number of buyers for official buildings, marketplaces etc. This is a natural response to the sharply rising demand for these products, but the growing cottage industry needs to be regulated. A recent survey by the Pakistan Standards and Quality Control Authority, for example, found that 23 of the total samples of the new hand sanitiser products they tested were substandard and would be ineffective against the coronavirus. A similar test now needs to be done on walk-through disinfectant gates, or tunnels, that are also mushrooming across the country.
The spread of these bootleg technologies is dangerous, especially because it may create a false sense of security among those who use it. For example, trader bodies are now urging provincial governments to allow the reopening of markets if they instal these walk-through disinfectant gates. The provincial authorities must refuse this offer and let the trader bodies know that the utility of these disinfectant gates or tunnels is very limited. They are alright perhaps for cargo supplies, but having people walk through them will do little to mitigate the possibility of being infected by a virus carrier. Beyond a false sense of security, what is particularly dangerous about these new unregulated technologies is the total lack of awareness regarding what is and is not a suitable disinfectant to use. According to a report in this newspaper, for example, doctors have warned that some of the chemicals being used for these walk-through gates are themselves toxic and pose a risk to the health of anyone who passes through them; they do nothing much when it comes to disinfecting. Strong notice needs to be taken of this proliferating cottage industry. Perhaps the PSQCA can do a similar study on these walk-through gates, and particularly the chemicals being used in them. Drap should consider releasing a list of approved chemicals for such use, as well as give guidance on what these walk-through gates can be used for, and where they will only be unhelpful.


Mob attack on police

THE issue of the temporary closure of mosques and other places of worship to prevent mass gatherings during the lockdown is a sensitive one. By and large, the response from the public in Karachi and the rest of Sindh has been positive. However, there have been a few ugly incidents, including one last Friday when a mob chased law enforcers in the metropolis’s Liaquatabad area for trying to enforce the ban. Another unfortunate incident occurred in Orangi Town this Friday, when a mob attacked a police team that was trying to enforce the ban on Juma congregations. According to reports, the crowd pelted the police party with stones, injuring a number of personnel; a woman SHO, who courageously stood her ground, was among the injured. The mob attack illustrates the perils that law enforcers face while trying to do their duty and keep the peace in such volatile times.
The fact is that across the Muslim world, senior clerics of all schools of thought have endorsed the temporary suspension of religious gatherings in order to save lives during the deadly Covid-19 pandemic. Unfortunately, some overzealous elements in this country are bent upon resisting both sage advice, and precautions highlighted by health professionals. On the one hand, Masjid al-Haram and Masjid al-Nabavi in Makkah and Madina have largely been put off limits to worshippers, while religious authorities in Iran and Egypt have said mass gatherings during the month of Ramazan will not be organised. However, in Pakistan, some clerics appear to feel that they have a better understanding of religion than many leading lights of the Islamic world, and can chart their own course. To prevent such ugly incidents from happening again, senior clergymen from all sects must guide their respective flocks to heed the state’s guidelines regarding social distancing and temporary suspension of mass worship. Moreover, senior figures at the neighbourhood level must be engaged by local authorities to ensure that the law is respected for the sake of the public’s health.


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