A stealthy contagion
A VIRUS that spreads stealthily even through asymptomatic individuals is obviously one most difficult to counter, especially when diagnostic capabilities are far less than optimal. Thus when there seems to be a curious spike in the numbers of people either dead or near death when brought to hospitals in Karachi, it raises the inevitable question, are Covid-19 fatalities in the country actually higher than so far reported? The Sindh Chief Minister Murad Ali Shah, while pleading the case for a stricter lockdown, alluded to the possibility at a press conference on Wednesday. He said there had been 15 unexplained deaths in the city of people who, it was discovered later, had been displaying symptoms of coronavirus infection. Similar apprehensions have been voiced in other quarters. According to health officials quoted in the media, a large number of patients brought to private and public hospitals during the last 15 days were either dead on arrival or had breathed their last within hours from respiratory distress typical of Covid-19. Considering the lockdown makes it more difficult to access timely medical attention for any illness, and also that the bodies of most deceased are handed over to their families without a postmortem, it is difficult to state the cause of death with any certainty. Nevertheless, what is clear is that only more testing can cut through the fog and give us a true picture.
Federal Minister for Planning Asad Umar a few days ago said that testing capacity in the country would be increased from 6,584 to 25,000 per day by the end of this month. On Wednesday, 5,540 tests were conducted across the country, the most so far within the span of a day; ramping up the frequency cannot happen too soon. In the 24 hours ending Thursday night, 520 new cases came to light, the second-highest number since testing began. Sadly, during the same period, Pakistan also reported its highest single-day total of Covid-19 fatalities with 17 deaths. A testing drive launched in several shantytowns and Covid-19 hotspots in Karachi collected over 1,700 samples: the results should offer some idea of the spread of the infection in areas of the megacity where social distancing is nigh impossible.
The importance of detaining all Covid-19 patients at designated quarantine facilities until they recover is becoming clearer by the day. It seems that symptomatic or mildly symptomatic individuals who have been given the option of ‘home isolation’ may be driving local transmission rates. Health experts from China, in the light of their own experience, had cautioned Pakistani authorities that patients either do not rigorously enough observe distancing protocols in familiar surroundings, or cannot do so because of their cramped living conditions. The government must expand its quarantine facilities and omit the ‘home isolation’ option. Only then can we arrest the spread of the contagion.
SINCE Pakistan is now set to participate in the debt relief plan just approved by the G20 group in its meeting on Wednesday, it is reasonable to expect a significant amount of support for the external sector in the months ahead. This is undoubtedly good news for the country as the Covid-19 battle looks set to intensify. For now, all debt-service obligations that will be due between May 1 and Dec 1, 2020, are eligible for relief under the terms agreed to, but there are very good chances that this period will be extended to June 2021. The G20 have left the door wide open for precisely this extension by allowing for two reviews, one in July and another in November, during which the possibility of an extension can be considered. The IMF and the World Bank both played a key role in drafting the terms of the plan and championing it at the meeting, in consultation with a grouping of African countries that had raised a collective voice for this debt relief and advanced the diplomacy required to bring it to fruition. The G20 had a decision to make about which countries to include in the plan, and it had a choice between using the UN list of Least Developed Countries or the World Bank’s list of countries eligible to borrow under the International Development Authority. The G20 chose to run with the latter list, to Pakistan’s good fortune because the country does not feature on the UN list.
Good fortune has landed us on the eligibility list for this debt relief, but it would be a big mistake to leave it up to fortune to decide how the ensuing comfort on the external side will be used. To some extent, the State Bank has already used up some of the space opened up by slashing interest rates in a second emergency announcement on Thursday. This is a fair move because there are rapidly diminishing reasons for why interest rates should remain elevated. But going forward, whatever comfort opens up on the external sector will be eyed greedily by vested interests, and the temptation to manage the exchange rate will be large. Such temptations must be resisted. There is no telling how long the fight will be, how deep the recession will actually go, and how much longer the taps of external support will remain open. It would be better to use the savings to build reserves.