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Dawn Editorial 29 March 2020

Front-line warriors

THEY are our first line of defence in the battle against the pandemic; it should not end up becoming their last stand. In a situation aptly described in the language of war, medical personnel are under increasing pressure as Covid-19 cases in Pakistan begin to rise.
One need only look at the near-apocalyptic scenes in the US and several European countries to see what could lie in store: hospitals have been strained to breaking point, and in Spain, nearly 14pc of the total number of coronavirus cases are healthcare workers.
In Pakistan, ill-equipped doctors and nurses dealing with a frightened yet largely misinformed public are doubly at peril. The first Covid-19 fatality among the local medical community — and sadly, there are almost certain to be more — occurred some days ago when a young doctor, Usama Riaz, succumbed to the disease.
He had been working at a screening centre in Gilgit-Baltistan when he was taken ill and rushed to hospital where he breathed his last. It was reported yesterday that at least four doctors and related staff have so far tested positive at two leading Karachi hospitals. They are among several healthcare workers who have already been stricken with Covid-19 in various parts of the country.
Medical personnel are faced with several challenges in the present situation. For one, they have to deal with a rapidly increasing workload that has seen far better health systems in the West come close to collapse — and we are only at the beginning of a long, gruelling ordeal. Then there is the global shortage of personal protection equipment, vital for medical staff dealing directly with suspected or confirmed Covid-19 patients.
Even though large quantities of PPE and N-95 masks have been recently donated by China and other sources, a steady supply is crucial because they need to be replaced fairly quickly. Ensuring timely delivery also requires proper planning and coordination. Meanwhile, healthcare workers have to make do with whatever protective gear they have available.
The public must also exhibit a far more responsible attitude in their interaction with medical personnel at a time when carelessness or deceit can cost lives. There are accounts of suspected Covid-19 patients deliberately concealing facts such as their travel history, an important consideration to determine the course of action to be taken.
Such an incident, reported in this paper yesterday, took place recently in Multan’s Nishtar Hospital and led to a number of on-duty doctors, nurses and paramedics being placed in quarantine after the patient — who subsequently died — tested positive for the disease. This, of course, also illustrates that health protocols must be quickly amended to deal with the situation, not a simple task in the midst of a pandemic. Meanwhile, even as we salute the courage of our front-line warriors, the best we can do for them is to follow the infection prevention guidelines and stay healthy.


Opening supply chains

THE government’s decision to lift restrictions on goods transportation will help ease the impact of the coronavirus lockdown on the supply chain of food and other essential items. Suppliers and retailers were already facing a significant surge in demand for nonperishable food items and other necessities as people resorted to panic-buying in cities out of fear of possible shortages. Restrictions on inter-provincial and intercity movement and the distribution of goods designed to curb the spread of the coronavirus, which has infected over 1,400 people and killed at least 12 in the country, also added to the pressure. Reports from different cities suggested that products such as wheat flour were disappearing from the shops as new supplies were being delayed. However, the centre’s timely intervention may have saved the situation. At a press conference after the Friday meeting of the National Coordination Committee regarding the situation in the wake of the lockdown ordered by the provinces, Prime Minister Imran Khan announced another important decision ie opening food-related industries to ensure adequate supplies to meet the spike in demand during the shutdown period.
Indeed, the free movement of goods is essential to avoid supply chain disruptions. But that is not all. Some disruptions are being caused by incompetence and the unwillingness of the bureaucracy to cooperate with producers. For example, the ghee and edible oil industry in Punjab is facing a shortage of vitamins because the railway authorities are refusing to release the consignments imported by the manufacturers. Similarly, the current process for essential and export industries of obtaining notified exemptions from the district administration for their operations is quite cumbersome. It would be much better if the powers to issue those waivers were given to the representative bodies to prevent delays in the domestic and export supply chain. At the same time, the government needs to strictly direct Customs and the port authorities to cut the red tape and help both importers and exporters bring in raw materials or send out shipments. Pakistan, like the rest of the world, is facing a very challenging and uncertain situation. The war against Covid-19 is going to be a long and difficult one. It’s time the government took effective measures to simplify its procedures and processes to cut the bureaucratic red tape in order to avert unnecessary disruptions in the domestic supply chain as well as delays in the country’s overseas shipments to protect as many jobs as possible.


Polio strikes back

WHILE governments around the world come to terms with a sudden spike in the number of novel coronavirus patients, several new cases of the vaccine-derived poliovirus have been reported in Pakistan, intensifying its current health challenge. As a result, the total number of polio cases in the country has crossed 30 so far this year. This strain of the poliovirus was believed to have been eliminated from the population several years ago, only to make its reappearance last year. After an explosive Guardian investigation revealed flaws in Pakistan’s polio eradication programme, the health ministry was forced to admit that there had indeed been a resurgence in the vaccine-derived poliovirus, which has also sprung up in a few other parts of the world in recent years. Pakistan has the unfortunate distinction of being one of only three countries in the world that have not yet been declared polio-free. In 2019, there had been a sudden uptick in the number of polio cases following malicious anti-vaccine campaigns, and higher rates of refusals as a result of them. What is perhaps most tragic is that the country seemed so close to eradicating polio not too long ago, when just eight cases had been reported in 2017 — the lowest it had ever been.
Even though Covid-19 has understandably overshadowed all other news, and much of the country is under lockdown, the campaign to eliminate polio must not be forgotten. Right now, the international community is overwhelmed with the rapid spread of Covid-19, and a cure is yet to be found for it. However, polio has largely been eliminated from the world — even in countries with higher population densities, greater issues with sanitation and longer-lasting conflicts than Pakistan. Medical experts must be brought in to assess how the polio drive can continue under the current climate, and how best to ensure the safety of the health workers and children being administered the vaccine.
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