The spread of the novel coronavirus is not a black swan moment, though many have argued that it may be (A black swan moment is an outlier event that carries an extreme impact). Take it from the coiner of the term, scholar and statistician Nassim Nicholas Taleb, who rejects that covid-19 was an unexpected, unpredictable event.
The warnings bells had been rung by experts, he argues. But even if the world were blinded to the forewarnings, one does wonder, in a world so networked and digitized, if there ever were a time for it to be prepared to curb the exponential outbreak of the coronavirus, it should have been now. Not least because of the preparedness of the healthcare system or the social protection programmes established by governments, but by the sheer fact that the digital world reigns supreme today. Why have we failed to physically distance?
It’s just 6-feet after all, about 2 arm’s length! Yesterday global headlines announced that New Zealand was the first country to eradicate covid-19 and the last of its positive cases. It was able to do that for a variety of reasons but foremost is that the country has a small population that already lives- distant, for lack of a better explainer. The running WhatsApp joke is that you would have to drive 4 kms in New Zealand to sneeze at your neighbor. Pakistan’s case is different.
Pakistan is heavily populated, extremely congested and poor. A major chunk of the urban population works informally and is employed in factories, construction sites or services centers that require physical presence. As a result, only a small share of the population has been able to work from home. Meanwhile, though evidence supports that digital transactions in the country have grown during lockdown, digital transformation in the country has not happened as rapidly or as broadly, despite government’s seeming commitment toward financial inclusion. Whereas more people have mobile phones and internet devices, are more open to shopping online, and have embraced the use of mobile and digital payment services, digital penetration amongst the masses remains pretty low.
Just mapping mobility data points against fresh daily Covid-19 cases in the country can paint a telling story. Google launched a sleek mobility database (using location data) for the period Jan-3, 2020 to Mar-29, 2020 that shows how mobility has changed across countries. The data is divided amongst different categories (see graph): movement at grocery and pharmacies, at retail and recreation, at parks and transit stations (not shown in graph), at workplaces, and at residences. In Pakistan, as some form of lockdown was instated, people’s movement dropped significantly.
Uptil end of March, there was a marked increase in mobility at residential areas while a drop in movement was observed at workplaces, transit stations, parks, recreational places and grocery stories. Due to the lockdown, public transport was banned, cafés; restaurants and grocery stores were either closed down or were allowed to be open for a limited period of time. But recall what havoc that created amongst small shop owners and businesses, amidst cries of the industrial sector and the poor working classes.
It was clear that the lockdown could not go on for long periods of time. Mixed messages sent by the government and an absence of a cohesive communication plan (read more: “The silence of the lambs”, June 4, 2020) also enfeebled any efforts for the population to adopt physical distancing and other protective measures. In fact, April mobility data shows, mobility started to return as days turned into weeks. Noticeably, the number of new cases also rose.
In fact, during Eid holidays, even those families that were physically distancing decided to break self-quarantine. The effects of this increased community closeness started to translate into more and more daily cases. (One caveat here is that the google data is based on location history of smartphone users who have their location feature on. This means the data represents a small share of the urban population that uses smartphones and has its location services turned on).
Whether this proves causality and/or correlation is for economists to calculate, but there seems to be a link. Compared to other countries, mobility in Pakistan has consistently remained higher (Bangladesh, India, Italy, UK etc.). But consider the case of South Korea which has managed to adopt a completely different strategy—of higher testing and tracking but not locking down. Mobility data of the country shows that people in the country have maintained their regular activities throughout the period.
Unfortunately, Pakistan has neither been able to adequately restrict mobility through lockdowns, nor has it been able to do what South Korea did. It seems like Pakistan is now opting for herd immunity. As lockdowns are relaxed and mobility grows, number of new cases are already piling up, and cannot be filed away. When will the Covid-19 peak in Pakistan and what does herd immunity mean for this country, we will explore next time.