As the third coronavirus wave envelopes the country, there is a sense of déjà vu all around. Pakistanis have been here before, starting with the first and perhaps the most stringent of lockdowns a year ago. But it doesn't look like any concrete lessons were learnt from the pandemic experiences last year.
Starting with the government, the plateauing of cases in late July and early August last year had induced a lull that Pakistan was spared the worst (especially when compared with India) and that things would go back to normal. Restrictions were eased in August and infections remained rather calm until October. Economic indicators started recovering and it looked as though the end of pandemic was around the corner.
But then the second wave arrived in November, lasting until early February. This wave was less severe than first wave, so it did not necessitate major lockdowns. After a brief plateau that lasted until early March, the third wave is now here, and it looks set to top the first wave. Meanwhile, the first window of opportunity to start a mass vaccination drive was missed, as reliance was largely placed on donated doses.
It is clear that the Khan government is not fond of a time-bound national lockdown to get things under control. It has been prioritizing economic growth over public health. But the current wave, which is said to be much more contagious owing to the UK variant, is threatening to intensify. It may soon be too late to put the genie back in the bottle.
At the top, the good folks at NCOC continue to preach non-pharmacological interventions (NPIs) – such as social distancing, mask-wearing, and washing hands. While efficacy of such measures is without question, it is feared that NPIs alone may not be able to bring down the double-digit case positivity ratio. The virus strain may already have spread so much that extreme measures may be required to contain it.
If the government is behaving more like a bystander in a growing crisis, the public at large is not helping either. The NCOC leaders are showing their disappointment that the public is not adhering to NPIs, as authorities appear helpless. Anecdotal evidence shows that markets in major cities are flouting the timing restrictions and businesses are no longer strictly require their employees or customers to wear masks.
The coming days will make it clear if the government is forced to go for a broad and strict lockdown, especially in Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. If it is deemed unavoidable, an extended lockdown will again have negative consequences for employment, output, and tax collection. But a lockdown may be the lesser worry, compared to the gargantuan task of vaccinating most of the adult population against Covid-19 this year. Until the latter happens, the country won’t be out of the woods.