‘We are clearly heading towards a situation India is facing’: Pakistan’s ticking Covid timebomb
When Dr Muhammad Suhail looks at the distressing reports of India’s battle against coronavirus, he fears it may be a forewarning of what could happen in his own hospital in northwest Pakistan.
His wards are already full of Covid-19 patients, yet the numbers keep creeping up and in the surrounding city of Peshawar residents refuse to abide by social distancing precautions.
The spectacle of India’s hospitals running out of oxygen, its crematoria setting up makeshift funeral pyres, and thousands of deaths has set off a wave of sympathy in neighbouring Pakistan, but also alarm that the country may be struck next.
Dr Suhail said at his Hayatabad Medical Complex, all 130 beds were now full. “We are clearly heading towards a situation India is facing today,” he told the Telegraph.
“Both Pakistan and India have same issues. People in both countries aren’t following the [precautions].”
The country of around 220 million is currently recording an average of around 5,500 cases and 130 deaths per day – similar levels to the peak of the first wave seen last June. A lack of testing means those official figures are thought to be a significant undercount.
The government has admitted that the number of patients needing oxygen is far higher than it was last summer.
Pakistani authorities are racing to add more beds and ventilators at hospitals to stave off shortages, but doctors say unless the government can persuade people to be more careful, nothing can stop a health crisis.
At nearby Khyber Teaching Hospital, Dr Jawad Khan said its 150 beds were also all full.
“We can see a sudden spike in patients due to a lack of standard operating procedures (SOPs), like neighbouring India,” he said. Doctors were continuously trying to make available more beds, ventilators and oxygen supplies, “but all depends on preventive measures,” he said.
“The government should make arrests, seal shops and markets along with jail terms and heavy penalties to send a clear message that the violators of SOPs wouldn’t get spared,” he said.
The arrival of new easily spread mutant variants, government complacency and a public refusal to abide by distancing restrictions have all been blamed for India’s crisis.
Pakistan too has struggled to get people to abide by restrictions, leaving ministers to plead with the public to take greater care. Polling has shown that many believe the risk from Covid-19 has been overstated.
Travel from India has been banned, including the closure of the land border at Wagah, and tensions between the neighbours mean there are no direct flights. Yet while officials who have seen sequencing data say there is no sign in Pakistan yet of the “double mutant” variant found in India, the easily transmissible UK variant has taken widespread hold.
Pakistan’s underfunded health system may be even less able to cope with a serious surge of cases than India’s. Both spend little on public health, but Pakistan spends 3.2 per cent of GDP compared with 3.5 per cent in India, according to World Bank figures.
Vaccination has barely begun in Pakistan, with so far only a fraction of one per cent of the country having been given a jab. The programme shows no sign of soon speeding up either, with the government waiting on its first consignment of doses from the Covax scheme and otherwise reliant on Chinese donations.
Imran Khan, the prime minister, announced late last week that troops would be deployed to help police enforce distancing rules. The army’s information wing on Monday said soldiers “will go to every corner of Pakistan to ensure the protection of citizens”.
Maj Gen Babar Iftikhar told a press conference: “The primary purpose of deployment of army troops is to help civil institutions and law enforcement agencies.”
He went on: “In this testing time, Pakistan Army will use all its capabilities to take every possible step for the protection of citizens and their lives. [We] will go to every corner of Pakistan to ensure the protection of citizens.”
Health officials welcomed the extra support from the military.
Dr Javid Ali, at Peshawar’s Lady Reading Hospital, said the deployment was the “right step at the right time”.
“Presently, we need strict enforcement of the precautionary measures as the hospitals, it seems, would soon be overwhelmed by patients.”