With Pakistan’s first case of Omicron sub-variant BA.2.12.1, and the fear of yet another Covid wave in the country, it is encouraging that Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif has decided to restore the National Command and Operations Centre (NCOC). Since the NCOC had followed a data-driven approach to keep the nation updated, it was unwise to create disruptions in its operations by dissolving it altogether last month. This becomes all the more important after a latest report from the World Health Organization (WHO) has revealed startling estimates of deaths from Covid-19 in the past two years. The report says that in Pakistan the actual death toll may have been eight times higher than has been officially reported. Former health adviser Dr Faisal Sultan has said that, though there may have been some underreporting, putting it eight times higher appears to be a stretch. For India, the report has said that the death toll may have been as high as five million; India’s official count is half a million deaths due to Covid.
The WHO has attributed this underreporting to governments around the world that have willingly or unwillingly undercounted the casualties that Covid-19 has caused from January 2020 to December 2022, and has said that many countries had the knowledge and technology to prevent infections and deaths, but their decision-making processes and policy failures resulted in avoidable deaths. In the face of massive healthcare failures, most countries preferred not to count the death toll correctly and either looked the other way or simply glossed over the pandemic that was wreaking havoc in their populations. To a great extent, the pandemic has prolonged its presence by sheer negligence of many governments around the world. This extended spiraling of the disease has exacerbated its effects.
The WHO has also pointed out that billions of people who are mostly in low- and middle-income categories are still without access to tests and treatments. It all boils down to one unpleasant reality: inequality in access to resources. A strong healthcare system that benefits all, irrespective of their socioeconomic status, is the only possible antidote to future such outbreaks. Properly qualified and trained health workers along with instant provision of medicines are just two of the ingredients of an effective public healthcare system. In Pakistan, we have the example of the NCOC, which ensured that the number of cases did not spiral out of hand. The vaccination drive managed to inoculate a considerable proportion of the adult population. The NCOC’s work also showed that if there is adequate will, the state can manage even a devastating pandemic. This work needs to now be emulated by all health departments and ministries. The Shehbaz Sharif government will need to keep a close eye on the new variant, and renew Covid protocol measures – which have now been all but forgotten in the country.