Misplaced optimism or good news?
THE government’s recent assertion that the rate of confirmed Covid-19 cases in the country is declining merits closer examination. According to the planning minister and NCOC chair, Asad Umar, the positivity ratio — determined by the number of people testing positive for the coronavirus out of the total number tested in a day — has gone down. The minister asserted that, whereas in mid-June the rate of those testing positive was 22pc, that percentage has now dropped to around 9pc as only 2,145 people out of the 24,262 tested on July 15 had been confirmed positive. Mr Umar also shared a breakdown of the Covid-19 data from June 1 to June 15 to demonstrate that daily average tests at 23,403 in that period resulted in approximately 5,056 positive cases. Yet from July 1 to July 15, he said, 22,969 daily tests returned 3,097 positive cases. His response to the opposition parties who were criticising the low Covid-19 figures as a result of fewer tests was that the low positivity ratio reflects the success of the government’s preventive measures. This lowering of the ratio, while ostensibly welcome news, warrants a thorough examination which is only possible in one way: the constant collection and detailed analyses of data.
Experts all over the world have demonstrated that virus trends can only be forecast by reading data — which is gathered when mass testing is conducted over a period of time. At present, Pakistan’s trajectory of confirmed Covid-19 cases is outwardly encouraging, yet appears to be an anomaly when compared to the trends in the rest of the world where mass testing has revealed alarmingly high transmission rates. The low reported figures in the country have left health experts here puzzled, and many of them have speculated about the possible causes. One has suggested that the decline could be associated with the presence of a kind of “non-specific immunity” that is unique to the Pakistani population. However, such theories must be proven before they can be accepted as reality, and the road to collecting facts towards that end is mass testing. A survey conducted by the National Institute of Health in Islamabad contradicts the government’s view as it suggests that the number of people infected in the capital could be around 300,000 — the vast majority of whom are asymptomatic. This survey should compel authorities to ramp up daily testing, which is still between 23,000 and 24,000 — a daily testing figure which is one-fifth the number of the previously announced target of 100,000 daily tests.
In the absence of mass testing, speculation and claims of victory have little value. Instead of cherry-picking the version of the Covid-19 trajectory which is most acceptable, the authorities must commit to quadrupling the number of daily tests to ascertain what the actual spread of the virus is in Pakistan. Anything short of that will create a false sense of security.
THE monsoon season in the subcontinent should be a time of great joy, with wet weather bringing respite from the stifling summer heat. But in Karachi, rainfall brings a feeling of dread, with citizens fearing long duration without power, flooded streets and dangling electric wires ready to electrocute any unfortunate soul that should come in contact with them. Sure enough, on Friday, after a brief spell of rain this script was followed to a tee in this unfortunate metropolis, with at least two people electrocuted, massive city-wide traffic snarl-ups and wide thoroughfares turning into canals. If a few millimetres of rain were enough to bring the country’s economic capital to its knees, one shudders to think what the situation would be in case of sustained heavy rainfall.
The reasons for this sad state of affairs are multiple. Primarily, decades of neglect by federal, provincial and local governments have left a legacy of decaying infrastructure and failed institutions in this city. In Karachi, solid waste disposal, the drainage and water supply system as well as other basic issues of urban management have fallen victim to a vicious turf war between the PPP-led Sindh government and the MQM-steered city administration. The result is that no one is willing to take responsibility for failures; the easy way out is to blame political opponents. While multimillion-dollar projects have been announced to fix Karachi’s drainage system — which has collapsed, as was evident on Friday — the fact is that only an effective local government system, led by professionals concerned with public welfare rather than political apparatchiks, can fix the city’s multiple urban problems. The Sindh government has clearly failed while trying to act as a glorified municipality for the megacity; the mayor has also failed to deliver the goods with whatever powers he has available to him. It is time Sindh’s political stakeholders worked out a proper, empowered local government system for the province’s urban areas, as the status quo is simply not working.
A RECENT study published in the Lancet medical journal estimated that the world’s population will experience a peak in the year 2064 (9.73bn people), before seeing a sharp decline at the end of the century, with an estimated 8.79bn people inhabiting the planet in 2100. The figure stands in contrast to an earlier projection made by the United Nations, which stated that the global population may peak in 2100, with approximately 10.9bn people — 2bn higher than the latest estimate. However, the more recent journal study estimated that more than 20 countries will witness their populations reduce by half or more, including Italy, Portugal, Japan, South Korea and Thailand. The most populous country in the world, China, will show a drastic reduction from 1.4bn to 732m people in 2100. Meanwhile, India will overtake China as the country with the highest population, peaking at 1.6bn people before declining to 1.09bn in 2100. In contrast, several African countries will witness an increase in their populations, and Nigeria is expected to swell up to around 791m, surpassing China, which is projected to have the third highest population by 2100.With 336m people, the United States is anticipated to have the fourth highest population in the world in 2100, followed by Pakistan (248m) at fifth place.
Even at this time, Pakistan has the fifth highest population in the world, trailing behind only China, India, the United States and Indonesia. The current number of people in the country stands well over 200m, and Pakistan also has one of the highest annual birth rates in the world. And yet, despite the fact that this population boom has far-reaching consequences, affecting every aspect of social development and service provision, the issue is not treated with the urgency that it deserves. The Lancet study attributed the projected lower global population growth rates to “continued trends in female educational attainment and access to contraception” in much of the world. In order to keep fertility rates low, the researchers recommended continued policymaking to improve women’s reproductive health. However, in a seminar last year, the special assistant to the prime minister for national health services explained that about half of all married women in Pakistan do not use or have access to modern contraceptive methods, resulting in over 3m unwanted pregnancies each year. Until women’s lower social standing and lack of agency is addressed and remedied, this nation will not be able to realise its true potential.
Published in The DAWN, July 19, 2020