New coronavirus cases in Pakistan have continued to decline in the past two weeks — a development the government of PM Imran Khan dubbed as the result of its “successful” anti-COVID-19 strategy.
But health experts are sceptical about the government’s claim, warning it is too early to declare victory against the virus that has already infected more than 250,000 people across the country with near 5,500 deaths. while around 70% of the patients have recovered.
On Tuesday, the country recorded slightly below 2,000 new cases, the lowest number of daily cases in months, compared to between 5,000 and 6,000 in May and June.
The government shut down a 1,000-bed facility for coronavirus patients in northeastern Lahore, citing a reduction in the number of new cases and a “home isolation” policy for patients.
Federal Minister for Planning Asad Umar, who also heads the country’s anti-coronavirus campaign, claims a 28% reduction in recent weeks in the number of patients who require ventilators and oxygen cylinders.
“This happened due to the government’s smart lockdown policy, enforcement of SoPs (standard operating procedures), and on top of all, the collective response from the people,” he said on Twitter.
Last month, he warned that infections could exceed 1 million by the end of July if daily numbers continued to rise at the previous rate. Currently, Pakistan is ranked twelfth in COVID-19 cases in the world, and second in the region after India.
Health experts cite a significant decrease in the number of tests as one of the reasons behind dwindling new COVID-19 cases.
Contrary to the doctors’ advice, the number of average coronavirus tests have dropped from 28,000 per day to below 24,500 in the past few weeks, even though the government claims to have enhanced testing capacity to 32,000.
“There has been a downhill trend vis-a-vis new coronavirus cases over the past few weeks but it’s mainly because of reduction in the number of daily tests. This is certainly not a positive development,” Qaisar Sajjad, head of Pakistan Medical Association, a nationwide body of health professionals, told Anadolu Agency.
The association, he said, advised the government to enhance daily COVID-19 tests to 100,000 but instead of following doctors’ advice, the number has been slashed.
“Another reason for the decrease in the number of tests, is that doctors nowadays are not forcing patients to get themselves tested for mild reasons,” said Sajjad, an ear, nose and throat specialist. “The general public itself is not that panicked now. They are not rushing the hospitals, and laboratories for COVID-19 tests in case of mild cough, fever and pain, compared to the past months.”
“The panic is by and large over but the threat is still there. The major threat are patients with no or mild symptoms. If they are not tested, we will never know whether or not they are infected,” he added.
Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, chairman of the centre-left Pakistan Peoples Party, which rules southern Sindh province, the country’s hardest-hit region by COVID-19, also lashed out at the central government for slashing the number of tests.
“Wherever the PTI (ruling Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf) government is, the number of tests have deliberately been decreased to show the lower number of patients,” Bilawal said at a news conference Monday in Karachi.
“If you do not conduct the tests, the graph of [coronavirus] patients will automatically drop,” he said.
Home to 50 million residents, Sindh, the country’s second-most populous province after Punjab, currently leads in terms of per capita COVID-19 tests. Northeastern Punjab, home to 130 million, is currently conducting only 6,000 to 7,000 tests daily, according to health ministry data.
Dr. Faisal Sultan, the prime minister’s focal person on coronavirus, observed the peak that hit the country’s health care system in the middle of June, has reduced, mainly because of the government’s “smart lockdown” strategy, aggressive awareness campaigns and a behavioural change among the masses.
“The factors, which have helped in declining the cases are awareness campaigns, behavioural changes, and smart lockdowns,” Sultan told Anadolu Agency. “In the coming weeks, we can determine the factors more specifically according to their contribution towards lessening the cases, ” he said.
“All the epidemics have three stages. First, they start, then touch the peak and then start declining. This [declining] is the most crucial part, where we have to continue following the safety precautions to maintain the graph or push it towards further decline,” he added.
Dr. Faiyaz Alam, a Karachi-based health expert involved with coronavirus treatment, had a similar view.
“Reduction in the number of tests is an issue but this is not the major reason behind the decrease in the number of new cases. A significant drop in the infection ratio is the actual reason for that,” Alam said while speaking to Anadolu Agency.
“The average daily infection ratio was between 22% and 23% per 100 patients until a few weeks ago. But currently, the ratio has dropped to 12% to 13%,” he said.
A better understanding of the people with safety guidelines was another reason behind the decline in infection ratio, he said.
“In my opinion, people have understood that coronavirus is not going away anytime soon. They have realized that they have to live with it for months or years. They themselves are taking precautions,” he said. “That’s why there is no burden on emergency care, and rush outside the testing laboratories.”
Spike threat is still there
Alam, however, acknowledged COVID-19 patients with no symptoms would continue to pose a threat for another spike in the pandemic.
“There is no need to panic but no need to relax as well. The threat is not over as the lowering infection ration might be temporary,” he said, warning that the forthcoming Eid-ul-Adha Muslim festival would be “crucial” to the country’s anti-coronavirus strategy.
“If people come out as they did on Eid-ul-Fitr in the hundreds of thousands, then I have no doubt about another spike,” he said, referring the celebration at the end of the holy month of Ramadan.
The number of cases shot up manifold after the government relaxed lockdown restrictions in May on the eve of Eid-ul-Fitr. Echoing Alam’s views, Sajjad went on to say: “If people do not follow the safety precautions, and act in the same [Eid-ul-Fitr] fashion, then there will be an even bigger spike in the pandemic.”
“It’s too early to jump to the conclusion vis a vis claims about a decline in the number of COVID-19 cases and deaths,” he said.