After a lockdown of 45 days, the government of Balochistan eased restrictions from May 9. The new arrangements were termed a ‘smart’ lockdown, where all businesses and establishments were allowed to operate till 5PM with social distancing protocols. This decision was taken in the backdrop of mounting pressure raised from the trader’s community who refused to further extend the lockdown.
The aim of the smart lockdown was to allow economic activity so that people can earn their livelihoods while controlling the spread of COVID-19 at the same time. Since May 9, people have been flocking to markets in huge numbers. All markets are crowded; there are traffic jams and all social distancing protocols are being ignored by the public as well traders. This situation has increased fears of further spread of coronavirus in Balochistan.
As of May 11, as many as 2,158 people have tested positive for Coronavirus, and 27 deaths were recorded relating to this pandemic, as per official figures provided by the provincial government. However, the situation is much more critical than what is reflected in the official data. Last week, Director-General of Health Dr Saleem Abro claimed that by mid-July, 1.8 million will be infected by this virus if the government did not enforce stringent social distancing protocols.
As of May 11, as many as 2,158 people have tested positive for Coronavirus, and 27 deaths were recorded relating to this pandemic, as per official figures provided by the provincial government
Earlier this month, the Strategic Planning and Reforms Cell (SPRC) of the provincial government prepared a report for the chief minister (CM) of Balochistan. The report was titled Forecasting the Trajectory of COVID-19 in Balochistan: Scenario Analysis and Modelling, a copy of which is available with The Friday Times. This report reveals startling information about the current spread and future projections of Coronavirus in Balochistan.
This report claims that active infections of Coronavirus in Balochistan as of May 4 are approximately 20,000. This means that actual infections are at least 10 times higher than official reported infections, as per this report. The number of active infections in Balochistan is forecasted by this report based on the level of mitigation adopted by the provincial government.
Three scenarios are presented by this report based on the modelling carried out by the experts of SPRC. The first scenario is called weak mitigation, which refers to a situation where social distancing protocols are loose. In this scenario, a staggering number of 8.39 million people in Balochistan will be infected till July from Coronavirus and 100,000 will die. This means that almost 68 percent population of the province will be infected when mitigation is weak.
The second scenario is called moderate mitigation. Under this scenario, the report forecasts 640,000 infections and 7,600 deaths till July this year. The third scenario is called strong mitigation, where the government is expected to enforce all the required social distancing protocols. In this scenario, 24,000 people will be infected and only 360 people will die due to coronavirus. The report further states that Balochistan is most likely to face weak or a moderate mitigation scenario. This means the number of infections will be somewhere between 640,000 to 8.39 million, which is extremely worrying.
Furthermore, the report also recommends a scenario where 120,000 people will be infected in the province, and deaths will be 1,500. This recommended scenario is far better than what’s expected to happen in Balochistan if the violations of smart lockdown protocols continued unabated in the province. However, to achieve this scenario, the government has to enforce a set of protocols in a very strict manner.
The report recommends that the provincial government should ensure that everyone wears masks in public, even cheap cotton masks will also work. The report further recommends that educational institutes and non-essential offices should remain closed. Public gatherings should be banned, markets should remain partially open and the practice of hand sanitisation should be followed everywhere. Borders should be opened with strict screening and a mechanism should be put in place to promote the rapid self-isolation of infected persons. If the provincial government ensures these practices, only then can it achieve figures of the recommended scenario, as per this forecasting report.
The report has been presented to the provincial government and so far there is no indication that they have started following its recommendations. It is anybody’s guess how seriously they will take the report. However, this report has exposed the gravity of the crisis which will unfold in the next couple of months if the provincial government does not work on course correction of its lockdown implementation strategies.
In this context, the Balochistan government has to take urgent action to prevent the mass spread of the virus in the province. A starting point can be to implement social distancing protocols, as recommended in the forecasting report, in letter and spirit. There should not be any compromise on any of the protocols, which can render the lockdown fruitless. It is a huge challenge for the government to ensure all these protocols while allowing economic activity at the same time. This will be a huge test of the provincial government and the bureaucratic machinery.
Moreover, the government should continue the closure of all educational institutes in the province. Opening educational institutes from June 1, as suggested by some quarters, can be catastrophic for promoting the spread of the virus among students. At the same time, the provincial government also needs to work up plans on how to make up for the months of closures of institutes. One way can be to cancel the upcoming winter vacations so that the syllabus of students can be completed and they do not end up wasting the academic year 2020.
Lastly, there are a lot of people who believe in conspiracy theories and do not take this virus seriously. The level of seriousness can be gauged from the statement of a local driver to this scribe. The driver said, “I will only believe in the existence of Coronavirus if I see it with my own eyes.” Therefore, the government of Balochistan has to carry out a robust exercise to educate masses about Coronavirus because people will only follow the social distancing protocols once they believe in the scientific realities of Coronavirus.
The writer is a journalist and researcher based in Quetta. He can be reached on twitter: @iAdnanAamir