July 4, 2020

By Munizae Jahangir


The Special Advisor to Prime Minister (SAPM) on Health Dr. Zafar Mirza has stated in an exclusive interview that Pakistan is “in a better place than where it was two weeks ago regarding the coronavirus spread. The Advisor to PM on Health was in an exclusive interview with Munizae Jahangir, Executive Producer of Voicepk.net.

“If the (present) strength continues and it continues to stabilize and decline, then maybe we have passed the peak,” he said. “Suspected cases have gone down, positive cases have gone down from 22 percent to 15 percent – and deaths have gone down.”

Regarding testing Dr Mirza said that the testing capacity was more than 60,000 a day.

“By the end of July, I want to see 100,000 tests and for this, we have done major recruitments. The private sector in Islamabad has capped the price of testing kits at Rs6500,” he said. He added that more people could not be tested, because in the last two to three weeks fewer people are turning up for testing.”

He said there were 125 labs across Pakistan. “It is one thing to establish hardware, but human resources take time.”

Speaking about lockdowns he said that smart lockdowns were not enough unless the contacts are traced, SPOs implemented, and the situation, as well as the exit/entry points into hotspots, were continuously monitored. “Smart lockdowns have not been fully effective because there has been a lot of “diversity” in the way the provinces have implemented the smart lockdowns,” he said.

if the (present) strength continues and it continues to stabilize and decline, then maybe we MAY have passed the peak” – Dr. Mirza

Children can be carriers of the virus but an asymptomatic person is less likely to spread the virus in comparison to a person who has the symptoms, informed Dr. Mirza. Still, he maintains that Pakistanis are in a better place than they were two weeks ago. Dr. Mirza said that the next couple of days will determine whether Pakistan has passed its peak.

In a previous interview on July 1, also with Munizae Jahangir this time for her show “Spotlight” aired on Aaj TV, Dr Mirza had claimed that according to the government’s assessment the monsoon and the humidity in the coming months will reduce the spread of the disease.

On June 8, 2020, Prime Minister Imran Khan had warned that the peak was yet to come, as is a global expectation.

“Our cases are expected to peak by the end of July or August, and then the transmission will reduce,” the PM had said on a televised address. ”So, today I appeal to you, not for me, but for yourselves to please take precautions for your loved ones, for the elderly and for those who have other diseases.”

On June 14, Asad Umar, the Minister for Planning, Development and Special Initiatives reiterated the Prime Minister’s warning of the spread of CoVid-19, saying that the confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus could double by the end of June and reach one million to 1.2 million by the end of July. When questioned about how his claim of reduction of the spread of the disease was in direct contradiction to what the Prime Minister had been saying,” Dr. Mirza said, “The PM spoke about the expected peak by the end of July or August only after consulting with us. We have three groups that are working on projections. It’s big science and we have worked hard at it. Our projections were indicating the end of July. But then all other measures, some of them were man-made and some of them which we do not understand even and sum total of all these led us to what seems like we are stabilizing. We are stabilizing before what we had projected.”

Defending the government’s contradictory statements, Dr. Mirza said that since this was an evolving situation, the results may also evolve and things can change.

After observing the situation in Iran, UK, and the USA, it was unlikely that we could be entirely rid of the coronavirus till a vaccine was found to be expected until mid-next year. He warned that till then all nations will have to continue social distancing practices and encourage their population to wear masks and refrain from big gatherings.

Recently the government has decreased testing of CoViD-19. In June as many as 31,000 people per day were tested, but in the last 24 hours, testing was reduced to 22, 081 as per the information on the government’s website.

Testing must be Increased

“Testing has to be increased,” admitted Zafar Mirza to Voicepk.net. “We had a limited capacity of testing when we started out in March. We went up to more than 30,000. Our capacity is more than 60,000 a day. But fewer people are coming out.  People feel if they have mild symptoms they will recover. People are also scared of testing.”

While speaking about the challenges of fighting CoVid-19 said that though it was not hard to establish an infrastructure to carry out the testing, it was difficult to supply trained technicians to carry out the tests efficiently, which is why the rate of testing was low. He said the government is revisiting their testing strategy and is planning on running testing labs in two shifts.

“Today we have 125 labs. Its one thing to establish hardware,but human resource takes time.End of July I want to see 100,000 tests and we have done major recruitments for this,” Dr Mirza promised.


Regularising the Price of Test Kits

Dr. Zafar Mirza said that the government does not wish to interfere in the private health sector, but after consultations with the private health sector in Islamabad, has succeeded in capping the price of each test at Rs.6500.

“I had a meeting with provincial health care commissioners and they said they are all thinking on the same lines,” he said when asked if the provinces will follow the capital’s example.

Smart Lockdowns

Defending the government’s strategy of smart lockdowns, Dr. Mirza said that they are the way forward in fighting the pandemic in Pakistan. However, when questioned about the efficiency of the smart lockdowns when testing was low, he admitted that “it was not enough in a smart lockdown to just circle hotspots, place police check-posts and seal the areas. You have to do many other things….It means you have to trace the contacts, implement SOPs, continuously monitor the situation, control exit, and entry into this area for the smart lockdown to work.”

Dr. Mirza said the reason Pakistan has not been able to adopt a comprehensive strategy is that there is a lot of “diversity” in the way the provinces have carried out the smart lockdowns.

However, despite the setback, Dr. Mirza is hopeful that the smart lockdowns will work.

“Suspected cases have gone down, positivity has gone down from 22% to 15%, deaths have gone down” – Dr. Zafar Mirza

“We have 550 lockdowns at the moment in Pakistan. With every passing day, we are learning and improving the management of these lockdowns. More importantly, we are able to prove the before and after effect of a smart lockdown,” he said.

Dr. Mirza said that the government was unlikely to impose a complete lockdown during the upcoming Eid holidays, but said no option is “off the table.”

Defending the Prime Minister’s reluctance to impose any lockdown from the very beginning of the outbreak of this pandemic, Dr. Mirza said, that the Prime Minister was against lockdowns.

“I give credit to him (for the success of his strategy in fighting the pandemic),” he said. “If you think about it, from when we delayed entry of the first case in Pakistan on February 26, our stabilization had started before other countries. There must be some consistency of policy here. From the beginning, PM Khan has been trying to find out ways of how we can run the economy and reduce the spread of the disease at the same time. Eventually, the TTQ strategy was launched on April 24 and now a smart lockdown is the result of that guidance. When people say there has not been a consistent strategy, I absolutely disagree with that.”

Children Are Vulnerable

An important thing that Dr. Mirza reiterated was that children too were equally vulnerable to the disease.

Speaking of the effects of COVID-19 on children, Dr. Mirza said that though elderly people above the age of 50 years were the most vulnerable to the virus, children can fall prey to it and die from it.

“It is rare for it to be lethal for children but not impossible,” he said. Dr. Mirza explained that children could be carriers of the virus but an asymptomatic person is less likely to spread the virus in comparison to a person who has the symptoms.