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Lockdown helped contain Covid-19 spread but badly hit the poor, says Dr Zafar Mirza

The federal government’s decision to impose a lockdown in the country in the first half of the last year helped effectively deal with the first wave of the Covid-19 pandemic but it badly impacted the economy, especially the poor segments and workers class.

This was stated by Dr Zafar Mirza, who was serving as the special assistant to the prime minister on national health services when the lockdown was imposed last year, as he spoke to an interactive session, titled ‘Advocacy for Covid-19-affected workers’, organised by the Pakistan Institute of Labour Education and Research (Piler) in collaboration with the Arts Council of Pakistan on Saturday night.

He said the government’s early measures to restrict the spread of Covid-19 slowed the spread of the pandemic in Pakistan during its first wave. A large number of people observed the standard operating procedures (SOPs) during the first wave of the Covid-19 pandemic and at one point by the end of June and early July, about 40 per cent of the people in the urban centres were found to be wearing masks, he added.

“The increase in cases and deaths during the second wave of Covid-19 is because a majority of people have stopped following the SOPs and public gatherings are increasing due to opposition rallies.”

Dr Mirza stated that a complete lockdown helped contain the spread of the virus but it badly impacted workers and poor people as economic activities came to a standstill. “The government closed down markets, offices, schools, and gatherings at marriage halls and mosques. Although the lockdown helped containment of the virus spread, it badly hit the livelihoods of the poor,” he conceded.

He added that during that time, the prime minister was highly concerned about the economic problems of the workers class and it was due to that the idea of a smart lockdown came in.

He explained that smart lockdowns were imposed to restrict the human movement in those areas where a large number of people had tested positive for Covid-19. “We used technologies, mobile applications and modern methods, developed by Pakistani experts and agencies for imposing smart lockdowns,” he said, adding that only certain areas were cordoned off in the smart lockdowns.

Dr Mirza said that it had been estimated that if 20 per cent of the people who would otherwise socially mobilise restricted their movements and observed the SOPs strictly, the spread of a pandemic could be contained.

Recalling the initial days of the Covid-19 outbreak in the country, he said he faced a lot of pressure from the parents whose children were stuck in Wuhan, China, as they wanted the government to bring their children back to Pakistan but he had given a clear advice to the government of not repatriating them due to the prospects of further spread of the disease.

Of a total of 600 Pakistani students, only 10 were affected by Covid-19 in Wuhan who were treated well by the Chinese government, he said. “Parents who were earlier pushing hard for bringing back their children had admitted the fact that the government’s decision was right.”

Pakistan put strict surveillance at 18 entry points during the initial phase of the pandemic, which caused restriction of the pandemic’s spread, Dr Mirza said. He added that the healthcare facilities in the country were not enough to deal with increased Covid-19 cases and hence, the best strategy was to contain the spread of the virus.

“Pakistan, unlike many other developing countries, took swift actions at an early stage, which delayed the introduction of the virus to the country,” he said. “We convened a meeting of the chief secretaries on January 15 and rang the alarm bell. We asked the provincial governments to take strict precautionary measures.”

Dr Tipu Sultan of the Pakistan Medical Association (PMA) lamented that due to the lockdown, a large number of workers were laid off and the poor had to face food insecurity. “There were very moving scenes in the villages around Karachi, where a majority of people were unable to eat even for one time a day during the lockdown.”

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