With Pakistan confirming seven new novel coronavirus cases, the World Health Organisation has warned that the country faces great challenge ahead to contain the viral outbreak.
The statement came at virtual press conference by WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Executive Director Dr Michael J Ryan, and Technical lead Dr Maria Van Kerkhove from a boardroom in Geneva late Friday.
Responding to a question by The Express Tribune on the epidemiological outlook for Pakistan, Dr Ryan said the country has great capacity in public health. “But there are also challenges,” he added. “Pakistan has a highly mobile population with mega cities and undeserved people.”
“So there is a great challenge facing Pakistan. But Pakistan has also demonstrated time and again with dengue, polio and other diseases how all of the government and society’s approaches can be made to work.”
Dr Ryan fondly remembered his time on the anti-polio campaign in Pakistan working with National Emergency Operations Coordinator Rana Safdar. “I have personally worked in Pakistan for the polio eradication for nearly three years,” he reminisced. “And [I] enjoyed my time working with some excellent Pakistani colleagues.”
The WHO executive director extended the body’s assistance and backed “fine public health servants” in the country to contain the outbreak.
Dr Kerkhove noted that Asian countries dealt with the outbreak aggressively and saw success. But she warned that even though the virus seemed to be slowing down, it may come back.
The WHO panel stated that it was ‘impossible’ to say when COVID-19 pandemic will peak.
Until the filing of this report, Pakistan’s tally of confirmed Covid-19 cases stood at 28 with 15 patients testing positive in Sindh, five in Gilgit-Baltistan, one in Balochistan and seven at the Taftan border.
All 28 patients are individuals with recent travel history.
Until Friday morning, at least 251 people had been tested in Sindh, 110 in Punjab, 30 in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, 18 in Balochistan, nine in Azad Jammu and Kashmir and 32 in G-B. So far Punjab, K-P, AJK and federal territories have not reported any confirmed case of the novel coronavirus.
Action plan against Covid-19 outbreak
Earlier in the day, Prime Minister Imran Khan chaired meeting of the National Security Committee (NSC) to cobble a unified approach to contain the outbreak.
The huddle was attended by Chief of Army Staff (COAS) Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa and Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) Director General Lt-Gen Faiz Hameed provincial chief ministers, top advisors and cabinet members.
It was decided to close borders with Iran and Afghanistan, allow only three airports – Karachi, Islamabad and Lahore – to operate international flights in limited numbers while other airports will see domestic flights, and ban public gatherings.
The National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) has been tasked to coordinate with provincial governments and lead the fight against novel coronavirus. It was also decided to close all educational institutions until April 5.
In a first, the Pakistan Day parade on March 23 have also been cancelled.
Tedros began the press conference with declaring Europe as the new epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak with more reported cases and deaths than the rest of the world combined, apart from China. “More cases are now being reported every day than were reported in China at the height of its epidemic,” he added.
“Any country that looks at the experience of other countries with large epidemics and thinks “that won’t happen to us” is making a deadly mistake. It can happen to any country,” he warned.
On containing the virus, Tedros urged countries to take a comprehensive approach. “Not testing alone. Not contact tracing alone. Not quarantine alone. Not social distancing alone. Do it all.”
“The experience of China, the Republic of Korea, Singapore and others clearly demonstrates that aggressive testing and contact tracing, combined with social distancing measures and community mobilization, can prevent infections and save lives,” he continued.
“Japan is also demonstrating that a whole-of-government approach led by Prime Minister Abe himself, supported by in-depth investigation of clusters, is a critical step in reducing transmission.”
He listed four action points to deal with the outbreak.
- Prepare and be ready: Every person must know the signs and symptoms and how to protect themselves and others. Every health worker should be able to recognize this disease, provide care and know what to do with their patients. Every health facility should be ready to cope with large numbers of patients and ensure the safety of staff and patients.
- Detect, protect and treat: You can’t fight a virus if you don’t know where it is. Find, isolate, test and treat every case, to break the chains of transmission. Every case we find and treat limits the expansion of the disease.
- Reduce transmission: Do not just let this fire burn. Isolate the sick and quarantine their contacts. In addition, measures that increase social distancing such as cancelling sporting events may help to reduce transmission. These measures, of course, should be based on local context and risk assessment, and should be time-limited. Even if you cannot stop transmission, you can slow it down and save lives.
- Innovate and learn: This is a new virus and a new situation. We’re all learning, and we must all find new ways to prevent infections, save lives, and minimise impact. All countries have lessons to share.
Tedros explained simple and effective measures to reduce the spread of the virus. “Clean your hands regularly with an alcohol-based rub or soap and water. Cover your mouth and nose with your elbow if you cough or sneeze. Stay home if you’re sick. Avoid unnecessary travel and large social gatherings. Comply with the advice of your local or national health authority. Find and share reliable information.”
He then launched the WHO Solidarity Response Fund in collaboration with the United Nations Foundation and the Swiss Philanthropy Foundation.
Dr Kerkhove emphasized on educating and raising awarenss about the disease in order to combat it. “Most people believe the signs and symptoms of Covid-19 are just cold and flu when it’s not,” she explained. “It’s fever and dry cough.”
The WHO technical lead stressed that knowing the difference will save lives.
When asked about social isolation, Dr Ryan said it was contextual and entirely upon the governments to execute. “Stigma is more dangerous than the disease itself,” he reflected. The WHO executive director warned against exclusive and urged world leaders to work together. “We must leave no one behind. We’re in this together.”
Read The Express Tribune‘s live coverage of the Covid-19 outbreak in Pakistan and the around the globe here.