A Karachi street under lockdown. PHOTO: EXPRESS

Mounting concerns: Lockdown relaxation must not be taken lightly, health experts warn

With a spike in local transmission, doctors fear increased Covid-19 infections if measures are not strictly followed

Tufail Ahmad May 01, 2020
KARACHI: With the rapid spread of the Covid-19 disease across the globe, together with many countries – including Pakistan -- gradually trying to ease the lockdown restrictions, health experts warn that the phenomenon of social distancing is here to stay for the unforeseeable future.

Speaking to The Express Tribune, the head of the National Institute of Blood Diseases Dr Tahir Shamsi said that lifting of the lockdown does not mean that life will immediately return to normal, as people will have to continue taking precautionary measures until the arrival of a preventative vaccine.

“It’s been two months since we have had our first Covid-19 positive case in Pakistan and the total number has already exceeded 16,000 as of April 30,” he said. “Even though the numbers look scary, South Asian countries are still the least affected ones as compared to the rest of the world. Out of a population of 1.7 billion, the virus has so far affected only 31,000 people and the death rate has been just two per cent.”

New normal? Better normal!

Dr Shamsi explained that as against patients from China and South Korea, the coronavirus is not reactivating in the blood plasma of patients who have recovered in Pakistan, which serves as good news.

“After the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) registered the technique of passive immunisation to curb reactivation, the National Institute of Blood Diseases followed suit and retested the plasma of recovered patients which showed no signs of reactivation,” he said. “However, the reactivation of the virus remains a big concern for health professionals in Pakistan and we are closely monitoring the situation.”

Dr Tahir Shamsi said the virus has shown very aggressive behaviour in countries like China and South Korea, and each cycle of the virus lasts 60 days. However, it is too early to say how the virus will behave in its third phase and people should be prepared in case it intensifies.

Since South Asian countries also deal with several other seasonal infections throughout the year, including tuberculosis, malaria, hepatitis, dengue, typhoid, there is a possibility that people have developed immunity for the coronavirus.

“It is just a theory and still has no scientific evidence to back it, but looking at the devastation caused by Covid- 19 all over the world, it can be said that the people of Pakistan and India may have immunity against the disease.”

On the other hand, renowned microbiologist and the president of the Infection Control Society Pakistan Dr Rafiq Khanani said that most governments, including Pakistan, acted late because of which the disease has spread at an exponential rate.

“It has been two months since the first Covid-19 case was reported in Pakistan on February 26. During the first month, we saw a fewer number of cases because tests were not being conducted on a large scale,” Dr Khanani said. “The first locally-transmitted case of Covid-19 was reported in Pakistan on March 13 after which transmission accelerated. The Sindh government, however, imposed a lockdown on March 22.”

During the first two weeks of March, 131 cases were reported, whereas the first two deaths were reported on March 18. As of April 30, 6,329 Covid-19 cases have been reported across the country, out of which 361 people have succumbed to the virus.

“So far, 145,000 countrywide tests have been conducted, whereas the number of positive cases in trials has increased by 8%. This means that only one person out of 20,000 (0.05%) of the population could be tested,” Dr Khanani explained.

“If we apply for this number over the total population, the number will be beyond our imagination. Due to fewer tests, the community and policymakers, including the World Health Organisation (WHO) are under the misconception that the number of coronavirus cases in Pakistan is low. Local transmission of the disease in Pakistan is now entering its third phase. Therefore, an unusual number of new infections are expected in the next two to four weeks,” he warned.