How prepared are we for a possible outbreak of the Ebola Virus in Pakistan? While West Africa seems far off, the threat is very real. It becomes more pressing given the fact that hundreds of thousands of Hajis are returning to the country. Many of them may possibly have come into contact with people in Saudi Arabia coming from the Ebola-affected regions.
So far we have not done anything in terms of screening those returning from Saudi Arabia. In fact, most of them have already reached home.
In a letter to this paper, writer Tariq Ali says “I shudder at thought of such an outbreak as Ebola in Pakistan, where government medical facilities are nonexistent and corruption-infected check posts at our airports and seaports have been facilitating every one to walk in and out of this country, no questions asked.”
A recent report by Faiza Ilyas, a hard-working journalist who I have had the pleasure of knowing for more than a decade, suggests that Pakistan is on a high risk of having Ebola virus disease.
Most international airlines operating in its airspace are not complying with the requirement (under national and international regulations) of collecting information on passenger health status. Faiza Ilyas says that the airport health department is severely incapable of facing the challenge.
What we know is that the department is incapable in more ways than one. The issue is not that of paucity of funds or cooperation from airlines, as suggested by the head of that department. It is that of corruption.
While most countries have done away with the health declaration form, our airport health officials abuse the formality on a daily basis to harass vulnerable passengers like those arriving from Africa. The passengers are bullied, taken into a separate room and money extracted in exchange for a return for their passports.
We know that information on the health status of international passengers is the first tool at an airport to prevent the spread of infectious diseases. Our department keeps no such records. Forms filled by incoming passengers are dumped within minutes of being submitted. The wolves only prey on those they can make a killing from.
The same is the case with our sea and land borders. There are no procedures in place. Money talks. This is a far cry from other countries which have systems to check for Ebola and for other life-threatening diseases.
Saudi Arabia, where more than 250 people have died this year of Middle East respiratory syndrome corona virus (Mers-CoV) is now on high alert to tackle the threat of both Mers-CoV and Ebola.
Our situation is more complicated. Thousands of our men and women serve as peacekeepers in Sierra Leone and countries which have been put on the Ebola watch list. This is apart from sailors and aircrew working in charter companies who frequently visit that region.
If Ebola does break out in Pakistan, we have no plan in place to deal with it. Barring a few city hospitals, almost no medical facility has the capacity to deal with the disease or to try and contain it. Most victims will die before their symptoms are confirmed. They will also infect others.
How lightly we take medical issues can be gauged from the manner in which most passengers have dealt with the issue of polio certificates. There is no check at our borders for passengers to carry polio certificates. The onus is left on airlines and on points of destination.
The health ministry needs to wake up along with the NDMA, which is known more for sleeping till after a national disaster has taken place. If we do not act now, the chances are that our country will also suffer the same fate as those in West Africa where international airlines have suspended flights and passengers coming from that region are screened at every destination.
Our exports too would suffer as is the case with Ivory Coast and Ghana, who together produce half of the world’s cocoa. Given that they are next to Liberia and Guinea, where Ebola has struck with force, the export prospects for cocoa have also been affected. That is not because someone can get Ebola by eating a chocolate bar but because the farmers who tend to the crops would rather run away. We cannot afford such a fate.
Published in The Express Tribune, October 20th, 2014.