South Asians for Human Rights

Promoting Democracy, Upholding Human Rights

IT has been a difficult year for everybody, but as Eid approaches there are grounds to take some cheer. The pall of gloom that descended on the country with the start of the lockdowns on March 24 has now begun to lift and there is good reason to expect that the sun is rising after those dark days. It is premature to say that the danger is now behind us, and it would be reckless to lower our guard at this point.

But the signs are unmistakable. The virus is now receding, and even if the official numbers are understating the spread of the infection, or the deaths resulting from it, that still does not negate the fact that the virus has not wrought the kind of widespread catastrophe that we were bracing ourselves for in the early days.

It has been 155 days since the first confirmed cases were detected in the country on Feb 26, and where the models were telling us the death toll could approach 100,000 by now, we have lost 5,892 people (as per the official count). Of course, each of those lives is precious, but on this occasion we should thank the Almighty that we have been spared the kind of catastrophe that others — like Brazil, the US, UK, Spain, Italy and so many more — have had to face.

The days to come will offer plenty of opportunity to dissect and explore the reasons why our country, along with many others from the subcontinent and Africa to name a few, were spared the large death tolls the virus has brought to so many other countries.

Many among us will no doubt attribute it to the ‘smart lockdown’ policy adopted by the government, and they are welcome to it, and if they are right then we should all be grateful. But we will have to wait for an answer to the question. After all, even after those days when the lockdowns were largely lifted and the SOPs were clearly not being followed, such as the last days of Ramazan and the run-up to the Eid shopping season, we saw a spike in cases afterwards, but even that spike did not rise to catastrophic levels. It levelled out far sooner than what the models were telling us.

Undoubtedly, some sort of X factor has been at play in many countries that has mitigated the virulence of the infection, curbing its spread as well as its lethality, and I am sure all my readers will join me in offering up a prayer of deep gratitude to our Creator that we are among those countries.

Deaths from the virus per million population peaked in Belgium at 848 followed by the UK at 676 where the world average at the moment is 85. Just look at the numbers from the other countries: Spain 608, Chile 583, Italy 581, Peru 564, Sweden 564, the US 460, Brazil 417, Netherlands 359 and so on.

By contrast in Pakistan, the figure stands at 27. Now we can say that this is understated because the testing rate has gone down, or that people are not going to hospitals to avoid the stigma, or that deaths are not being registered as Covid-19 deaths but attributed to some other cause in an effort to bring down the numbers. But no matter how you cut it, you cannot get around the fact that this number is low, in fact, far lower than anything we imagined at the start of the whole affair. You can triple this number to correct for underreporting bias, and you still won’t reach the world average, let alone the catastrophic numbers that many others saw, including Iran (194).

It is possible to understate the deaths up to a point. But if you do it past a certain threshold, other data points will betray you. If we had a low reported death rate, but hospitals were issuing death certificates at a rapid pace and ICUs were full of patients struggling to breathe, we could say ‘what’s going on?’ and begin to doubt the official fatality figures the government was putting out. If the hospitals have been emptied out because patients are being turned away (unlikely, but let’s assume for a minute nonetheless), the graveyards would be seeing a surge in the number of bodies being brought for burial.

There is some increase in graveyard data in June, but nothing that points towards a widespread death toll of the likes in Iran or the other countries mentioned here. In fact, a widespread, unreported death toll would most likely become visible and be impossible to conceal after a while, given today’s communication technologies.

Consider a few other countries that are also reporting low fatality rates from the virus. If we are at 27 (per million), Costa Rica has 25, Nigeria four, Ghana five, Morocco nine, Kenya six, Nepal two, Sri Lanka 0.5, Mali six, Cuba eight, Libya and Congo 10, Somalia six and so on. A very large number of countries have reported very small death counts from the virus. Pakistan is not alone in this group. You could argue that these countries are all understating their death counts. I have not looked at their testing rates or criteria or whether they have reported spikes in deaths from other morbidities in the same time period, factors that might point towards them all underreporting their death counts. And frankly I’m not going to.

The burden of proof is now on those who wish to doubt these numbers. They now have to explain why the numbers are so low, and if they believe there is widespread underreporting, it is they who have to unearth the proof to establish their argument. Of course, the real number of fatalities is higher than what is being reported, but not by the order of magnitude required to even bring them to the global average, let alone come close to the levels reported by those who were devastated by the virus’s impact.

So on this Eid let us take some cheer that we seem to have been spared our worst fears. Let us spare a prayer for those mourning and remembering loved ones on this blessed occasion. Let us resolve to keep our guard and face the future with a renewed sense of optimism. Things are getting better, dear reader. May the clouds part sooner rather than later, and may the Almighty shower his blessings upon you and your loved ones in the days and years to come. Wishing all my readers Eid Mubarak.

The writer is a member of staff.

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Twitter: @khurramhusain

Published in Dawn, July 30th, 2020