The novel coronavirus, COVID-19 (or SARS-COV-2) is a highly communicable disease, labelled as a modern-era pandemic and a public health emergency by the World Health Organization. Spreading throughout the world, it has infected millions, and claimed the lives of more than 170,000 people. Countries all over are faced with the unenviable challenge of balancing the health of their citizens — with stay-at-home orders, closure of industries, etc — and the need to ensure that social safety nets to maintain the livelihoods of the poorest demographics.
Pakistan continues to face shortages of essential materials necessary to combat the spread of COVID-19, with Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) remaining scarce and exorbitantly expensive. This poses significant challenges not just for the population at large, but specifically for healthcare professionals, who risk becoming vectors of the disease, creating the conditions for a potentially catastrophic situtation.
As of the 21st of April, 2020, Pakistan has confirmed 9216 total cases, with 6958 currently active cases, 2066 recoveries, and 192 deaths. This amounts to a 91.5% recovery rate, and a 8.5% death rate amongst cases which have reached a definitive outcome, and a 2.1% overall mortality rate when looking at all confirmed cases. While on the surface this paints a promising picture: death rates are substantially lower than the global average, indicating that Pakistani patients, due to a young population, are faring better than Europe. However, the pandemic is only in it’s second month in Pakistan, and without further measures, the situation can deteriorate rapidly.
Current trajectories show that Pakistan has largely not succeeded in containing COVID-19, with daily infection rates being outshone only in those countries that were hardest hit by the virus, Italy and the UK having achieved the same amount of total cases in roughly a month.
Pakistan: http://covid.gov.pk/ as tallied by https://www.worldometers.info/coronavirus/country/pakistan/
South Korea: http://ncov.mohw.go.kr/en
Policy responses to the COVID-19 pandemic remain nebulous, inconsistent and uncoordinated. Initial COVID-19 cases in Pakistan were detected in returnees from pilgrimage to Iran – yet sub-standard facilities and overall poor conditions at the Taftan quarantine resulting in the unchecked spread of the virus amongst the returnees. This was coupled with lack of precautionary measures at airports and other points of entry, causing returnees from Europe and the United States to spread the disease locally. The government’s unclear stance on large-scale gatherings and congregations resulted in the holding of the annual Tableeghi Ijtima at Raiwind (Lahore) – with more than 100,000 people in attendance (including foreigners), this event also became a hotspot for the outbreak of the novel coronavirus.
Apart from these, provincial governments – acting under the devolution powers of the 18th Amendment – resolved to counter the spread of COVID-19, imposing restrictions on movement of goods and persons, while the federal government dragged its feet, citing economic fears. This was coupled with a untimely dose of judicial activism, with the Supreme Court calling for the removal of Dr. Zafar Mirza, Pakistan’s defacto Health Minister, over performance concerns.
The 13th of April, 2020, marked a particularly troubling milestone in Pakistan’s COVID-19 journey, with Dr. Zafar Mirza stating that local transmission of the disease now accounted for roughly half of all coronavirus cases in Pakistan. This means that where before tracking the virus was simply a matter of documenting arrivals into the country and quarantining, testing, and treating them, now authorities must largely rely on self-reporting and big data analysis, a field still in its nascent stages in Pakistan.
As countries continue to introduce unprecedented measures to stem the spread of COVID-19, what is certain is that there is no clear exit strategy. We can see from China and South Korea how a combination of testing and contact tracing, strong social distancing and rapid clinical care, reduced infections and deaths. It is unclear how long these measures should last, or whether relaxing them will allow the virus to undergo a resurgence. In the face of such uncertainty, it is now more necessary than ever for Pakistanis to band together, for the government to implement sensible long-term policies on pandemic prevention, and for ordinary people themselves to strictly adhere to social distancing and hygiene guidelines.
The Research Society of International Law is developing research papers, articles, blogs, and videos exploring the unique challenges that arise in the face of a global infectious disease outbreak including the legal aspects of pandemics, preventive measures and the scope of emergency powers. The RSIL team will be studying Pakistan’s COVID-19 challenge from a legal lense, analyzing various focus areas which include:
- Public Health v. Individual Privacy
- Cyber Surveillance & Big Data: Pakistan’s Legal Framework and the Need for Safeguards
- Inter-Provincial Planning & Coordination in Healthcare in Pakistan
- Obstacles & Opportunities of Devolution in fighting a Pandemic
- Future of Global Health Law & Pakistan’s Potential Role
 Rabiya Jaffery, Pakistan Struggles to Fight COVID-19, The Diplomat, 15 April, 2020 https://thediplomat.com/2020/04/pakistan-struggles-to-fight-covid-19/
 Deutsche Welle, Why the Government and Doctors are at Odds in Pakistan, April 2020 https://www.dw.com/en/covid-19-in-pakistan-why-the-government-and-doctors-are-at-odds/a-53149990id.gov.pk
 Al Jazeera, Pakistan Quarantines 20,000 Tablighi Jamat Gathering Attendees, 6 April, 2020 https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2020/04/pakistan-quarantines-20000-tabligh-gathering-lahore-200406075221220.html
 Al Jazeera, Pakistan Daily Wagers Struggle Amid COVID-19 Lockdown, 26 March, 2020 https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2020/03/pakistan-daily-wagers-struggle-survive-coronavirus-lockdown-200325115143152.html
 Aisha Mehmood, SC asks Govt to remove Dr. Zafar Mirza as SAPM on Health, Business Recorder, 13 April, 2020. https://www.brecorder.com/2020/04/13/588898/sc-asks-govt-to-remove-dr-zafar-mirza-as-sapm-on-health/