Pakistan’s Supreme Court this week justified reopening shopping malls by claiming that Pakistan “is not … seriously affected” by Covid-19 and that there is no pandemic in the country. In fact, Pakistan has had at least 43,966 confirmed cases and more than 900 deaths since March, and the numbers keep rising. Given minimal testing, the actual count is almost certainly much higher. At least 500 Pakistani healthcare workers have been infected too, which shows that despite the justices’ denials, Pakistan is indeed “seriously affected” by Covid-19.
The Supreme Court ruling reflects a broader attempt by Pakistani federal authorities to trivialize the impact of Covid-19. Prime Minister Imran Khan has framed the pandemic response as a choice between death by starvation or death by infection. The federal planning minister has compared Covid-19 deaths to people dying in traffic accidents. And last week, Pakistan became one of a handful of countries to ease restrictions on markets and social gatherings even as the number of infections were rising, without putting in place rules on social distancing, the wearing of masks, or other measures to slow the spread of the virus.
By understating the threat of the pandemic, the Pakistani government is denying those returning to work the information they need to protect themselves from Covid-19. It has also failed to ensure protection for healthcare workers, and has arrested and intimidated medical workers who have raised concerns about the lack of protective equipment and the looming health crisis.
Experts in Pakistan have warned against the premature easing of lockdown restrictions, fearing an exponential rise in infections. One healthcare worker said: “Everyone’s scared and exhausted. But we are fighting, we are pushing the limits. All we ask is that government and people understand that they can help us help them by staying at home and providing us quality protective gear.” The Supreme Court decision effectively denies this plea and puts more lives at risk.
There are many important steps that Pakistani authorities need to take to protect the population, particularly vulnerable groups, in these extraordinary times. Hastily reopening shopping malls is not one of them.