Applying the truth meter to Imran Khan on COVID-19 statements

In his very first address to the nation following the outbreak of the pandemic in the country, PM Imran Khan had described the virus as a close relation to the Flu virus. And if memory serves me right, he did mention the new virus was more virulent than its Flu cousin

Imran Khan Black swan events

The political opposition and a fair section of the Pakistani public believe Prime Minister Imran Khan’s periodic proclamations on the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic are chaotic, full of contradictions and false.

In their opinion, it betrays a complete lack of understanding of the immense danger Coronavirus poses to the country. How accurate is this view? A fact check on the Prime Minister’s public statements and comments on the pandemic over the past three months should be able to determine their level of truth.

1. Coronavirus is a version of the flu virus, announces Imran Khan   

In his very first address to the nation following the outbreak of the pandemic in the country, PM Imran Khan had described the virus as a close relation to the Flu virus. And if memory serves me right, he did mention the new virus was more virulent than its Flu cousin. The opposition political parties have gone to town ridiculing the PM’s naivety about the lethality of the Coronavirus threat.

Fact-checking Imran Khan’s comparison of Coronavirus and Flu virus, the PM is right. Scientists and medical experts have confirmed the two belong to the same family of viruses.

Read more: Even mild coronavirus cases can cause severe brain problems

Yes, the new virus is more lethal than its comparatively more benign cousin, which by the way according to CDC estimate has caused between 9 million – 45 million illness, between 140,000 – 810,000 hospitalisation and between 12,000 – 61,000 deaths annually since 2010.

What makes Coronavirus frighteningly deadlier is the higher fatality rate among Covid-19 victims as compared to the Flu, and the fact the asymptomatic characteristics of a high percentage of COVID-19 infected patients makes it difficult to identify and isolate the affected.

While describing the virus, the PM had also mentioned the fatality rate of Coronavirus victims was barely three percent and less than ten percent of those infected who needed to be admitted to the hospital.

The rest recover through self-isolation at home or state-provided isolation centres. Four months down the line since the first Coronavirus case was discovered in Pakistan, the figures of mortality and hospitalisation percentages quoted by Imran Khan are correct. In Pakistan, these are still lower.

Conclusion

Imran Khan’s statement about the close relationship between the Coronavirus and Flu virus and the low mortality rate is factually correct.

The premier’s first address, however, did give a distinct impression where he did not consider the Coronavirus pandemic to be a serious threat to his country.

This message could have led to the public ignoring the desperate pleas of the doctors and medical experts to religiously observe the safety precautions of wearing the facemask, distancing, hand-washing and avoiding large gatherings when going out.

Read more: Coronavirus infections rapidly increasing around the globe

As the news of the devastation caused by the pandemic, particularly in Italy and Spain started to filter in, Imran Khan must have realised his earlier assessment about the virus not being lethal was in error. It took a while, but eventually, he did rectify this mistake in his following addresses.

Would this be termed as a U-turn by a fickle-minded monarch or that of a ruler wise enough to admit he can be mistaken and changing course to avert a disaster? You decide.

Truth-o-meter: fifty percent correct.

2. Wearing of facemasks during COVID-19 by the general public discouraged  

In his initial pronouncements, Imran Khan viewed wearing of facemasks by the general public as unnecessary; in effect, he discouraged it. This advice was based on an early report by WHO and its affiliates where the wearing covering of the nose and face by the public was not encouraged.

The sudden spurt of Covid-19 patients, particularly in Europe and the USA had put a massive demand on facemasks that were absolutely essential for health workers and medical staff attending the infected patient. There was a worldwide shortage of masks, and until its production could be bumped up to meet the public demand worldwide, the available stock was best left for those who urgently required the protection.

By April 2020, the world views of the experts took a complete about-turn regarding the utility of facemasks in preventing the spread of the disease. Distancing and hand-washing were already widely suggested by the world body and the wearing of facemasks by the public when they go out was the third aspect that WHO mandated should is made compulsory for all.

Read more: 48 doctors resign in Punjab amid Coronavirus pandemic

The holy trinity (distancing, facemask wearing and hand-washing) has since become a mantra the world over and Imran Khan in all his public addresses since then has pleaded with his countrymen to follow these precautions. A current study by WHO states the simple acts of wearing of facemasks and distancing in combination will reduce the likelihood of contracting Coronavirus by at least eighty percent

 Conclusion

The PM’s message discouraging wearing facemasks when going out by the general public was in error. That this advice was based on the recommendations of his medical experts which were grounded on the WHO’s initial study and that the PM corrected the mistake and since has become a firm advocate of facemask wearing in public he may be exonerated of the error.

Truth meter: false

3. The lockdown option for Pakistan is unworkable and would be ruinous for the country, Imran Khan maintains.  

This is one area where Imran Khan’s opposition to the “Wuhan style” lockdown has remained constant and in effect has hardened further. Despite being the head of the government and his vociferous disapproval of a total lockdown of the entire country, all the provinces even where his party was in charge, went ahead and imposed a full lockdown.

Schools, colleges, marriage halls, sporting facilities and all entertainment setups where large crowds assemble had already been banned by a government decree where there was a full consensus between the centre and the provinces.

Read more: Coronavirus cases accelerate: US under siege, EU and others ease quarantine

In the last week of March, the lockdown orders were issued first by Sind under the PPP, followed by Balochistan where Imran’s PTI led government was in power. Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa provinces where the PTI is in control also followed suit, ignoring their leader’s vision.

All large and small industrial units and commercial enterprises minus the banks were closed and the public ordered to stay at home. Even the street vendors were taken off the streets. These steps continued for about three weeks, and it did arrest the increase of the virus spread, but it was at an enormous economic cost.

While the well-off section of the society who are in a small minority could afford to follow the lockdown rules, for the vast majority in the urban centres where six or more individuals on an average share a room, observing the lockdown measures was virtually impossible.

The inability of the state to provide the estranged public with minimum daily rations, which China had managed in Wuhan, resulted in a mass-scale violation of the lockdown with people coming out in hordes particularly in all the four metropolises. The holy trinity of facemask wearing, social distancing and hand-washing were openly flouted.

The ‘Ehsas’ program initiated by Imran Khan where twelve thousand rupees were given to a section of the poor who had lost their daily earnings to help them through the three months of lockdown did mitigate desperation of a small segment of the needy, but it was not enough. More needed to be done.

By the third week of April, easing the lockdown became inevitable, and it immediately resulted in the rate of infection increasing exponentially. From less than a hundred fresh cases per day, it jumped to four figures for May until the last week of June. On the insistence of the PM, more businesses and commercial sectors were allowed to open, and the concept of smart lockdown as visualised by Imran Khan was put in place.

In this new format, as long as the public followed the trinity of donning the facemask in public, maintaining social distancing and frequent hand-washing, they could go out for work or pleasure. Strict lockdown was imposed on selected hotspots for a limited period of up to fifteen days.

Read more: Has coronavirus brought about the end of Indian cinema?

The smart lockdown policy has come under criticism from both domestics and international fronts. Italy, France, Spain, China, and some other nations where lockdowns were imposed, it was only eased when the rising curve of new infections finally started to flatten. For Pakistan to relax the lockdown measures when the cases were still on the rise was considered tantamount to inviting a disaster of unmanageable proportions.

For ten days since the implementation of the smart lockdown move, the average increase of active COVID-19 patients (total affected minus the recovered and the deceased) has reduced from over 3000 per day to just fewer than 200.

If this trend continues for another fortnight, the holy grail of curve flattening would be in sight. Much, however, would depend on the public observing the trinity code of behaviour, which the PM repeatedly implores his countrymen to adhere to. The economy in the meanwhile has started to limp forward gradually.

Imran’s inability as the head of the federal government to force his point of view on the provinces, even where his party was heading the provincial setup was portrayed as a sign of weakness and poor governance by his opponents. Imran’s supporter spun it as a very democratic decision by a wise ruler, particularly when the 18th Amendment gives the provinces full autonomy in the manner they deem fit to handle the pandemic in their respective provinces.

The province of Sind where the PPP is in power continues to blame the Centre under Imran Khan for the spike in fresh COVID-19 cases immediately following the easing of lockdown just prior to the Eid holidays. The Chief Minister and the cabinet minister lament that had their version of lockdown despite its shortcomings been allowed to continue for another fortnight, the curve flattening was within reach. Only then easing of lockdown would have been justified.

The history of lockdown in neighbouring India does not support the PPP point of view. The Indian environment of densely populated urban centres and a huge mass living on the edge or below the poverty level where half a dozen or more persons inhabit a room is fairly similar to that of Pakistan.

India imposed a far stricter version of lockdown soon after it was enforced in Pakistan and it was continued for a more prolonged spell. The resultant severe hardship caused to the Indians paled in comparison to the one suffered by the Pakistani public, and the damage to the economy was immense.

The Indian Prime Minister had to apologise to his people eventually and was forced to ease the lockdown measures even before the curve was close to flattening. Washington Post in a scathing article has highlighted the plight of the poor Indians as a result of their government’s strategy of containing the pandemic.

If the stricter and more extended lockdown in India with similar societal environment failed, two more weeks of Sind style lockdown would not have achieved any better result.

Read more: Corona virus in Middle East is at ‘critical threshold’: WHO

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, with its vast wealth and near-dictatorial power of the rulers, also enforced a very strict lockdown in the Kingdom. Their number of COVID-19 patients is slightly lower than those of Pakistan but compared to the small population, it is scandalously high and so is the death rate which currently stands at 1,698, compared to Pakistan’s 4.395. Saudi Arabia is also in the process of lifting lockdown measures.

Conclusion

With hindsight, Imran’s stance on the Coronavirus strategy and his reluctance to impose a countrywide lockdown has been to date vindicated. Almost all over the world, even where curve flattening has not been achieved, lockdown measures are being relaxed.

Truth-o-meter: A problem where there are no easy answers, and no one size fit all solution, a truth-o-meter rating is not justified.

 4. ‘Ghabrana naheen’ (Do not panic) was Imran Khan’s clarion call to his people 

In almost all his address to the nation on the pandemic issue, the PM’s concluding advice to his people was ‘ghabrana naheen’ (do not panic) in the face of a grave national threat the COVID-19 is posing. His political opponents continue to deride him for taking the pandemic threat lightly and believe such flippant remarks by the head of the government gives a message to the public the virus threat is not severe and preventive measures may be ignored.

Nothing could be further from the truth. The counsel on not to panic was invariably preceded by a repeated exhortation to follow the facemask wearing in public, social distancing, frequent hand-washing and avoiding large gatherings rigidly. Failure to do so, the PM warned, would expose the nation and the society to challenges it would not be able to overcome. And until a cure is universally made available the new normal as suggested by the doctors and scientists must be strictly adhered to.

Conclusion

The advice not to panic has the wholehearted support of the doctors and specialists. They believe fear lowers the inbuilt human immunity to fight the virus onslaught. High immunity among the populace is one of the critical instruments in staving off the virus infection, and if infected, it gives them a far better chance of full recovery with minimum side effects.

Read more: In repeat of Corona fiasco, China again downplays swine flu virus

Healthy lifestyle, organic diet, building up of vitamin A and D through appropriate food/natural inputs or vitamin supplements are strongly recommended for maintaining a high level of immunity against all kinds of viruses, including COVID-19. Despite all such measures, if panic sets in, the body immunity nose-dives to dangerously low levels. Ghabrana naheen is his sanest advice that must be listened to.

Truth-o-meter: 100 percent true. 

Currently, Pakistan’s testing policy is based on conducting the test on those with suspected symptoms and contact tracing and testing of people who had been close to a fresh COVID-19 victim. The asymptomatic nature of a number of virus victims implies a random testing policy must be in place. A minimum of ten percent of the populace has to be tested to arrive at a reasonably accurate estimate of the populace infected by the virus. Each test costs about Rs. 8,000 and 10% of the population would be 22 million. Multiply 22 million with 8,000 and the enormity of the task becomes evident. The seriousness of the opposition parties in guiding the government in its war against the pandemic can be judged when the leader of the opposition demands 100% of the population should be tested.

Air Cdre (Retd) Jamal Hussain has served in Pakistan Air Force from 1966 to 1997. He was awarded Sitara-e-Basalat for his services in the year 1982. He is the author of two books on ‘Air Power in South Asia’ and ‘Dynamics of Nuclear Weapons in South Asia’. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space.

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