Pakistan was forced into lockdown by the third week in March. It had become clear that it was the only way to control the coronavirus from spreading. Najma Minhas, Managing Editor Global Village Space, discussed what were the challenges for state administrations across the country, with Hamza Shafqaat, Deputy Commissioner of Islamabad.
How long did you have to prepare for the lockdown? What were your immediate challenges?
Hamza Shafqaat: It was not a complete surprise for us. We were already preparing for it. By the first day of the lockdown in March, we were ready with a complete plan which had been submitted to the Government. Frankly, imposing a lockdown was not a big challenge for us – in Islamabad – as we have been doing it for the past many years, because of political unrest and other issues. We have in the past imposed curfews, Section 144’s, and we have faced similar challenges with the dharnas and other protests.
The biggest challenge for us was controlling the spread of the virus and quarantining people. We did not have any legal cover for quarantining people and we were not trained to deal with the positive Coronavirus patients. The immediate challenge for the lockdown was dispersing information to every individual.
In the first few days, we saw there was no clarity about which shops were to remain open and which should be closed. For example, on the first day of the lockdown, it was announced that food shops would stay open and restaurants would be closed. Yet, there is a thin distinction between a food outlet and restaurants. Similarly, shopping malls were closed, but cash and carry’s could stay open. So, there were these challenges of understanding how to address these issues in the beginning.
Second, there was resistance in rural areas. People there were not prepared to stay inside their houses and that was a major challenge for us. On the third day of the lockdown, we had to requisition three different wings from the 111 Brigade and they assisted us with imposing lockdown.
Would you say the most difficult part was getting the information out to the people? Including your communication strategy with the media?
Hamza Shafqaat: Yes. We needed a strategy for the media and especially for the people who were living in rural areas. You see, out of people living, even in Islamabad, there is less than 50 percent of the population who are using smartphones. So just giving information through television or newspapers or other outlets was not the solution.
What we learned is that using the radio and the mosques in those areas is the most effective way of spreading awareness. We have over 937 mosques in Islamabad alone. They are an important tool for disseminating information to people.
That’s interesting. Keeping mosques open is a controversial question right now. There is the element of making people stay home and stay safe by reading namaz at home. But you are saying that you want to use the mosques to spread information. So how do you balance the two things out?
Hamza Shafqaat: Only the loudspeaker of the mosque is used. Even now during iftar, the sirens are used in the mosques, and by using every mosque we have absolute coverage of Islamabad. So, if we focus on the nearly 1000 mosques, their prayer leaders, and their loudspeakers, we could transmit information to the people.
Have you started engaging with the prayer leaders?
Hamza Shafqaat: Yes, we have already started working on that. Unfortunately, there is an old inertia within the mosques. They do not cooperate with the administration. There is a huge communication gap.
We’ve tried to overcome this as I have called on their leaders and had extensive discussion sessions with the ulema. In that, I have been able to make some ingress and I think we have been successful. If I were to evaluate myself, I would give myself an 80 percent success rate in this area.
It seems the most difficult challenge for you has been communication. Rather than what we imagine would have been closing the shops, imposing law and order. So, you are saying you have not faced difficulty in that aspect?
Hamza Shafqaat: Yes, in Islamabad, that is not a major problem. Why? Because, generally the population is better educated and second, the administration has certain legal and magisterial powers. We can impose this. We can put people who are not complying behind bars and we have been doing this for many years. It is not the case with the other administrations in Pakistan.
For example, if I was in Chakwal or Jhelum, it would have been impossible for me to get my lockdown order imposed. There, the police are not legally under the administration. It is an independent body. In Islamabad, the district police report to the district magistrate which is the deputy commissioner himself. Hence, we have some legal power to impose penalties in Islamabad.
In Islamabad, if you split it out, which group of people did you face the most resistance from and how did you work with that resistance?
Hamza Shafqaat: The first resistance was from the mosques. They refused to abide by the orders of section 144. Even now they are not abiding by the lockdown orders. They are continuing with their prayers often with more people than allowed; however, we have been successful in the implementation of standard operating procedures.
So, if you were to visit any major mosque you will see that people are standing at a distance of at least 4-5 feet. There are no carpets or rugs in the mosque. They are being properly disinfected and people are bringing their namaz caps and prayer mats to place it on the sajda area.
Second, the traders who did not resist in the beginning, however now after a lapse of nearly 2 months; they have become a real challenge for us. Barbers were told to close their shops, but now they have opened them up, garment shops are being opened, the book shops and even the computer shops have started opening-up.
How do you see the lockdown continuing? Do you see that the lockdown is moving towards a smart lockdown, or is the government going to continue trying to impose it through suppression and control policy?
Hamza Shafqaat: We cannot do so. We can not continue the lockdown after 9th May. We will have to open up some of the shops with some timings or on some days, with some kind of SOP. We cannot keep them on lockdown. I think if we continue after 9th May people will start protesting.
What is the importance of 9th May?
Hamza Shafqaat: This is because it will be after the first 10 days of the Ramazan Ashura. People have to buy and sell goods during the second Ashura and the traders have to sell their stuff since they have been accumulating the products for so many months for this period. If we don’t allow them to sell their goods, they will come on the streets.
Whilst, this seems a very rational argument, how do you counter the argument that for example, the doctors are making who say that we will have a massive spike in deaths if we allow people to come to the streets?
Hamza Shafqaat: Today, now that the lockdown has sufficiently eased in Islamabad, the entire federal Secretariat is working, we have over 51 exemptions given to different types of shops. Property offices are open, construction activity has been resumed, industries are open, and that is why today we had 31 Corona positive cases. Normally, we only had five to six cases and our greatest number of cases in one day was 10.
This means that the relaxation in lockdown is resulting in more cases. But you see that is the decision that the government has to make and we can only give our input. As an officer responsible for law and order, I can see that if they continue with the lockdown people will come out to protest. If I see from the medical point of view, I can see, if we open up more people will die.
Do you have any estimates on the spike in cases or deaths we might see?
Hamza Shafqaat: Currently, the number of deaths in Islamabad is roughly 1 percent. So, if we have 300 patients, we had 3 deaths. Unfortunately, we have achieved this number, and just today our 4th patient died. So, now the ratio of deaths is roughly 1.4 percent. Initially, with strict lockdown, our daily growth in positive cases was around 7-8 cases per day, but now because of the relaxation, it is going up to 20-30 cases per day.
So in just one month, we will have 1500 cases. If there are 1500 cases, 16-20 deaths will occur and almost 30-40 people will be in critical condition. Thus, if we don’t carry on with a strict lockdown, we may see 20-30 deaths in the next few weeks, which is a huge number. Otherwise, daily based on the past 2 years of data, the ‘normal deaths’ registered are roughly 8-9 per day. If this number increases to 20 per day. We won’t be able to handle as we don’t have enough people to manage such an influx.
On the one hand, you say that people need their livelihoods, people will not listen now – and this is a phenomenon happening all over the world, protests have started all over the United States, as people want their livelihood. Yet, on the other hand, you predict the doubling of the rate of deaths per day more than what you usually see. So as an administrator, how do you intend to deal with it?
Hamza Shafqaat: We need to enforce SOP’s, we need to make masks compulsory for all people of Islamabad. KP has already done this. we also need to do this. Second, we need to enhance our testing capacity, if we take more tests, we will be in a better position to determine which areas are the epicenters. Third, we need to hire 1000 volunteers in Islamabad, who will help us in imposing home quarantine, and ensure that victims who are isolated, do not leave their homes.
Why do you need volunteers, why not the police or the army? What is the need for the PM’s Tiger Force if we have the government personnel?
Hamza Shafqaat: You need to realize that these forces have been exhausted. We are already running 14 quarantine centers, monitoring 1000 mosques, and further monitoring 245 patients at homes. At every home, we have to deploy two people, one at night and one during the day. Our forces are exhausted (physically and numerically). The government has to invest more in it if they want to impose a smarter lockdown. If they let us hire volunteers and give away free masks and equipment, only then can we be successful.
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Are there this many masks available for the near 1 million inhabitants of the capital?
Hamza Shafqaat: Yes, now they are available, but their cost has gone up. Initially, they were available for Rs. 7, now the same mask goes for Rs.30 because there is an extensive shortage and we can’t control prices.
Are you buying masks from the market like everybody else?
Hamza Shafqaat: No. We are going to the wholesale market, we are directly going to factories and we are getting it at a good and reasonable price, but if we have to give it to every person in Islamabad, that is an impossible task. To impose smart lockdown, we must have restricted movement of older people. Out of the four deaths in Islamabad, three of them were above 60 years of age. We have to restrict people beyond 60, even above 55. If we can enforce it then we might carry on with this smart lockdown.
There is no question that you and your team are working long hours these days. How are you ensuring the safety of yourself and your team?
Hamza Shafqaat: My team is directly on the frontline. Two of my doctors, Two drivers, and two of my staff, who were working on the quarantine facilities, have tested positive now. It is a challenge, but this is our job. We understand our problems but we can’t make excuses. Now is the time that country needs us. Now is the time that the spirit of public service, which has been inculcated in us in the past so many years, must come up to the challenge.
We have spent 12 lac rupees for buying protective equipment from the private sector as the NDMA and other ministries did not have the required resources. We have ensured that such kind of protective equipment is given to the staff, All my staff is being trained by NIH, my doctors are being trained according to this situation. InshAllah we have been able to manage this for the past 45 days and I hope that Allah will be kind and somehow this virus will die.
You have been very active reaching out to people through social media. How did you end up using twitter and what do you use it for generally? Is it helping you in this crisis?
Hamza Shafqaat: Yes, it is immensely helping. Twitter is very good for giving accurate information and feedback. If people come to my office 90 percent of them always give positive feedback and my subordinates also say everything is going fine. Twitter is one thing which gives me views on everything, so I know what exactly people are facing and what is their exact sentiment.
Before Islamabad and the current situation, what has been your toughest assignment? Is this current situation comparable to that?
Hamza Shafqaat: I have worked in Sindh, and I was posted in the interior area, and there were issues of law and order and crime. But the challenge which we are facing right now, our entire civil service, even our seniors have never faced this! The world hasn’t faced such a challenge on this level. We are trying our best and giving whatever we have.