Wednesday, 25 March 2020

Corona: the weakest link

We can say a lot about the failings of our Corona containment strategy but as Julian Braithwaite, the UK's Geneva/WTO ambassador, tweets this evening "The world is only as strong as the weakest health system". I couldn't agree more. Going forward, everything we do has to be looked at through a biosecurity prism, and the UK cannot afford to self-isolate internationally. We have to be hands-on globally to control new outbreaks and that requires full engagement and properly funded aid programme

I get quite a bit of stick for highlighting things that go on in the British Pakistani community and disturbing news from South Asia, but what happens there affects us. That's especially true now. Pakistan, says Haaretz, is a Coronavirus Super-spreader. Iran banned congregational prayer. Saudi Arabia closed the Ka’aba to pilgrims. Imran Khan allowed a quarter million Muslims to gather - and returning home, they've spread corona from Kyrgyzstan to Gaza.
Sindh province has seen the highest number of cases across the country, recording at least 352 cases since Pakistan's outbreak began in late February. At least 260 of those cases were tested at a quarantine camp in the city of Sukkur, established to house travellers who arrived in the country from Iran and had previously passed through the Taftan quarantine camp at the border.
The Taftan camp - criticised by those held there as lacking proper medical and social isolation facilities - has been at the centre of Pakistan's outbreak of cases. At least 57 percent of all people who have tested positive for coronavirus in Pakistan passed through the camp at some stage, according to government data.
As to Pakistan's containment strategy, it's nonexistent. There is an absolute lack of treatment facilities, doctors, and no testing worth speaking of in the slums where it is most likely to spread. Meanwhile Imran Khan has said that he was not prepared to place the entire country on lockdown because of the associated economic costs. There is a partial lockdown in Karachi but there lacks the resource to meaningfully enforce it and at least a quarter of the population simply cannot afford to comply. Corona has a foothold but is now expected to explode.

It's not exactly helpful that Pakistan's public health system is dire at the best of times and epidemics are often fuelled by public ignorance. They seem to get hit by just about every preventable epidemic from Measles, HIV and Dengue - and what applies to Pakistan can also be said of India and Bangladesh. It's a regional problem and one that has direct implications for the UK.

Not to put too fine a point on it, Pakistanis are not popular in the UK. They are among the least integrated immigrants and the cause of a number of social problems and if the idea gets rooted that Pakistanis in the UK are superspreaders (and there is anecdotal and data evidence to suggest they are) then pretty soon you have racial friction that could boil over. More urgently, it's not going to matter what controls we implement here if the third world slums of the world with whom we have deep social connections are not taking adequate action to eradicate sources of infection.  

The new populist right are quite militantly opposed to foreign aid - and they are absolutely right to point to waste, corruption and virtue signalling fluff, but biosecurity is a defence and national security issue just as much as Russian bombers periodically probing our airspace. Though there may be calls to concentrate our spending on domestic containment and treatment, Corona is no respecter of borders. Like all epidemics, infection has to be tackled at source. It is imperative, therefore, that the UK takes an active global role, concentrating its aid efforts on disease control. With Corona potentially bringing the global economy to its knees, we can't afford not to.  

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