How Pakistan Dodged the Worst of COVID-19

This was an unexpected result in a country whose neighbors — India and Bangladesh — still have growing case numbers. But the country might not be out of danger just yet.

Jalal Baig

October 15, 2020

How Pakistan Dodged the Worst of COVID-19
A municipal worker checks the body temperature of a man queuing along with other people at a low-rate food distribution point during a government-imposed nationwide lockdown, Karachi. (Photo by RIZWAN TABASSUM/AFP via Getty Images)

Saman Hamid could not recall the last time an infection made her feverish. So when the thermometer continued to register a temperature above 38°C (100.4°F), she worried her body was dealing with something more virulent than anything it had encountered before. Soon after, she lost her sense of taste and smell, and developed a cough, severe fatigue, and breathlessness. A COVID-19 test and chest X-ray confirmed what her family and friends had quietly resigned themselves to: Hamid was now part of Pakistan’s ballooning list of coronavirus cases.

It was mid-June and coronavirus cases were crescendoing in Pakistan after the Eid al-Fitr holiday in the last week of May. On June 14, the numbers peaked as Pakistan registered 6,825 new infections. Pakistan’s chronically underfunded hospitals were teeming with COVID-19 cases, available beds were scarce, and prospective patients could not find a hospital to admit them. Essential medicines, oxygen, and ventilators were dwindling. And only the powerful and connected seemed able to avoid the abject medical care on offer in many public hospitals. Hamid found a nurse to provide medical care at home. But when her blood oxygen saturation percentage plummeted below normal levels, she could no longer avoid the hospital. 

Only a few weeks earlier, in May, Prime Minister Imran Khan announced that the national lockdown, imposed April 1, would be lifted. Citing the country’s economic woes and large number of daily-wage workers, he encouraged the populace to “live with the virus” that he had erroneously likened to the flu in the past. On June 7, the World Health Organization (WHO) criticized this decision: “Pakistan does not meet any of the prerequisite conditions for opening the lockdown...The pandemic has reached almost all the districts of Pakistan while major cities contributed the highest number of cases nationally.” 

The predictions made in June were even more harrowing. Asad Umar, who helms Pakistan’s COVID-19 fight at the National Command and Operation Center (NCOC), predicted that the country’s tally of approximately 150,000 cases in mid-June would double by the end of the month and that, by the end of July, total infections could exceed 1 million. Around this time, Imperial College London predicted that Pakistan could see 2.2 million fatalities by June 2021.