Lessons and opportunities of a year of pandemic | By Shahzeb Khan


Lessons and opportunities of a year of pandemic

11 March 2021, marks one year since the WHO declared the novel coronavirus outbreak a pandemic. While they did so, crisis began to sweep every nation and the world changed drastically.

Billions of people entered life under lockdown amidst economic hardship. A year later, the situation has largely remained the same, but much has also changed. Newly-invented vaccines coming into distribution give hope that the pandemic’s end is near.

However, COVID-19 has become an enormous disaster, with over 117 million people infected worldwide and nearly 3 million dead. Most of these cases occurred in the last few months, as the spread of pandemic accelerated enormously through the winter. The world now is hardly recognizable due to the pandemic’s many impacts.

An important thing we must learn to expect and accept a year since the pandemic began is people and society adapting to life under the pandemic. A lot of adaptation has indeed been made over the past year.

Yet, when we look around us, we can see glaring deficiencies in our adjustment to this coronavirus-ridden world. First, when permitted, people persist in living and working the way they used to in normal times.

Second, the strategies countries are employing to contain the spread of the virus are mostly the same as in March of 2020, i.e., measures that are economically destructive and make people’s life miserable.

The COVID-19 pandemic is a prolonged crisis. The outbreak began in early 2020 and the spread of the virus is still far from over in early 2021. A crisis like this requires both immediate response and long-term holistic response.

When the pandemic began a year ago, there wasn’t much governments could do except shut down society to stop spread of the virus.

This was effective but unsustainable. As time went on, states were supposed to develop alternative strategies that could protect people without costing them so much.

In the year that passed, humanity had the opportunity to restructure society so that people could continue working and playing without spreading the virus.

Has the opportunity been availed? Let’s take a look at Pakistan. Here, like anywhere else, people have always relied on shops to get what they need.

These are tight places where people gather to buy goods and hence fertile ground for coronavirus transmission. Whenever lockdowns were imposed in Pakistan, markets were shut down entirely.

Alternatively, the authorities often placed limits on how long they could be open each day.

This is very bad for most people, so a strategy of smart lockdown has been widely deployed, which involves monitoring the virus’s spread and only shutting down areas where it is high.

But this means places where a high number of cases have yet to be detected or where infections are few are left open and can therefore lead to Covid-19 transmission.

This gives the virus a lifeline that prevents us from extinguishing outbreaks. Finally, people are generally reluctant to observe social distancing guidelines.

Reasons why are obvious. If you go to a shop today, you will see it function exactly as it did in 2019.

Goods are still collected in the same buildings and stalls and it is hard to get them without coming close to other people.

That includes the shopkeepers who are exposed to lots of people every day. So we can’t shop without ensuring we do not catch the virus.

To avoid this, marketplaces should be completely redesigned. Sellers should move their shops to open areas a distance away from each other, like in public parks or along the roadside.

Goods can be arranged over a wide area so shoppers can avoid each other. Also, open-air vendors can be promoted as the main means of commerce and covered areas should be utilized as warehouses only.

Like marketplaces, workplaces are primary victims of lockdown, reducing the productivity that keeps society going. We can disperse work instead of restricting it.

People often work in dense gatherings because that improves efficiency and gives faster results.

But sacrificing this is still better than the economic havoc inflicted when workers are kept home.

In fact, arrangements should be made so working from home is natural, even for some blue collar jobs.

Traditional Pakistani goods are often made in the makers’ homes (so-called cottage industry).

Supply lines can also operate for people to pass goods without physical proximity.

For instance, distribution of agricultural goods was stopped and produce wasted in 2020.

Farmers can instead place goods somewhere and the middle men can pick up during designated hours.

All of this requires a complete overhaul of the way public places and society functions.

People’s work and shopping can be moved to parks and greenbelts and recreation outside home can be left to the wild outdoors.

Even cinema houses can become open air drive-in theaters where families can watch movies sitting safe in their vehicles or sitting outdoors with social distancing made possible.

This would make the industry survive and make people psychologically thrive.

Means of entertaining society need not end. Also, restaurants should shift towards home delivery, creating jobs in the process. Such shifts don’t have to be permanent but are necessary while the crisis lasts.

We had a full year to implement these changes and it has hardly happened in Pakistan or anywhere else.

We must begin now. The winter severely exacerbated the viral spread and new variants are making the pandemic more dangerous.

So until vaccines bring it under control, the toughest part of the fight against COVID-19 may still be ahead.

—The writer is Director at Pakistan’s People Led Disaster Management.