Unprecedented Opportunity for the Environment and Science

April 22, 2020, marked the 50th Earth Day, half a century since the original Earth Day in 1970 that turned environmentalism into a mainstream global movement. All of us eagerly waited for this occasion, as huge commemorations were planned around the world with as many as one billion people expected to participate. Environmentalists planned to hold massive rallies akin to the ones in 1970 and prepared to launch various programs such as the Great Global Cleanup, a campaign of volunteering for cleaning up litter. In the wake of 2019’s strong climate change activism, Earth Day 2020 was supposed to be one more watershed occasion for our struggle to safeguard the health of our planet.

Then came the coronavirus pandemic. The rapid spread of SARS-CoV-2, a virus new to mankind, is a huge and completely unexpected shock to the world system. It has upended societies and turned the lives of billions upside down. Social interaction has been curbed dramatically, as people are keeping physical distance from others and staying home. Most of the activities we spent years planning for Earth Day 2020 have therefore been cancelled. Earth Day organizers have done their best to adjust by turning Earth Day commemoration into a largely digital affair, with much success.

The real challenge, however, has just started.

Earth Challenge 2020, launched last month, is one of the biggest environmental campaigns scheduled to be held in heel of Earth Day 2020. The largest citizen science program ever, it is working to mobilize millions of people around the world to collect data on environmental conditions, so the data can be analyzed and combined to provide a clearer picture on planet’s overall ecological health. Basically, the Earth Challenge campaign has been formulated with the goal of getting ordinary people to monitor threats to the environment in a coordinated manner.

The coronavirus pandemic throws a curveball in our path. Environmental monitoring is still possible while maintaining social distancing, but the fact remains that it will have to be done under very challenging circumstances.

Additionally, the pandemic and the disruptions to society it has wrought actually diminish the intended usefulness of the Earth Challenge campaign. We are supposed to be making observations about current environmental conditions so we can better understand how human activity is impacting the Earth, but those very conditions have changed momentarily as the virus brings most human activity to a halt. For instance, air pollution, generally one of the biggest environmental problems, is one of the main topics pursued by Earth Challenge but lockdowns around the world have suddenly made the air much cleaner, which is only for a short period. The problem for Earth Challenge is that if we study the environment during the pandemic, we will be presented with a picture that does not entirely reflect how the environment normally is. To put it simply, we cannot monitor threats to Planet Earth when these threats have gone into hiding for the time being. 2020 is therefore the worst time to hold this ambitious environmental science program as we planned for it.

This need not be the case if we reevaluate our goals. We have good reason to, because the spread of COVID-19 presents the world with an incredibly unique opportunity. By dramatically suppressing many human activities, the pandemic has provided Planet Earth with an enormous relief. As a result, our environmental dreams have come true for the time being. The world has struggled with air pollution. Now, much of that has vanished. Animal habitats have been constrained by human trespassers. Now animals are wandering everywhere freely in the relative absence of humans. Human activity has been pumping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere non-stop, while we have yet to find out how to stop ourselves. Now, carbon dioxide emissions all over the world have plummeted.

If we conduct a scientific study of the environment now, we will see something extraordinary – a world that we have been fighting to create for half a century.

It is extremely important to study this world while it lasts. It will inform us of how the environment reacts to the cessation of manmade disturbances, as well as how the strategies to mitigate these disturbances can be implemented. It will provide us with enormous insights into environmental dynamics and how the natural environment and human society interact. As we fight to create a healthier planet, observing how things are now will allow us to better know what our desired planet will be like and how we can create it.

This makes 2020 the most important time for environmental science ever. All those who spent years preparing for Earth Challenge may not have gotten what they were planning for, but instead they have something very, very special. Because of COVID-19, the world’s largest citizen science program will not be able to investigate much how the natural environment generally fares but will be able to discover more about how it works and how certain changes impact it. It is a rare opportunity that has come our way.

Of course, citizen scientists and professional scientists alike face challenges in carrying out their work because of COVID-19, but it is very important that we overcome them in order to avail our great opportunity. Now is the time for scientific endeavor to become more active, not to slow down. That shouldn’t be too difficult for environmental science. Right from the beginning, Earth Challenge 2020 is meant to largely consist of activities happening in the telecommunication sphere and in the great outdoors. Volunteers are supposed to explore and examine the natural environment, such as wildernesses and even just the air around them, which they can easily do while staying away from people. Then they are to upload the data they collect onto digital networks for others to view. Communicating with others remains vital and can be done virtually, which is how all social interactions are being done wherever the fight against the virus is in full gear. The Earth Challenge platform has created a variety of digital resources for use by citizen scientists. We have to rapidly innovate to get our work going, as the impacts on nature of our responses to the pandemic are likely to be short-lived, although, as of late June, the coronavirus pandemic seems to be just starting in the developing world and is seemingly making a comeback in developed countries.

2020 is a year of unprecedented challenges, but there is a lot of benefit we are capable of getting out of it in the field of scientific research. As a result, Earth Challenge 2020 has acquired more significance than we could ever have imagined.

Shahzeb Khan is environment journalist, writer, student of Earth sciences, and director at Pakistan’s People Led Disaster Management (https://pldmsite.wordpress.com/). He tweets at https://twitter.com/justinshahzebkh.

How did the Crash of Flight PK8303 Happen?

As Pakistan mourned the crash of flight PK8303 in Karachi that occurred before the Eid holidays and as the deceased were being identified, an investigation into the cause of the crash was speedily conducted and is ongoing. Immediately after it happened, the crash was covered here; (https://pldmsite.wordpress.com/2020/05/23/crash-of-airplane-pk8303-in-karachi/). It presented a great deal of initial speculation as to the cause of the tragedy. Since then, with the passage of weeks, a lot more information has come out and many theories have been constructed. The black box was recovered from the airplane wreckage and its data has been gathered. The government of Pakistan has promised that an initial inquiry report on the accident will be released on June 22 and a full report will arrive a few months later. But enough information, gleamed from records of communication between pilot and air traffic control, eyewitness accounts, and forensic investigation, has already been made public to provide us with a concise scenario of how the plane crashed. However, there is still much uncertainty about what exactly happened.

We know that the airplane, an Airbus A320 jet airliner that took off from Lahore on a 90-minute flight, aborted its first landing attempt at Jinnah International Airport and made a go-around (circling around to make the same landing). The pilot, Captain Sajjad Gul, reported dual engine failure and then issued a mayday alert to air traffic control. Transmission was then lost and the plane, on its final landing approach, veered off course and crashed into a residential area known as Model Colony. Only two of the 99 people onboard have survived and, at first, there were only injuries among people on the ground. However, a 12-year old girl injured in the plane crash later tragically passed away (https://www.samaa.tv/news/pakistan/2020/06/12-year-old-injured-in-pk-8303-crash-passes-away-in-karachi/).

Before going any further, we should all be aware of the fact that the pilot, Captain Sajjad Gul, appears to have steered his plane to avoid hitting homes so that the plane landed in the middle of a neighborhood road. This is truly an immensely heroic act that a person on the verge of death did to protect others. It undoubtedly saved many people, as the Model Colony neighborhood the plane crashed into was densely populated. Sources describe it as being congested. Yet, no doubt thanks to the pilot’s quick thinking and composure, casualties among people on the ground have been light.

Just as commendable is the heroism of the rescue workers, professionals and ordinary people, who worked to recover victims from the crash zone under great danger, braving high temperatures and a massive fire that broke out around the crash site, while the congested layout of the neighborhood made delivery of relief efforts challenging. Then there are the medical personnel, tirelessly working to treat the injured and getting themselves prepared to treat any injured even as the severe coronavirus outbreak in Sindh has stretched the healthcare sector thin. The agencies of Pakistan tasked with safety and relief have done a commendable job responding to the plane crash.

Also critically important is the job of those who are working to find out how it was that the plane crashed, information that will aid us in improving safety standards to prevent such an accident from happening again. I believe that this awareness is more urgently needed right now than we may think, because this plane crash has not come at an ordinary time for Pakistan and for its aviation sector. We happen to be in unprecedented circumstances, a time of enormous crisis and disruption all across the nation, indeed the world, and this current situation could be a factor in the PIA plane crashing. If so, then we are likely in imminent danger of further aviation accidents/incidents during the time we are in and we need to respond quickly.

First, let us look at the facts available. Sources said early on that a technical issue, most likely failure to deploy the undercarriage, or landing gear, caused the plane to abort landing. Two runways were then offered to the plane. However, instead of utilizing them, the plane made a go-around. Then, according to the air traffic control communications, another technical fault occurred, failure of both the plane’s turbofan engines, which is corroborated by a lot of evidence. Eyewitness reports suggest that the plane’s wings were on fire. The plane flew into the neighborhood while its front part was tilted upwards, which is a sign it was trying to ascend. Photos of the airplane wreckage on the ground show the blades of the turbofan engine to be undamaged, which suggest that they were not turning when the plane crashed.

Records of air traffic communications are reported to have revealed a grave pilot error that took place before the crash. Apparently, the airplane was too high in altitude when it was approaching the airport runway. ATC warned the pilot to lower the airplane but he ignored those warnings and descended too close to the runway, resulting in the plane travelling at a dangerously high speed when it was first about to land. Sajjad Gul is a senior pilot with 24 years of experience in the airline industry.

A preliminary report by the Civil Aviation Authority (detailed here https://www.thenews.com.pk/print/663140-new-questions-rise-over-plane-crash-report-on-crash-causes-in-90-days), who declared that they found skid marks on the first runway the plane attempted to land on, suggests that after the landing gear failed to deploy while the plane was landing, the plane flew so low that the jet engines, but not the belly, scraped the ground three times and were damaged. The plane climbed back into the air again. The aircrew failed to notify air traffic control of landing gear failure until the plane was making a go-around to retry the same landing. The plane ascended to 3,000 feet but could not hold the altitude, perhaps because fuel was leaking, and then tilted, upon which the crash happened.

Multiple things are being reported as having gone wrong at the end of the plane’s journey, but if they are true, they may all be connected. It is possible that when the plane was landing at a high speed, the crew was busy trying to slow it down and forgot to deploy the landing gear in the process. Then the plane engines were damaged by scraping the runway and so malfunctioned in the air, resulting in the plane coming down.

This explanation, or some variant thereof, of how the plane crashed may very well be true. But when it comes to the broader picture of what made the disaster possible, the timing of the plane crash is something that is very important to note. It happened just after airplanes like PK8303 were back in the air after a long nationwide grounding, part of an unprecedented worldwide drop in air travel due to the coronavirus pandemic. In Pakistan, all commercial flights were banned on 29 March. The ban on domestic flights was lifted on 16 May in time for the Eid holidays, which came just after the day the plane crashed. This has been a very difficult and unique time for the aviation industry in Pakistan and the entire world, one that nobody was prepared for. A two-month grounding of airplanes throughout the country is unprecedented. The pandemic and severe economic problems are also disrupting everything in Pakistan and making life for everybody very hard. This backdrop to the plane crash therefore naturally leads us to one question: did the impact of the coronavirus pandemic play a part in the plane crash?

According to a summary report by aviation authorities, PK8303, which had been flying for sixteen years, was grounded under the virus lockdown between March 22 and May 7, after which it did six flights while reporting no defects. It last underwent a routine inspection the day before 21 March and the last major check was on October 19, 2019. This long hiatus in safety inspection may have caused technical defects with the plane to go unnoticed before it resumed flight. Also, when a plane is grounded for a long period of time, it is supposed to undergo test flights before resuming normal operations to make sure its performance is fine. This seems not to have happened with PK8303.

Aviation safety relies a great deal upon the financial capacity of the aviation industry. Making sure flying is safe can be so expensive that, sometimes, airliners tarry at this job in order to save costs. It is a big problem at the best of times, especially for an airliner of a developing country like PIA, but the coronavirus pandemic is putting the aviation industry on the verge of a financial catastrophe. Because of the total grounding of flights, airline companies are making much less money while still maintaining their fleets. The government is supposed to help out, but it is very difficult for ours to do so when it has to deal with the unprecedented coronavirus crisis all over the country and with severe economic problems stemming from other causes, including a severe, long-running locust outbreak and inflation. Plus, virus restrictions impact all activities of life. Airline employees likely could not do their normal job without great risk. In this battle to fight the virus that has taken the country by storm, it must have become harder for aviation to guard against other threats. They might also be tempted to relax safety standards to preserve what little profitability is possible.

Even after the lockdown on planes was lifted, the airlines continue to operate under great strain. Far fewer people are flying than in normal times, which means that airlines continue to be short on cash. There has been a rush as Pakistanis wanted to go back to their hometown to be with their families for Eid, but social distancing measures meant that most passenger planes are occupied far below their full capacity, with every second seat being kept empty. This SOP fortunately prevented PK 8303 from being one of the deadliest plane crashes in Pakistan’s history. Also, the air travel industry has an enormous responsibility to ensure the coronavirus is not spread by air travel, whether it is by infected people traveling to other places or transmission taking place during flight, when lots of people are crammed into a tight space. Airliners now have to save the world in addition to making sure their planes land safely. It is a huge burden that may have stressed PIA’s capacity to a dangerous level.

All in all, the enormous challenges that aviation is going through as a result of the pandemic may have compromised the maintenance and inspection of airplanes, causing technical defects to build-up and go unnoticed. Whether or not this is what made the crash of PK8303 possible, it is a hazard that very likely exists. We cannot ignore this risk. We must recognize that more plane accidents could occur in the days ahead because of the impact of the pandemic on aviation and we have to take action against the threat. We need to conduct a risk assessment to investigate just how aviation safety is being affected by current circumstances. As difficult as it may be during the pandemic, we must pay extra attention to maintaining aviation safety standards, making sure that all airplanes are thoroughly inspected and well-maintained and subjecting planes to adequate testing before resumption of their normal duties. Matters will only get worse if planes start crashing in the middle of a severe pandemic.

It is widely presumed that a malfunction due to internal factors with the ill-fated plane caused it to crash. But there is also the possibility of an external factor that caused damage to the plane while it was flying. Engine failure is generally considered to be a cause of the plane crash, but as for what caused this failure, jet engines are vulnerable to spontaneous malfunction but are also vulnerable to whatever goes into the engine while it is operating. Jet engines suck in a tremendous amount of air, but we always hope that it is only air going into it, because if solid objects collide with the engines, it can cause serious damage and sometimes an accident like what happened with flight PK8303.

When a plane is in the air, such collisions are usually with birds, and indeed, several experts have already entertained the idea of a “bird strike” contributing to the plane crash in Karachi. Birds always impact with flying planes at very high speed, which means they hit with such strong force that various parts of the plane can be damaged. But jet engines are the most vulnerable. A bird being ingested in there can cause the fan blades to buckle in a domino effect that causes engine failure. If the bird’s body goes behind the blades, it can cause some deeper damage resulting in fuel leakage, which can start a fire in the engine. Birds can also strike and damage panels on the airplane wings, such as flaps and ailerons, when they are open, creating difficulty with controlling the plane’s movement at crucial moments, like landing. Bird strikes usually happen when passenger planes are taking off or landing, as airplanes usually fly at altitudes too high for birds.

The bigger a bird is, the more dangerous a strike can be. There are a lot of large birds in Karachi, including vultures, so a hit with one could definitely have taken down the Airbus plane. But if a plane runs into a flock of birds, it is also very dangerous as many birds might collide. It could explain why both engines of the PK8303 plane failed, as birds could have gone into both at the same time. We may need eyewitness and video accounts to tell us if there were birds over Jinnah International Airport at the time the airplane crashed. Also, if a bird strike indeed happened, we should be able to find the bird remains (known as “snarge” in aviation speak) in the airplane wreckage.

We should keep in mind that birds are not the only animals that fly. In fact, right now, one other type of animal is buzzing in the skies over Pakistan in great numbers, because enormous locust swarms have been invading the region for several months now. It is believed to be the biggest locust invasion in 70 years and some of the swarms are the size of major cities. Locusts began swarming in East Africa in 2018 and they very quickly reached Pakistan, where Karachi was inundated by locusts in November 2019 for the first time since 1961. The locust swarms within Pakistan have only been getting stronger since then as locusts are breeding in our farmlands. Pakistan declared a state of emergency over them in February and FAO predicted that swarms across Africa and Asia will further explode in numbers by June, a month that has just arrived.

Desert locusts, the species involved, are large insects and fly in dense formations. Any plane that flies through a swarm could potentially receive a big load of locusts. One locust may not do a lot of damage, but a large number of locusts getting splattered onto even a large passenger jet plane can possibly have a serious impact. Had PK8303 engaged in such a contact with any of the vast locust swarms overrunning Pakistan, it might have enabled the crashing of the plane.

Caution already exist in the aviation world against planes flying through locust swarms. In September 2010, Australia’s Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA) issued a national notice to pilots about the dangers that locusts, swarming in Australia at that time, posed to aircraft. It said that locusts could be smeared on the windscreen and reduce visibility and could block engine intakes and overheat the engines, making failure possible. The insects could also clog the pitot tubes of an airplane, therefore causing difficulty in accurately reading the plane’s airspeed. As for the current locust swarms across Africa and Asia, an official warning so far has been issued just a few days ago by India’s Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) that the locust swarms that recently entered India have become so big that these pose an aviation hazard. They warned of instruments and sensors being damaged by locusts, air intake inlets being clogged, and locusts being smeared on the windshield.

The engine failure the doomed PIA plane is believed to have suffered before crashing on May 22 could have happened due to both jet engines ingesting enough locusts. Locusts are not soft objects. They have an exoskeleton made out of a tough material known as chitin, so it’s definitely not good for such things to go into the engine of a flying plane. And then there is the effect locust collisions could have on the plane’s instruments and sensors, which allow the pilot to know important things like how fast the plane is going. If reports of pilot error on PK8303 are true, then they could have been caused by locust strikes. For instance, if the pitot tubes of the airplane were clogged by locusts and the pilot could not accurately read the airspeed, it could have caused him to approach the runway at too high a speed or to veer off course on the second landing attempt or when the engines failed. We can be pretty certain that locusts did not get smeared over the windshield or the pilot would certainly have reported it.

Southern Sindh is a hotbed of locust swarming in Pakistan right now. So it is possible that PK8303 encountered such a swarm as it made its ill-fated approach to Jinnah International Airport. There have been recent reports of locust swarms in proximity to Karachi, such as this news item on May 5 that said locusts were attacking Karachi suburbs (https://arynews.tv/en/locusts-swarms-attack-crops-in-suburban-areas-of-karachi/). However, Karachi is not being inundated by locusts the way it was in late 2019 and the sighting of a locust swarm over Karachi the day the PIA airplane crashed has not been reported. Nevertheless, Flight PK8303 could have been struck by locusts at any time during its last journey. It took off from Lahore and flew straight to Karachi, which placed its flight trajectory right across Punjab and Sindh, Pakistan’s breadbaskets and therefore prime territory for locust swarming.

Commercial airliners, however, spend most of their flight at an altitude too high for locusts. Locusts can only fly at very low elevations and PK8303 could not possibly have encountered any while it was cruising between Lahore and Karachi. The only times when airplanes are likely to encounter flying locusts is when they are taking off and landing. There is a strong possibility of this happening to PK8303 during these two stages in its last flight, given that Lahore and Karachi are both right in the middle of locust territory. According to statistics compiled by the FAO, while the majority of locust breeding in Pakistan is taking place in Balochistan, the rest is in southern Sindh and northeastern Punjab, exactly where those two cities are (https://tribune.com.pk/story/2230538/2-locust-attack-poses-famine-risk/). Adult locusts also have a strong presence in these areas. Even if the doomed airplane did not strike locusts while trying to land in Karachi, it could have done so shortly after taking off in Lahore, which could have ended up contributing to the crash more than an hour later. If the jet engines were what sustained the fatal damage, the reason they failed only when the plane was landing could be because plane engines are under particularly high strain during the landing phase, so PK8303’s engines would be unable to cope with this action even as they were able to carry the plane along on its 90-minute voyage. If instruments and sensors were damaged, they could have ended up being problematic only during landing.

Furthermore, there is also the possibility that PK8303 sustained damage from locust strikes at any time in its flight history since it was last checked on 21 March or thoroughly inspected on October 19 last year. It could have been struck by individual locusts several times during the locust upsurge in the region, thereby gradually sustaining damage. This damage would be unnoticed for some time but, sooner or later, it would end up triggering a major accident.

If the current locust invasions are responsible for playing a part in the crash of PK8303, it may not necessarily be strikes with the locusts themselves that the airplane experienced. Collisions with birds are much more dangerous than collisions with locusts, but a locust upsurge can raise the likelihood of both. That is because a lot of birds, including birds of large sizes, eat locusts, so wherever there are a lot more locusts in the sky, there are always going to be a lot more birds, and wherever there are a lot more birds, the danger to airplanes is a lot higher. Israel, for instance, has to deal with a very high bird-strike risk because the country lies on a migratory bird route.

Birds usually find their food on or close to the ground and therefore spend a lot of time either keeping their two feet on land or flying too low to encounter airplanes. But a locust swarm means an enormous feast right up there in the sky, a rare spectacle that any insectivorous bird will eagerly take advantage of the entire time it lasts. Also, if locusts are swarming in a particular area, birds far and wide will travel to that area, crowding in the air above it. Finally, the current locust upsurge of Africa and Asia has been going on since mid-2018 and hovering around Pakistan since mid-2019. In that amount of time, the bird populations in the affected regions could have grown. All in all, the skies over Pakistan and the wider region around it have become a lot more crowded and airplanes must now find it much more difficult to avoid running into creatures with either feathers or six legs.

The tragic crash of PK8303 in Karachi on May 22, 2020, may have come about, in part, due to the locust upsurge and the way it is filling the skies with winged objects. It could also have come about due to the coronavirus pandemic and the way it is sucking money from airlines and throwing the aviation industry into a storm of difficulties. But even if these two upheavals of our time have nothing to do with the recent plane crash that took the lives of 98 people, the dangers they pose to aviation is still there and very real. Therefore, there is a heightened chance that further airplane mishaps and disasters will occur in the times we are in.

This means we have to be extra vigilant and take into account the aviation hazards outlined above. If we continue with forbidding mass passenger air travel from occurring, as Pakistan and many other countries have done during the coronavirus lockdowns, it may be a good policy. In this time of overarching crisis, we might decide that only essential goods and people will be traveling by air. But if we continue to allow airplanes to occupy the skies and people to occupy those airplanes, we have to identify the additional risks they currently face and mitigate those risks. We need to make sure that airlines maintain their usual safety standards while handling the novel challenges presented by the coronavirus pandemic. If any airline company is being tempted to cut costs, we need to be able to find out and to discipline them. Airline companies should also be provided with financial assistance from the government or from donations during the coronavirus crisis. Locust swarms have to be closely monitored so we can detect locust presence near airports or air routes. Every measure must be undertaken to keep locusts and birds away from these sensitive areas. If need be, we remove all crops and vegetation that are in proximity to urban areas, perhaps by allowing locusts to deplete them quickly, so planes can take-off and land safely.

Aviation safety and risk is, of course, a big issue at all times. A lot of work needs to be done to make aviation safe within Pakistan and, given the highly integrated nature of global aviation, we need to make sure air travel across the world is safe for Pakistanis and for people travelling on Pakistani airliners.

So as for the recent aviation disaster Pakistan has suffered just before Eid, we are waiting as the investigation proceeds. Knowing the truth is important so that the survivors, the loved ones of the victims, and the nation can have closure and so that further tragedies can be prevented. We are relying on the official investigation to come to a conclusion and we may all gravitate towards believing what seems like the most likely explanation. But we have to consider and think of every possibility in what happened. It may be said that we have to be creative, going through the information we have, not only information directly pertaining to the crash but information way beyond, coming up with any hypothesis that is possible, and see how it resonates with the facts.

For example, pilot error is being considered as a major factor in the crash. The captain apparently made a series of mistakes that could have been avoided. It makes us wonder how such an experienced pilot could have acted out this way and then we may start making judgments on him (we shouldn’t get prejudiced easily). But in relating the crash to the wider circumstances again, I thought of one possibility, which is that, what if the pilot was sick with COVID-19? The disease is spreading rapidly. People working in the airline industry are among those most likely to get infected. Serious illnesses often hamper a person’s mental and physical performance, making us sluggish or slow-witted. COVID-19, for its part, has shown signs of having a neurological impact. Many coronaviruses, also, have been known to infect the brain. As our knowledge of SARS-CoV-2 progresses, perhaps we will find out that it can impact the nervous system as well. We have to find out whether or not Sajjad Gul was suffering this way when he was in the cockpit for the last time. Was his dead body inspected for the coronavirus? Could we exhume him and find signs that he was infected?

Any possibility must be investigated.

So, what does PPLDM consider, as of this writing, to be the most likely scenario? Well, we are almost sure about three things going wrong with the flight; the plane being on an improper trajectory on its first landing attempt, the landing gear not being lowered, and the engines failing. It is unlikely for all three events to be a coincidence, so the storyline we may consider most reliable for now is that the plane’s unusual descent trajectory caused an unstable landing, which caused the cockpit crew to forget to employ the landing gear, which caused the engines to scrape the runway, which damaged them so much that they failed and caused the plane to veer off course and descend. It must be unlikely, also, that it is a coincidence the crash happened in the time of coronavirus-induced turbulence experienced by aviation and just after a long air grounding in Pakistan. If a malfunction was the primal cause of the crash, it is highly likely that technical faults were allowed to build-up in the plane during the pandemic.

However, if pilot error was the primal cause, and all malfunctions were the result of that, how can we relate this to the pandemic? Maybe the pilot was stressed by this and other circumstances affecting Pakistanis at that time. Maybe his thinking was impacted. We can also allow the possibility of human error and malfunction coinciding. So the scenario can be that the pilot steered the plane on an unstable descent path and this combined with a (possibly pandemic-induced) problem with the landing gear or the warning systems resulted in the landing gear failing, and the rest followed.

We watch as the investigation into the causes of the plane crash proceeds and we wait for the official results of the investigation to be released to the public. Hopefully, this investigation is being conducted in a fair, honest and intelligent manner so we can really know what happened.

Crash of Airplane PK8303 in Karachi

Update: Six days after the publication of the following brief, and after an article appeared in the Pakistani press about avian hazard https://pakobserver.net/what-is-pakistan-aviations-sop-on-avian-hazard-management/, the Government of India issued warning to its aviation sector about the hazards locust swarms pose to aircraft (https://www.thenews.com.pk/print/665220-india-warns-airlines-of-locust-swarm-flight-risk). On June 7, Pakistan also started taking measures to protect airplanes from locust strikes (https://tribune.com.pk/story/2237507/1-fearing-aircraft-damage-caa-launches-anti-locust-spray-campaign-jinnah-terminal/). We welcome this development and hope all regional airlines follow suit as we continue to campaign for upholding safety standards in aviation during this unprecedented time.

Following policy brief was issued by PPLDM on 23 May, 2020, after the tragic passenger plane crash in Karachi.

PK8303, an Airbus A320 passenger plane belonging to Pakistan International Airlines (PIA), en route from Lahore, was approaching to land at Jinnah International Airport in Karachi when it crashed into a residential area. According to reports that have come out so far, the airplane made an attempt to land which was aborted and, as the plane circled around and made a second attempt, it missed the runway by only a few hundred feet, an extremely short distance in aviation terms, and collided with houses in a densely-crowded residential area called “Model Colony,” destroying several of them. The pilot issued a mayday just before this happened.

The airplane was carrying 91 passengers and eight crew (according to reports so far). At least 80 people are confirmed dead. It is unclear yet if the dead were all onboard the plane or if the toll includes people on the ground where the plane crashed. Households in Pakistan tend to have a lot of family members and, because of coronavirus, a lot of people across Pakistan are indoors. The plane crash took place during Ramadan, when Muslims are often homebound during afternoon, although due to the time of crash coinciding with Friday prayer, most men were out of their homes, praying at mosques. Therefore, it is likely that many people were in the houses that were struck. On the other hand, the plane was half-full because of covid-19 fears and related regulations. Due to the crash taking place at the end of an hour-long flight, the amount of jet fuel involved in the resultant fire is low. Two passengers so far are confirmed as having survived the crash, along with 11 or so people from the neighborhood who are reported to be injured. That of course means that they are still alive as I write. Whether their lives will be saved altogether, we have to wait and see for the following days and weeks. Right now, first responders and rescue workers are valiantly working to retrieve bodies from the rubble as fires rage and smoke billows at the site of airplane’s wreckage and surrounding houses and streets.

The plane crash comes just before the arrival of the Eid-ul-Fitr holidays and days after coronavirus lockdown was lifted in Pakistan and commercial flights were allowed. This tragedy comes at a very difficult time for Pakistan and for the whole world. Five million people have already been infected by the coronavirus globally, most of them in a handful of countries. Pakistan is one of the countries where the pandemic is at medium level. Domestic flights were allowed so that Pakistanis could return to their hometowns to spend Eid. PK8303 was one of the planes filled with such people. Due to the crash, a state of emergency was declared in hospitals across Karachi, at a time when hospitals and healthcare workers across the nation are already overstretched. Taking care of people injured due to the plane crash will be a challenge if the injured turn out to be a lot. The upside is that healthcare facilities are on high alert at all times due to the pandemic, so they have been able to respond rapidly. However, providing care to plane crash victims is very different from caring for coronavirus patients, as former requires trauma and burn units.

Information has been coming out rapidly about the crash. Recordings of communications with air traffic control reveal that the pilot made an attempt to land which was aborted, telling air traffic controllers that it was because of a technical issue. He circled around and made a second attempt when he reported loss of engine power. He then issued a mayday alert before the transmission ended, upon which the plane crashed. Reports suggest that the first landing attempt failed because landing great did not deploy. The pilot was told to climb to higher altitude but the plane apparently lost power and was gliding when it missed the runway. It is believed that both the plane engines failed. Reportedly, the tail end of the plane struck the ground first. Survivors must have been from the front part of the plane. Eyewitnesses are reported to have said the airplane was on fire before it crashed on the ground. Right now, we can only conjecture about the cause of the crash. We might get a clear idea of how the accident happened when we open up the black box.

Failure of the jet engines is the likely cause of the crash, but what was the cause of engine failure? If both engines failed and failure of the landing gear also happened, it means the plane suffered from multiple technical faults. In such case, there could have been technical defect/s in the plane that were missed during routine inspections. However, engine failure can also happen if something collides with the engines of a jet airplane. Jet engines, which face forward and suck in air with tremendous force to provide power and thrust, become extremely vulnerable if any object is ingested. Even ice sloughing off the airplane can cause damage. The turbines can be seriously damaged and even fail. Usually, it is collision with birds that causes this sort of thing. Bird strikes are one of the world’s biggest aviation hazards, causing damage even to airplane parts other than engines. This might have happened with flight PK8303 today.

At present, there is another strong speculative candidate that may have struck the airplane in Karachi, locusts. Since December of last year, desert locusts have been swarming across eastern Africa and western Asia in truly biblical numbers. In Pakistan, massive swarms caused a state of emergency to be declared in February and are only getting stronger. Sindh has been suffering from dreadful attack of locusts for months now, even breeding in much of the province right now, and Karachi has been experiencing swarms for the first time since 1961. Could it be possible, then, that collision with locusts caused the airplane to lose control? Desert locusts are very large insects with very tough cuticle exoskeletons. Their swarms can be very dense. A lot of damage can be caused if a plane runs into a swarm and collides with a large number of these insects.

The Australian Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA) once issued a warning to pilots in 2010 about the dangers of flying through a locust swarm. The warning said it could cause loss of engine power and loss of visibility, as expected, and the locusts could also block the aircraft’s pitot tubes, causing inaccurate airspeed readings. (https://www.couriermail.com.au/news/national/aircraft-warned-to-avoid-flying-in-locust-plague-areas/news-story/f3710161cfa721e6cd69898c7dd97402)

If run-in with either a swarm of locusts or a flock of birds happened to PK 8303, it could explain why both engines failed at the same time. The animals would have gone into both. Loss of visibility probably did not happen, or the pilot would have reported it. However, if locusts clogged up the airspeed reading device, it could have prevented the pilot from being able to accurately land his plane on the runway, causing the aborted landing attempt and maybe even the plane flying into the neighborhood next to the runway. Bird or locust strikes are a high possibility when a plane is at low altitude. If a big and dense flock of swarms is involved, eyewitnesses should be able to spot and report them.

Alternatively, even only a few birds could have been responsible for downing the airplane. If so, could it still be connected with the locust outbreaks? Whenever a plane suffers a serious bird strike, it is often because there is large number of birds in the air. More birds entail a greater likelihood of bird-plane collisions. Could it be, then, that the PIA airplane crashed because of collisions with birds that were following the locusts? With such large locust swarms, one should expect that birds will also be gathering in large number to prey on locusts. Even if no locusts were present in Karachi today, birds may have been crossing the city on their way to locust hunting. We need to examine whether the locust plagues have been causing a denser gathering of birds in the sky.

PPLDM has been deeply concerned about the tremendous damage to our food supply that the locusts have been wreaking. While air travel is slowly resuming as coronavirus restrictions ease, we also need to be on the lookout for the additional traffic hazards that locust swarms pose. They could even be a hazard to traffic on the road, including motorcyclists. Studies have suggested people on motorbikes can be seriously injured if they collide with flying insects, presumably of kinds much smaller than locusts, at high speed. As we strive to ensure that the coronavirus pandemic is not worsened by people flying by air, we need to take into account another distinct hazard these days, avian threats to plane’s structure, and issue proper aviation warnings on this hazard. We are already ensuring that the virus is not transmitted inside airplanes by issuing SOPs. What is the SOP on avian hazard warning, a particularly high concern at present? We also need to educate media about this hazard so it can pressurize civil aviation management to cancel flights if plausible extraneous hazards are detected.

Also, because today’s plane crash in Karachi took place during the coronavirus pandemic and an unprecedented drop in global air travel, we should also consider if there is a connection between the two. The grounding of airlines for months and the disruptions caused by the pandemic might have resulted in lax maintenance and inspection of aircraft. I imagine that the keeping up of air safety standards could have been running into some challenges during an unprecedented time like this which nobody has prepared for or is used to. If a passenger jet crashes right after the country’s air travel has resumed following a record-breaking hiatus, and while air traffic is under high burden due to the Eid holidays (trying to keep passengers apart and boarding low when so many people must be trying to get on a plane), there is a good chance it is not a coincidence.

Still, this plane crash is far from unusual within Pakistan or for a Pakistani airliner, unfortunately. Pakistan has a poor air safety record. Major air accidents with significant casualties have occurred every few years throughout the nation’s history. Since the start of this year alone, there have already been five plane crashes before PK8303, though they were all of small aircraft with few people involved. The first was an aircraft that was spraying pesticides to fight locusts when it crashed on January 12, killing two people onboard, and the rest were of military aircraft, including a fighter jet crashing at Shakar Parian Islamabad while practicing for Pakistan Day parade. Two of the military crashes caused fatalities of people onboard.

The enormous tragedy that has occurred in Karachi today has delivered shock and trauma to a nation reeling under the devastation of the coronavirus pandemic and locust plagues and will dampen the spirit of Eid celebrations for us all – celebrations that have already been physically suppressed due to the virus. This is the first time in a few years that a massive and sudden tragedy occurred in Pakistan just before the start of Eid holidays marking the end of Ramadan. The other time was on June 25, 2017, when an oil tanker on a highway in rural Punjab crashed and ignited spilt oil while a huge crowd of people was present, killing more than two hundred and injuring many more. (See “Tragedy at Bahawalpur” at https://pldmsite.wordpress.com/2017/07/20/first-blog-post/)

History has also repeated itself with this sudden high-casualty disaster occurring in Pakistan while the nation is coping with a much larger crisis of longer duration. Ten years ago, on July 28, an Airbus A321, Airblue Flight 202, crashed in the Margalla Hills north of Islamabad due to heavy fog and rainfall, killing all 152 on board, just as two months of monsoon rainfall began that would cause record-breaking floods submerging a fifth of Pakistan, killing 2,000 Pakistanis, and directly affecting 20 million. To this day, Airblue Flight 202 remains the deadliest aviation accident in Pakistan’s history and the 2010 monsoon floods the biggest natural disaster to ever strike Pakistan in terms of the number of people impacted.

2020 is a year of enduring challenges and countless tragedies for the world. As our nation grapples with the tragedy that transpired on 22 May, the difficult truth is that we have to continue to contend with tremendous challenges and crises in the days ahead and for the foreseeable future. There will be no respite. Eid is always supposed to be a joyous occasion for Muslims everywhere, but this Eid, we cannot go out for customary shopping, festivities, and social gatherings on account of social distancing. Widespread food shortages and economic hardships also persist across the nation. The least we hoped for was that people be able to spend Eid with their loved ones, but now, around 100 or so Pakistani Muslim families will be deprived forever of a beloved member. They will spend Eid in deep mourning and the rest of us will spend Eid with dampened spirit.

We may be bewildered by the way so many adversarial circumstances are coming together to harm us, but we must persevere. We must resolve that we will endure the hardships we are going through and be strong in the face of the losses we have suffered. Furthermore, we have to be adaptable, innovative, and smart in the face of everything that this year is throwing at us. It is the only way we can overcome the highly complex and novel challenges that Pakistan and the entire world is going through. This is a time of enormous struggle for our nation. There is no way to tell when the struggle will be over and where it will lead us, but we have to continue fighting with determination and do anything we can to fight back. When we succeed, we will emerge from this era stronger than before.

CIVIL UNREST & VIRUS TRANSMISSION

Following is a COVID-19 issue brief from PPLDM.

On 10 March, a choir rehearsal was held by the Skagit Valley Chorale in Washington State, USA, where the coronavirus pandemic was just beginning to take hold. Lasting two and a half hours, it was attended by 56 people who took precautions such as keeping social distance and using hand sanitizer.

Within weeks, 45 of those people were diagnosed with COVID-19. Two of them died of it. There is little doubt that the choir practice is the cause of this huge cluster of cases. But how could the virus have spread so widely in the room given that it is unlikely that more than a few infected people were present?

At the time of the choir practice, the WHO downplayed concerns regarding the virus spreading widely through the air. The Washington disaster forced experts to rethink this. It is believed that, by singing, infected individuals emitted large amounts of viral particles into the air from respiratory tract. As a result, the choir rehearsal became a super-spreading event (an event that transmits the virus to an unusually high extent.).

It shows that we have to be very careful about events which involve people congregating densely in large numbers. A ‘small number of gatherings’ could be responsible for a high number of COVID-19 transmission. Regulating such gatherings could help us go a long way in slowing the pandemic. Restricting any potentially super spreader activity can sometimes be challenging, especially if the activity happens discreetly, or participants are too numerous to handle easily. Otherwise, it is fairly easy to track and suppress large gatherings of people.

There is, however, one kind of mass gathering that is always very difficult to disperse or control – civil unrest. Whether in the form of peaceful demonstrations or rioting, protesting has been a common feature all over the world, especially during last year. People gather in large number to vent their anger and discontent or to voice their demands in a manner that is disruptive because they mean to create an impact. Demonstrations are effective only when people crowd densely at certain vital spots, usually frequented by lots of other people.

Such disturbance happening while the pandemic is in full swing is a recipe for disaster. It will involve very large number of people tightly packed together. They will be chanting and shouting, thus expelling respiratory particles in thick amounts. The protestors will often come into proximity with a lot of other people like bystanders and law enforcement. Protests are therefore a major coronavirus hazard that Pakistan needs to be wary of as it battles the outbreak.

Should the circumstances be ripe for fermenting protest, dealing with the threat will be a huge challenge. By their very nature, protests are difficult for the authorities to block or control without resorting to actions repugnant to human rights values. The alternative is for the authorities to defuse the tensions that cause protests. Also, when people are aware of what is at stake, they themselves might avoid protesting out of concern for the outbreak. The pandemic is a crisis so big that we might expect people to avoid doing anything to further worsen it en masse.

However, the danger that protests and civil disturbances will break out in Pakistan while the coronavirus outbreak is occurring is very high. We have already seen coronavirus protocol being violated a lot by large numbers of people. Angry people are especially likely to disregard rules or concern for the safety of themselves and their fellow human beings. There will be a lot of anger as the pandemic brings massive disruption and misery to Pakistan. This is going to be a very difficult time for Pakistanis, who may resort to demonstrating due to hard circumstances even when nobody is clearly at fault for such circumstances. For example, in recent years, we have seen angry protests in Pakistan over water shortages, with poor people demanding that water be delivered, even if the water supply to a lower riparian state like us falls short during a season. Since rioting in the sun can make one a lot thirstier, it demonstrates that people will eagerly engage in such confrontational behavior even if it worsens the problem they are angry about.

What worsens the risk for us is that the authorities are likely going to be directly responsible for much of the hardship people will experience. This pandemic is driving governments everywhere to impose a slew of restrictions on all aspects of life for an extended period. Such policies are damaging people’s livelihood and are extremely unpopular with many across the world. These policies will bear down especially hard on Pakistan’s poor and lower-income people. They might see what is being done to them as a bigger source of anguish than an invisible virus killing a relatively small number of people. Plus, if drastic measures are successful in keeping the virus under control (therefore keeping the death count small), ordinary people might assume COVID-19 is not a serious threat to begin with and that the restrictions they are made to bear are unnecessary. So the motivation to engage in protests will grow higher as the reason to avoid protest decreases.

Protests have already happened since coronavirus became an emergency in Pakistan. Early on, there were protests by the pilgrims quarantined in Taftan over the conditions they were being held in, but their protest most likely created no risk that they were not already exposed to. On April 6, there was a protest by 150 doctors, who are the people who should know the best about what their behavior entailed, in Quetta over lack of personal protective equipment for those treating COVID-19. This protest also perhaps did not create new danger, except that the police arresting them provided opportunity for virus transmission.

Of much more concern, a major protest movement occurring during the COVID-19 crisis was launched against the detention of Jang Geo’s Mir-Shakil-ur-Rehman, who was arrested by NAB on 12 March over suspicion of corruption (specifically a bribe he was alleged to have taken from then Punjab Chief Minister Nawaz Sharif way back in 1986). The protests, which still continue, have often involved protestors crowding together in the typical manner. This unrest happening seems especially unbelievable as the grievance seemingly has nothing to do with coronavirus and there are much more important things to worry about. But, as it always turns out to be the case with anything happening during this pandemic, Mr. Rehman’s imprisonment is relevant to COVID-19 in important ways. Prisoners are among the people most vulnerable to the pandemic, as prisons are very fertile places for the disease to spread, so arresting him puts him at risk at a time when police around the world are considering letting people off for charges that do not urgently require detention. Also, media’s role in reporting on the coronavirus crisis is immensely important and a large media group like Jang Geo’s services should be particularly valuable now. Its owner’s arrest has hampered smooth functioning of Jang/Geo network and salaries to hundreds of employees have been halted. It is therefore a highly contentious issue, but it is a bad idea for his supporters to contest the matter in the way they have been doing.

These examples may, unfortunately, be the beginning. There is going to be turmoil in Pakistan. Fear and suspicion of authorities will be rife among the people as hugely controversial policies are pursued. Security forces will be overstretched. There appears to be plenty of mishandling of critical matters by the authorities. As the outbreak continues, Pakistan may resort to imposing lockdowns and quarantines even more, creating the perfect conditions for an outbreak of popular discontent that could greatly worsen the situation we are in. Preventing this from happening will be a huge challenge.

The quickest way for authorities is to break up protests by force. In ordinary circumstances, this is usually done only for disruptive or violent riots. But now, government may feel the need to use force for any protest in which people crowd together. A policy of force has big downsides. As people get hurt, public sentiment is inflamed further. Arresting and detaining people considerably worsens the risk of virus transmission.

An alternative is to defuse tensions. Measures vary depending on the reasons people are protesting and what could placate them. The authorities should, of course, always be willing to do little things like release Mir-Shakil-ur-Rehman, or obtain court orders for payment to Jang/Geo employees by seizing his assets. But when there are much bigger factors that are driving people to take to the streets, giving them what they want is usually no easy task. During this pandemic, in particular, Pakistan will have to navigate its way through many dilemmas and quagmires. For example, we have to tread a thin line between suppressing the spread of the virus and allowing the social and economic activity of the nation to continue. It may prove impossible for Pakistan to adopt a course of action that both protects as many lives as possible from the virus and keeps everybody reasonably happy.

In that case, it will have to be up to people themselves to avoid behaving in a manner that endangers them, the people around, and the broader society. It is important to reach out to every Pakistani and make them understand the danger the pandemic poses and the need to fight it tooth and nail, and to help them understand why things are the way they are. For the poor who resorted to angry protests in places like Karachi during recent summers, awareness was something that they were deprived of as much as water. We have to make sure that it is not the same situation during our current crisis. The pandemic is a crisis for the entire population of Pakistan, so properly informing every single Pakistani about what they need to know is necessary.

One thing that Pakistanis could be made aware of is how they can get their demands across while still practicing social, or physical, distancing. Even if every demand cannot be satisfied in desired time, we should make sure every Pakistani feels like they are being heard adequately. Protests happen because people feel it is the only way to get their message across. Let us provide satisfactory alternatives to this course of action.

If we fail to do that, we must find ways for people to engage in protest without providing the virus with opportunity to spread. All that is needed is for people to stay at a distance from each other and to wear personal protection. Protestors will have an incentive to follow this protocol, because their demonstration will be occupying a wider area, (a desirable thing from protestor point of view). Protesting has traditionally focused on being dense, perhaps because it packs a tight punch. But now, the amount of space protests take place in should be the value protestors should seek. It might be just as effective. People stand out in the open, wave placards, and chant loudly, while being far apart from each other, wearing masks and face shields. In the Washington choir practice, the virus might have spread so much because the crowd was indoors. Enclosed spaces allow respiratory particles to circulate in the same area effectively. But outside, which is where protests always take place, this risk is much lower.

Getting people to either find alternatives to protesting, or educating them to protest in a safe manner are two plausible strategies to be adopted if public discontent cannot be defused. Protesting has always been the last resort for people unhappy with what is happening, but as with many things, what is traditionally done has to be given up during this pandemic. We need to find new ways of doing things. This is a time for civil society and political leaders to reflect on the whole phenomenon of protesting, to reevaluate the mechanism of protest. The upheavals of 2019 made protesting the most valued form of activism for the world. But now, in 2020, we have to discover how to fight injustice and advocate for our cause differently during this global upheaval called the COVID-19 pandemic.

Best of all, we should learn how to get along with each other and cooperate, without resorting to confrontation, in order to make it through this time of crisis.

The brief has been authored by Shahzeb Khan, director at PPLDM.

PAKISTAN FACES TWIN THREATS OF PANDEMIC AND FAMINE

The following issue brief was released by PPLDM on 26/04/2020

“We should therefore be hugely alarmed that Pakistan is in the throes of what is very likely the worst pandemic and worst food crisis of the twenty-first century both at the same time. The outbreaks of coronavirus and locusts may together overcome our modern defenses against disease and starvation and, because the rest of the world is so badly affected, Pakistan should not expect much relief coming from abroad.”

Pakistan, along with a large number of other countries, is currently battling two major outbreaks. One is the novel coronavirus causing the disease called COVID-19, currently sweeping the entire world. The other is the desert locust, which has been ravaging large areas of Africa and Asia for some time.

COVID-19 has so far infected nearly 3 million people globally and killed around 200,000, with the numbers continuing to rise. The virus was first discovered in Pakistan at the end of February. Since then it has been spreading rapidly throughout the country. Over 12,000 Pakistanis are now infected and no one can tell how it will turn out. In China, it appears to be dying down after two months of successful containment measures that can be tolerated by countries that have the resources to compensate for periods of low productivity. Some predict that Pakistan will see tens of millions of infections by June (https://www.dawn.com/news/1542651). The death toll could be in the hundreds of thousands.

Meanwhile, the locust swarms are being referred to as an “unprecedented threat to food security” by the UN’s Locust Watch (http://www.fao.org/ag/locusts/en/info/info/index.html). Swarms originating in East Africa started to rampage in countries including Pakistan in mid-2019 but really kicked off after 2020 began, prompting Pakistan to declare a state of national emergency when February began. The infestation has been steadily increasing in Pakistan, causing huge crop losses, and continues to persist without signs of dying down, while countries to the west are being devastated. Experts predict the coming of rising temperatures and summer rainfall might cause locust populations across the region to further explode 400-fold by June (https://www.reuters.com/article/us-africa-locusts/running-out-of-time-east-africa-faces-new-locust-threat-idUSKCN20L1TY). Who knows how much they will grow in South Asia when the summer monsoon comes.

So we now have two severe crises at the same time, one attacking our health and the other our nutrition. Our government has declared that a national lockdown policy is not feasible because the country is too poor to afford its supply chains shutting down, so the virus spread must be countered through other measures. The locust outbreak is wreaking massive economic damage and driving people to hunger, vastly aggravating this conundrum. In turn, the COVID-19 pandemic is hampering international efforts to fight the locust outbreaks. Together the calamities present Pakistan with an unprecedented challenge.

In fact, the danger looming ahead may be something greater than we could ever imagine. Pakistan is facing both an epidemic and a famine at the same time and, throughout history, epidemics and famines have both consistently been the greatest threats to human lives and well-being (besides intra-human war and violence).

Disasters in which people died of other causes usually have minute casualties by comparison. The 1556 Shaanxi earthquake in China, the deadliest known earthquake in history, killed around 830,000 according to historical accounts. The deadliest tsunami, Boxing Day 2004, killed nearly a quarter of a million in the Indian Ocean. Cyclone Bhola, which killed anywhere from a quarter of a million to half a million in East Pakistan in 1970, is the deadliest tropical storm on record. In the same region, a tornado that killed 1,300 people in 1989 is the deadliest known tornado. The deadliest flooding, the 1931 Yangtze floods in China, is believed to have killed more than 150,000 people directly. The deadliest known volcanic eruption, 1815 eruption of Tambora, directly killed perhaps more than 10,000.

All of this is nothing compared to the enormous death tolls of history’s worst epidemics and famines, not to mention the suffering and havoc inflicted alongside. As a side effect of the above calamities, in fact, the 1815 Tambora eruption resulted in epidemics and famines that killed 60,000 people in the local region and more than 90,000 people worldwide, the so-called Year Without a Summer, while as many as four million Chinese may have died from the disease and starvation that stemmed from the 1931 Yangtze floods.

The deadliest pandemic in history is either the 1918 Spanish Flu, which may have killed as many as 50 million people, maybe even 100 million people, worldwide, or the 14th century Black Death, which killed probably as many as 200 million people across Eurasia, including perhaps as much as 60% of Europe’s population. Both pandemics were similar to COVID-19 in that they involved spread of pathogens new to the world. The worst epidemics in history were those of diseases brought to the Americas by European visitors after 1492, which wiped out 90% of American Indians, turning the continents into pristine wildernesses. The sixth century Plague of Justinian may have killed 25 million in the Eastern Mediterranean. 5 million Romans may have been killed by the Antonine Plague of 165 to 180 AD. In the late 1950s, Asian flu killed 1 to 2 million worldwide.

The deadliest famine in history is the Great Chinese Famine of 1959-1961. Caused in part by outbreaks of insects like locusts as well as governmental mismanagement, both concerns for Pakistan right now. Upper estimates of the death toll are 36 or 45 million. As many as 25 million people may have died from the 1907 Great Qing famine in China. Three famines in India in the late 1700s killed at least ten million people. That includes the Great Bengal Famine of 1770 which may have killed a third of Bengal’s population. From 1315 to 1322, more than 7 million were killed in widespread famine across Europe. 5 million Russians starved to death during the famine caused by the Russian Civil War in 1921-22.

With this kind of record, it is clear that epidemics and famine are immensely deadly forces, even if they have been somewhat calmer in modern times. We should therefore be hugely alarmed that Pakistan is in the throes of what is very likely the worst pandemic and worst food crisis of the twenty-first century both at the same time. The outbreaks of coronavirus and locusts may together overcome our modern defenses against disease and starvation and, because the rest of the world is so badly affected, Pakistan should not expect much relief coming from abroad. Both the virus and the locust multiply extremely rapidly and have the potential to infect all people and consume all crops respectively.

All indications, therefore, are that Pakistan is in for what may be the biggest calamity in its history. We need to wake up to the unprecedented danger we are in and we need to do something. Putting Pakistan on a war footing immediately, along with the rest of the world, is perhaps our only choice. Importantly, we have to apply our minds to the task, because discovering innovative solutions that could save us will be an epic endeavor. The severity of the crisis at this stage may be nothing compared to what is coming. We need to avail this time for preparation, which will significantly improve our chances. Every effort will be worth it, for the very survival of our nation is at stake.

THIS ISSUE BRIEF HAS BEEN PREPARED BY SHAHZEB KHAN, DIRECTOR PPLDM.
Pakistan’s People Led Disaster Management
PO Box 552
Islamabad PC 44000

Questions about the Coronavirus Pandemic

COVID-19 is a disease completely new to the world. The virus that causes it, SARS-COV-2, evolved recently and was first detected only a few months ago. The pandemic it is causing so far appears to be only beginning. There is a lot we need to find out concerning the COVID-19 pandemic.

There are therefore many questions that we have to ask that urgently need to be answered. Some of these questions the experts may already know the answer to, so they just have to explain it to the general public. But many questions nobody knows the answer to yet. There remains a lot for us to discover about the virus, the disease it causes, its spread around the world, and what we can do about it. There also seems to be a great deal of confusion in the information being given out. Many questions, of course, are widely asked and researchers are trying their hardest to find answers to. But we should also keep thinking of new questions to ask. Asking questions is the most important thing we can do. It helps to guide the research.

So, to aid in the world’s struggle against COVID-19, presented here is a list of questions about the new coronavirus, most of which are rarely asked and none of which are clearly answered. You can present them to local experts or you can disseminate them broadly.

The first questions we need to ask are about the viral disease itself, of course.

•(1) Is it possible for some people to be exposed to the virus but not get infected? Is there immunity that we don’t know of?

•(2) How clearly is the distinction made between illness, which is people being affected by the virus, and infectiousness, which is people being able to transmit the virus to others? For example, when they say that sick people have recovered from COVID-19, do they mean those people are also safely non-contagious?

•(3) When the virus is detected, whether inside the human body or not, how do we distinguish between finding live viruses and the remains of viruses that once were?

•(4) Can it be indicated how people who have the virus got infected?

•(5) There are indications that some people have died of COVID-19 without them being known to have the virus. If an infected person dies and is buried and significant time passes, is it possible to examine their remains to detect if they had the virus?

•(6) Exactly where in the human body is the virus to be found and how many types of bodily fluids can harbor the virus?

•(7) There are some hints about the virus being able to infiltrate the circulatory system. Some infected people display cardiovascular symptoms and sources say some of these cases are from the virus infecting the heart. Also, the virus attacks cells with the ACE2 receptor, which are found in the lungs but also in the blood vessels. This raises the serious question: can the virus be found in blood?

•(8) Can you get the virus through a cut on your skin?

•(9) Could the virus possibly then be vector-borne, like by mosquitoes or ticks?

•(10) They say the virus cannot be contracted by eating food. Presumably, this is because, while the mouth leads to a respiratory tract, it closes when eating. But after food passes by, doesn’t it leave behind virus particles sticking to the walls of the throat and esophagus which can then go into the respiratory tract?

•(11) Also, aren’t gastrointestinal symptoms of COVID-19 a sign that the virus can infiltrate the digestive system?

•(12) Does the likelihood of contracting the virus increase if there are a lot of dust particles in the air and they carry the virus?

•(13) They say that sneezing is not a common symptom of COVID-19, but can people infected with COVID-19 also have another condition at the same time that makes them sneeze, like another infection or an allergy attack, and can this sneezing transmit the virus?

•(14) Does being exposed to any other virus in the past give people a level of immunity to SARS-CoV-2, like how contracting cowpox used to protect people from smallpox? The virus that caused SARS back in 2003 is similar to the virus causing the current pandemic. Are people who were infected with SARS back then less affected by COVID-19 now?

•(15) Can people be immunized against COVID-19 by being exposed to such a low infectious load of the virus that it does not progress to any significant illness but results in antibodies being created?

•(16) We hear that people with underlying health conditions are especially vulnerable to contracting the virus. What happens when people are infected with COVID-19 and with other infectious diseases (of the kind caused by viruses, bacteria, etc.) at the same time? Do other diseases have the same effect they normally do?

•(17) Does COVID-19 leave healthy people with new morbidities, which is to say that they have lingering health damage they did not have before?

•(18) How does childhood stunting affect a person’s vulnerability to COVID-19?

•(19) The old and those in poor health are who usually succumb to Covid-19. Is there any indication that most of the people who died from COVID-19 were already going to die shortly of old age or health complications?

•(20) We understand why the virus goes hard on the old, but not why it spares the very young. The immune systems of young children are yet to fully develop, rendering them vulnerable to many diseases. Why isn’t COVID-19 one of them?

•(21) Are there any conditions which allow the virus to survive for a long period of time outside the human body?

•(22) Can the virus be transmitted through water, rendering COVID-19 a waterborne disease?

•(23) What is the longest length of time a person has been infected or ill with COVID-19?

In a similar vein are the questions about the pandemic, the way the infection is spreading through the world and its impact.

•(24) What is it exactly that makes the pandemic such a severe crisis for people? Is it the mortality from the pandemic that people are mostly concerned about or is it also the debilitating or damaging effects of so many people falling ill (similar to how the recent Australian bushfires and the 2010 Pakistan floods are considered huge disasters despite their very low death tolls)?

•(25) If infections from the virus are undetected, can we find evidence of them by noticing a rise in the general rate of illness?

•(26) How is the COVID-19 pandemic, and our response to it, impacting the treatment of other diseases?

•(27) Are the measures being taken against the pandemic, including lockdowns and keeping people home, resulting in smaller numbers of people falling victim to other illnesses and injuries like car accidents, workplace accidents, violence, and respiratory ailments from pollution, thus compensating for the burden the pandemic is placing on healthcare systems?

•(28) Does the coinciding of the COVID-19 pandemic with flu season and allergy season in many parts of the world worsen the spread of the virus by resulting in many virus-infected people also having flu or allergic reactions and therefore sneezing/coughing the virus out?

•(29) If the virus can be found in human feces, does it have potential to become another one of those diseases spread through the fecal-oral route i.e coming out through feces, contaminating water, therefore food that is ingested?

•(30) What are the implications of the two disasters co-coinciding – the desert locust outbreaks in Africa and Asia and the COVID-19 pandemic?

Then, of course, we need to know all about the actions being taken against the spread of the virus. The ways we are responding to it have to be thoroughly scrutinized and suggestions need to be given as to what can be done.

•(31) Why is it going to take a very long time to develop a vaccine for the virus? Simply exposing the virus to soap causes it to burst open, rendering it inactive but leaving its individual components, like the RNA and spike proteins, intact. These are all that are needed to provoke the needed immune response in the body. Why not collect enough of the virus particles, split them open, and inject the remains into people?

•(32) In the bat species that harbors the ancestral virus, do the bats have antibodies or anything that could be used to help humans?

•(33) They say that flattening the curve could result in the same number of people being infected in the end anyway. The goal is just to make sure too many are not infected at the same time. But in China, the epidemic (at least its first wave) seems to have petered out after two months. How it is that they have so far shortened the curve in addition to flattening it and could this work for other places?

•(34) We have two ways to respond to the pandemic. One is to slow the spread of the virus, flattening the curve, and the other is to do nothing. It is generally believed that the former option will result in the outbreak lasting a longer time while the latter option will result in the outbreak quickly running its course, as was demonstrated by St. Louis and Philadelphia during the 1918 Spanish Flu. But there seem to be indications that blocking the spread results in the epidemic quickly coming to an end, including the fact that it seemingly happened in China, and that letting the virus spread unabated may result in the epidemic lasting a very long time. So which is it? Will flattening the curve prolong or shorten the duration of the outbreak?

•(35) Since COVID-19 patients are being concentrated in hospitals, do those hospitals become highly hazardous places where anybody present is at risk of contracting the virus, including patients hospitalized for other conditions? For that reason, shouldn’t separate facilities and clinics be set aside for COVID-19 patients?

•(36) The severity of the pandemic means that people with limited qualifications are being called upon to help treat the virus, including medical students being allowed to graduate early. But providing the wrong care can be much worse than providing less care. How do we safeguard against these sorts of dangers?

•(37) In hard-hit places, medical practitioners of every specialty are being recruited for the fight against COVID-19. But how qualified are they for the job and how does each medical field provide the ability to deal with COVID-19?

•(38) Given the enormity of the disaster, is there any possibility of resorting to using human experimentation to make inroads into treating the disease?

•(39) We are told that making the immune system healthier can improve our chances of fighting off COVID-19, can immunity boosting for that purpose be done quickly enough through injections of nutrients to keep people safe in this current pandemic?

•(40) Can we coat surfaces everywhere with copper if it is an effective anti-microbial agent against the virus?

•(41) Can dogs or other animals sniff out coronavirus infections?

•(42) Why can’t static electricity be used to filter out tiny particles, like the virus we are all concerned about? Electrostatic forces act on small objects but not on air. So if a facemask has a net static charge, which can easily be created, couldn’t it either make virus particles stick to the fiber or keep virus particles away from the mask while allowing air to flow through?

Lastly, we need to broaden our scope and delve into the more general subject matter that surrounds this current pandemic.

•(43) Why is it that viral infections are such a widespread phenomenon anyway? Viruses do not force their way into cells. What goes on is basically the cell sensing virus proteins, letting the virus in, coming into contact with the virus genome, and deciding to follow its instructions. It appears that cells allow themselves to be victimized by viruses. If nature did not do it, can humans simply design cells to keep viruses out?

•(44) The perfect recipe for a pathogen with high potential to go pandemic includes a long incubation period, high virulence, and hosts with no immunity. But if a pathogen has a very long incubation period, during which time it is present in the human body while causing no harm, doesn’t that give time for the immune system to develop antibodies against it, therefore compromising the pathogen’s ability to progress to causing serious illness? (Might this explain SARS-CoV-2’s low virulence?)

These questions will hopefully serve as useful guidance for both researchers and ordinary folks trying to understand Covid-19. There will be many more we will be asking as we proceed on the voyage of discovery alongside this pandemic.

Pakistan’s Coronavirus Crisis and Response Strategy

The COVID-19 pandemic is severe and the only way it seems that nations can curb it is by either subjecting the general population to strict lockdown or to extensive testing, monitoring, and treatment, neither of which is easy for Pakistan.

Lockdown is the more feasible option here and many provincial and local governments have implemented it, Sindh being early at it. But Pakistan does not have any total lockdown policy yet. Prime Minister Imran Khan has rejected the idea. In late March, he said that imposing it on the entire nation will cause economic hardship that the nation cannot afford. With 25 percent of the population below the poverty line (before the virus struck), it could result in more people suffering and dying than from the virus itself. Enforcing total lockdown is also something the authorities might not be very capable of. Imran Khan has therefore suggested self-imposed lock down by people deciding when to go out for the most essential reasons. Working class people continue spending time outside their homes interacting with other people regularly in order to put food on their tables, but otherwise, everybody is advised to take strict precautions.

This is, in theory, a good policy. When a contagion spreads through the population, how each individual responds to it depends a lot upon that individual’s situation, which can be difficult for police enforcing lock down to take into account. Some countries battling the pandemic created a policy of requiring people to submit in documented form their reasons for going out, but this is unreasonable as circumstances may require people to instantly leave home in an emergency.  Leave it to the people themselves to handle the situation, and as long as they have their hearts and minds set on protecting themselves and everybody else, they will mount an effective response to the outbreak tailored to their own personal circumstances.

Try translating this idea into practice, though, and you come up against the cold, messy reality. You cannot ever expect everybody to fully cooperate in the right manner. Sure, they might start doing so when the outbreak becomes severe and everybody becomes afraid, but the point is to prevent or forestall just such a situation by taking measures before the virus spreads widely. Getting people involved in that is notoriously difficult as people often don’t have the urge to take action against a threat before it arrives.

Social distancing and other measures to avoid spreading the virus require a lot of discipline. Our is a nation of more than 200 million people. Most of them live in poverty and endure hard circumstances. Millions are not very much in touch with current affairs. Media itself is not well versed in current affairs. A lot are prone to believing and spreading misinformation. Getting them fully onboard the national response to the pandemic is a tremendous challenge.

In the same speech in which he announced no lockdown, Imran Khan had a go at it by imploring his citizens to keep themselves in isolation when they can. But a lot more is needed. Coronavirus is rapidly turning out to be an unprecedented crisis. Our capacity to cope is limited and what we can do may be very costly. To solve this conundrum and find the best strategy to respond to the emergency, let us take a look at just what this pandemic is all about.

Diseases that infect human beings abound in the world, but their prevalence is limited by many people having strong immunity, as well as by modern medical innovations. COVID-19 is a disease that has just come into existence. This means that nobody in the world at the start of 2020 had complete immunity and there was no specific treatment that could effectively counteract it. As a result, the virus is spreading everywhere very rapidly. Anybody exposed to the virus gets infected and becomes a carrier likely to infect lots of other people. The virus’s explosive spread means that you have lots of people who are infected at the same time and this means that anybody runs a good chance of contracting the virus.

As for people who do, in known cases, which is mostly symptomatic cases, the majority of people come down with only mild illness which may require just bed rest. But in around 20 percent of cases, the infected people have to go to the hospital and receive care. Around 5 percent of infected people end up needing intensive care and there are indications that many of them end up with long-term or lifelong complications. The number of infected people who die from COVID-19 varies regionally from 1 to 4 percent. Chances of survival depend mostly on the level of medical care received. Altogether, this is not a very serious disease as far as diseases go. But the speed of its spread and the huge number of fatalities is a catastrophe in the making for the world.

For Imran Khan, and for every leader of a country where poverty is widespread, a big concern is the economic devastation that could result from taking action to arrest the spread of the virus. So it is important to understand what the consequences of not doing so are and just what the impact of the pandemic will be.

Currently, we don’t have any experience to draw upon. The countries where the outbreak has so far been in full swing, and where it has apparently reached its peak, are all rich and developed. The pandemic seems to be only beginning in the Third World. Two Asian countries with different systems that were affected early, China and South Korea, seem to have taken successful measures to stop the outbreak, but it is impossible for Pakistan to replicate their achievements.

We do know fairly well the impact the pandemic can have on people. If a lot of people end up getting infected with the coronavirus, and if they do so in a short period of time so that healthcare systems are overwhelmed, there will be a lot of deaths. Obviously no one wants that.  If 4 percent is the highest death rate (case fatality rate, technically speaking) that this pandemic can wreak here, almost everybody in Pakistan getting infected means that close to ten million people may die before this contagion runs its course. That would be a super-devastating calamity, comparable to calamities suffered by some of the countries worst-affected by World War 2. This scenario is extremely unlikely, but if a good-sized chunk of our population gets infected, which could very well happen, fatalities will run into hundreds of thousands or a few million. No disaster in Pakistan’s 73 years of existence comes close to matching this death toll.

One thing perhaps worth mentioning is that most of these deaths will be of people who are elderly or living with severe health complications, which limits the economic impact of their demise.

Disaster management is not just about saving people from deaths, of course. One issue to keep sight of is people ending up with long-lasting or permanent damage. I wouldn’t use the word “disability” here at all, but doctors have observed that some recovered COVID-19 patients have ended up with what will likely be permanent health complications, including damage to the respiratory system. We could conceivably end up with millions of people in this state. The economic cost of paying their medical bills throughout their lives is there.

We might think that it is okay to be infected with COVID-19, be ill for some time, and then get back to normal. However, the sheer scale of the coronavirus outbreak means that you have lots and lots of people who are ill at the same time, which means that they will not be working and they will be receiving costly medical care. The statistics tell us that 20 percent of people infected and symptomatic will be severely ill.  Laborers who skirt isolation to do essential work will be among the worst affected. The economic consequences of this alone could be devastating.

Not taking measures against the spread of the virus could wreck Pakistan’s economy more than drastic lockdown measures will. Combine that with the human tragedy of scores of people being dead and disabled, the reasons for taking the most stringent emergency measures to arrest the spread of COVID-19 in Pakistan are compelling.

But so are the reasons that counter it. The economic circumstances of millions of Pakistanis are dire and with this pandemic, matters have only gotten worse, with rising food prices and a persistent locust outbreak decimating crops. This will make our response to the coronavirus much, much harder. Pakistan is truly trapped in a dilemma right now.

To find a way out, we first need to understand the basic nature of the pandemic. This coronavirus outbreak is a disaster that relies upon speed. Firstly, the chance of survival for people infected with COVID-19 is reasonably high if they receive adequate medical care, but so many people are getting infected at once that healthcare systems are unable to cope, forcing doctors in many countries to choose who gets to live and who dies.

Secondly, the faster the infection spreads, the more widely the infection can spread. When a lot of people are infected at the same time, it is more likely that they will spread it far and wide. If the virus spread slowly, some people would get infected and then recover and likely acquire immunity, and become non-contagious. The number of infected people at any given time would be low and there would be many immune people. But what is happening all over the world, unfortunately, is that the coronavirus contagion is pouring in much faster than it is draining out and, as a result, the bucket that is the human population is filling up.

Lastly, the enormous and pervasive disruption brought on by the pandemic is something that governments and societies need a lot of time to prepare for. It is best if they have time to prepare before the virus arrives on their doorstep, but once it does, the quicker the virus spreads, the faster the scope of crisis grows, and the less governments and people are able to respond effectively, such as by boosting medical facilities.

That is why governments are so eager to make it as hard as possible for the virus to spread. The whole point of “flattening the curve” is to slow the spread. And as we have just learned, slowing the spread also means containment of spread.

To better understand how this happens, say you are a person who is afraid of contracting the virus. If 30 percent of the people around you are infected and all of the remaining 70 percent are capable of contracting the virus at any moment (are susceptible, in other words), you are in great danger. If only 10 percent of the people around you are infected and another 20 percent are immune because they already had the virus before, you can breathe easier. Even if this goes on for a long time, the more infected people there are, the more immune people there are, and the harder it is for the number of infected people to increase, while the number of immune people continues to increase. This will work out perfectly provided everybody who recovered from the virus has total immunity and can never pass the virus to others again, though, unfortunately, there are doubts about this. Still, if we can manage to reduce the breakneck speed with which SARS-CoV-2 is spreading through human populations, the benefits will be numerous and immense.

Everyone agrees we cannot let this virus freely sweep through our country. But with our current options, the more we are to slow the spread of the virus, the more we have to slow the economic activity that provides people with their livelihoods. We have to try to find the perfect balance in-between flattening the curve and keeping the supply chains running. Imran Khan has said that the agricultural sector is open and he also wants to keep the construction business open so livelihoods can be sustained. That might be a bad idea, because the best strategy during this pandemic should be to only keep those sectors open which are needed for responding to the crisis. It has worked perfectly well in South Korea, where they put manufacturers into overdrive instead of society into lockdown. Constructing buildings is too long-term an endeavor. But agriculture is vital because people need to eat during the pandemic. Also, farming is a type of work which does not require lots of people to be near each other. Manufacturing sector is required for making medical and related equipment.

Pakistan is a nation with limited means, where poverty is widespread. We have nowhere near the ability that America, China, and Italy have for shutting down. The developed nations, where the outbreaks have emerged first, have plenty of resources to get through a period of reduced production. But if we don’t keep producing, not only will most of our 200 million people suffer very badly, but our ability to manage the pandemic will be compromised.

There is one strategy to protect both human well-being and the economy in the face of the pandemic which is well within our means. Not everyone is equally vulnerable to the coronavirus. Only a minority are at high risk of dying or becoming critically ill if infected. They are the elderly and those with underlying health conditions. We need to carefully examine all the statistics for known COVID-19 infections in the world to get a clear picture of just what kind of people are at high risk, what makes people vulnerable. Then, instead of the “keep everybody isolated” idea that many countries are trying, we can only keep those people isolated who are very vulnerable. The infection is likely to spread very widely among the sea of young, healthy people if we are to go with Imran Khan’s “keep society running” idea, but it will lead to Pakistan gaining herd immunity that will safeguard against future spread of the virus while casualties will be minimal.

This strategy will serve the goal of maintaining economic productivity so that Pakistanis don’t sink into destitution. It is the young, healthy adults who are the backbone of the economy and elderly people, as a rule, contribute little muscle power to productivity (their power is confined to intellectual mostly). Also, like most developing countries, Pakistan’s population is skewed towards youth. That means there are a lot of young people who can continue working, and only a small number of old people who will have to stay home. But what about the category of people with underlying conditions? People suffering chronic ailments are usually the minority in any society, so keeping them indoors is also manageable. However, poor health conditions are widespread in Pakistan, which could make this task harder.

Yet, this is going to have to be our strategy, if Pakistan is to make it through the worst pandemic in a hundred years. It has enormous potential. Those who are in the prime of their life and in fit condition should minimize the risk of coronavirus exposure by equipping themselves with personal protection (dressing up differently) as they keep the lifelines of the nation running, while the most vulnerable should be locked down and receive utmost protection. Manufacturing sector will have to be regulated towards manufacturing goods required during pandemic life style.

The practice of dropping supplies at door steps should be implemented with the elderly and the chronically sick.  They should be isolated and locked down, and government should help create infrastructure for their protection.

We can not have any hope of containing the epidemic in just a few months, like China seems to have done, so the outbreak in the nation will probably last a long time, possibly even two years, unless medical breakthrough comes first. That is a long time for any human being to be confined, but in that period, we can develop ways to enable the isolated segment of our nation to live fuller lives while still staying safe. Even  the elderly and those suffering ailments who live life locked in their homes can contribute during health emergency by making masks at home for distribution to the nation.  The know-how and equipment can be supplied to them.

Ultimately, defeating the coronavirus threat will require the will of the people. It can’t just be done by the authorities controlling everything. The masses of Pakistan will respond to Imran Khan’s call to do what they can to keep the virus and the disease at bay, if their options are properly explained to them. It will require methodical social management and effective public communication to inspire cooperation and enable efficient collective action.  For this to happen, the authorities must follow a singular scientific approach, based on the advice of professionals and experts.

To conclude, our advice is: isolate and lock-down the vulnerable and gainfully provide for them. Equip the young and sturdy with personal protection against virus and let them continue with their work. Carefully nurture sectors of economy needed during pandemic outbreak. Manufacturing and agriculture sector, not construction, should be encouraged to be of use during pandemic economy. When we have managed to successfully get our nation through the pandemic by keeping everyone safe, we will be better able to recover and build back Pakistan better than it was before.

An Age of Storms: COVID-19 Pandemic and the Weather

It’s been raining a lot in Pakistan these days. For the last several days, it has been constantly raining hard in Islamabad. It is often raining in the morning and then again in the night. There has also been heavy rainfall in other parts of the country through the month of March. Unfortunately, these rains have caused a number of deaths and serious injuries. They have even been so severe as to make houses collapse. Reportedly, 7 people in Khyber-Pakhtunkwha have recently died because of the storms. In early March, up to 24 people were reportedly killed across Pakistan.

A lot of damage has also been caused because of these rains and various other forms of severe weather occurring across the nation. Pakistanis in many areas have had to contend with heavy snowfall, freezing temperatures, hail, landslides, and minor floods. As a result, they have suffered significant agricultural losses. Wheat harvests in Bahawalpur appear to have been completely devastated. In addition, roads have been blocked, structures have been damaged, and people have suffered major disruptions of gas and electricity supply (Source: https://tribune.com.pk/story/2171627/1-24-killed-heavy-rain-wreaks-havoc-pakistan/).

Of course, such spells of bad weather are right now seemingly the least of our concerns as Pakistan battles the COVID-19 pandemic. Though it has not yet affected us severely, fear of how bad it could ultimately get is goading the nation towards extreme measures like imposing lockdowns on the population. The consequences of this contagion could be devastating for the entire country. But in this difficult time, in which everything is changing in ways we could never have imagined, experiencing the familiar sight of spring rainstorms got me thinking about what it can mean for us in our present situation.

For starters, people everywhere are supposed to stay home and limit how much they go out, including in Islamabad. The rain and cold makes it a little bit easier. People always stay indoors during rainy days. Perhaps, then, rain could be a boon for us during this pandemic. Whenever bad weather is happening somewhere, the spread of the virus probably slows down there. The rain, the cold, and the snow are keeping many Pakistanis indoors and preventing them from traveling. Landslides have also blocked a few transportation routes, which could limit the spread of the disease. We cannot rely on this weather to be any kind of saving grace, but the authorities might utilize it and formulate their coronavirus strategy in conjunction with the spells of severe weather happening across the country.

For example, they can relax their virus response in areas suffering bad weather, diverting resources and personnel from there to other places, trusting nature to keep people quarantined for the time being. Or they can send workers to weather-stricken areas to fix things up for the virus response, expecting that other people won’t go outside and potentially infect them. But it may not be all that good. The pandemic is already severely straining the country and the occurrence of any extreme event like severe weather in such a time can be disastrous.

When I took one of my rare excursions outside my home in Islamabad during one of the recent rainy days, I saw that water was flowing across the streets. I wonder if this gives us a sort of beneficial cleansing for these times. As infected people move around outside, the coronavirus they shed may end up contaminating the streets by the landing of respiratory droplets, people spitting, and the littering of objects people were touching. People who go out can get the virus on their shoes and then bring it into their homes. So if rain comes and gives the streets a cleansing, what sort of effect does this have on possible coronavirus contamination? Does the rain wash the virus away and make the ground safer? Does it also, on the other hand, spread coronavirus contamination? Does the water get to be contaminated and be therefore a COVID-19 hazard? I have no idea but I think the ecology of the virus outside the human body is more complex than we realize and we really should study it more and seek to fully understand how SARS-COV-2 moves through the environment.

In this time of unprecedented crisis, when it seems that any feasible solution is out of our grasp right now, we will need to think outside the box and get really creative. Some unusual solutions could help us in the fight the pandemic and one we should look into is welcoming the landslides. It is a regular occurrence in Pakistan’s mountainous areas. A landslide occurs, blocks travel, and then we rush with bulldozers to clear it out. But if the virus spreads through people traveling, then maybe the blocking of roads due to landslides, avalanches, rock falls, and floods could be a lifesaver. The virus outbreak is severe in Gilgit-Baltistan. If we give nature free rein to block roads there and even help it to do so, then we may have fewer of these spreaders introducing the virus to new communities while our efforts remain devoted to the handling of the pandemic.

This tactic, however, has potentially huge downsides. When people do get infected, medical care needs to be delivered to them and bad weather getting in the way of delivery is a recipe for disaster. The spread of the virus may be less but the danger it poses may be more. Also, aid workers need to be sent around to help communities safeguard against the outbreak. Lastly, keeping people supplied with the necessities of life is one of the biggest issues in this epidemic. As travel is restricted and national production slows down, bad weather closing the roads can further add to the deprivation that people already face due to COVID-19.

So if we have landslides or storms or snow blocking traffic in Pakistan, what is its net impact on society during this pandemic? Does the good it causes outweigh the bad or does the bad it causes outweigh the good? We need to conduct comprehensive situation analysis to find out and then let it inform our decisions. We are treading on a thin line in almost everything when it comes to COVID-19. It has just been announced that the authorities are sealing off one part of Pakistan, the mountainous area of Chitral, where no cases of COVID-19 are known yet (Source: https://www.aa.com.tr/en/asia-pacific/pakistan-seals-northern-region-with-no-covid-19-case/1788194). This is a sensible measure for any place where the virus has not gained a foothold. But where the virus has already reached and is spreading, there has to be a flow of some people there to bring aid. It wouldn’t really matter if any of them carry the virus because the virus is already there.

Sealing off travel can be quickly implemented and quickly reversed by the authorities at will. But if some untoward phenomenon like the weather gets involved in this, we can only observe what will happen. I wonder what would be the consequences of an event like the 2010 Attabad landslide happening right now (https://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/images/43175/landslide-lake-in-northwest-pakistan). The impounding of the Karakorum Highway and the trapping of entire communities behind a dammed lake could be a saving grace for the region, containing the virus or at least hampering its spread. But on the other hand, the people suffering this incident while the pandemic is already coming upon them could have devastating consequences.

Weather forecasting may potentially be of great use to us during the pandemic. Weather likely plays a big role in how COVID-19 spreads and how we can react to it. So if we know what the weather will be like in the days ahead, we may be able to make predictions about the course of the pandemic and what measures we should prepare. The weather may slow the spread of the virus by itself and make it easier for us to do so or it may worsen the spread of the virus and the illness of those infected by it and hamper our response to the pandemic. Whatever the case, we got to watch out for whatever weather is coming and figure out how it may interact with the virus outbreak.

It is very important. Pakistan is a country very prone to natural hazards. We might be used to it, but as stated before, an extreme event occurring during this pandemic can result in calamity. We just won’t be able to handle so much. Right now is a pretty dangerous time. Severe weather often occurs in Pakistan in the spring, including cyclones. But in this part of the world, the season for hazardous weather does not kick off until the arrival of the summer monsoon.

Widespread flooding frequently happens in Pakistan during the summer monsoon. It can often be very severe, such as in the years 2010-2014. When such a thing happens, people’s lives can be turned upside down and their homes can be destroyed and they can be displaced. In such circumstances, Pakistanis would not stand a chance against the COVID-19 pandemic. In a mild flood scenario, people may be stranded at home and prevented from moving about, acting to hamper the spread of the virus. But in severe flooding, social distancing, sanitation, medical care, and everything needed to fight the virus can become impossible. If large numbers of people are displaced, they can travel long distances and congregate together. Whether in a refugee camp or a small piece of land remaining above the water, people can crowd and live together very densely in filthy conditions with no ability to wash their hands or wear protective gear. People who are sick may not be able to be quarantined in any way. Their access to medical treatment may be impossible. Floods are very good at blocking access to supplies. Plus, the floods themselves can create a large number of people needing medical treatment in addition to COVID-19 patients, overburdening the healthcare system.

The healthcare system being overburdened is a huge concern, and so, unfortunate to say, disease outbreaks are very common in Pakistan during the summer monsoon, especially during floods. The mosquito-borne disease dengue is a particularly big concern. A dengue outbreak in 2011 strained the nation’s healthcare system, requiring military help and the construction of field hospitals (Sources: https://dailytimes.com.pk/477797/dengue-and-how-it-was-controlled-in-2011/, https://tribune.com.pk/story/250366/emergency-measures-army-joins-dengue-fight-on-sharifs-request/). If a major epidemic of dengue or cholera occurs while we are coping with the COVID-19 pandemic, the consequences could be very bad.

The summer monsoon always plays Russian roulette with the livelihood of millions of Pakistanis. It sometimes brings less rain than usual, resulting in water shortages that farmers can’t handle. Sometimes, full-scale droughts occur. If devastating floods occur, that can also cause immense damage to the agricultural sector, as well as all kinds of other damage. Transportation can be blocked and infrastructure can be destroyed. Life can grind to a halt for millions. It is not a good idea for any of this to happen when Pakistan is in the throes of this coronavirus. Treatment for coronavirus and measures to stop its spread can be hampered, for one thing. Also, deprivation will be pushed on Pakistanis by many people falling sick and by measures being taken to stop the disease spreading. Deprivation caused by floods will be added to this.

Our biggest famine threat right now comes from the locust swarms currently ravaging Africa and Asia (Source: https://www.csis.org/analysis/africa-and-asia-have-several-hundred-billion-more-problems-besides-covid-19). Generated by heavy rainfall in East Africa, it has been going on for a long time and seems to only be getting worse, as locusts are breeding within and around Pakistan (Source: https://www.iol.co.za/business-report/international/our-children-will-starve-say-pakistan-farmers-as-locusts-breed-45118469). The summer monsoon is a good time for locusts to breed because they abound when heavy rainfall causes vegetation to bloom. Flooding could therefore bring us further locust plagues and with some crops smothered by water and other crops devoured by the insects, there could be severe food shortages. People will then have to go out and interact with each other as they work harder to get food, social distancing will be impossible, and the virus will spread. Also, locust outbreaks can often be controlled with modern techniques, but it will be hard to apply them when there is also a severe pandemic to fight.

Even if the monsoon rainfall up ahead is not severe enough to cause flooding, it could worsen the locust outbreak, along with causing outbreaks of dangerous mosquitoes. People can’t stay home. They have to go out to struggle to get food, contracting COVID-19 or a mosquito-borne disease along the way and too many people fall sick for hospitals to handle. Not a very good situation all around. There is just so much that can go wrong in the months ahead.

Right now is the beginning of April. The monsoon rains usually arrive at the end of June. That is only three months away. Some experts predict that, without strict containment measures, 20 million people in Pakistan could be infected by June of this year. (Source: Coronapocalypse! https://www.dawn.com/news/1542651.) This would truly be a catastrophic situation. Then the summer monsoon will begin shortly afterwards and if it gives us any trouble, we simply won’t be able to cope. Plus, the outbreak could expand even more and millions more could end up infected. Assuming we do adopt strict containment measures and keep the virus under control, if we have to continue doing so during the monsoon season, severe monsoon weather could make it much, much more difficult. We might be forced to yield and then cases of infection will explode.

Every single South Asian monsoon season is unpredictable. We never know what it will bring us and that is why we should be really concerned right now. The worst monsoon flooding ever to happen in Pakistan was in 2010, when a fifth of the country was flooded and 20 million people were affected. If 20 million really do fall sick from COVID-19, then a comparably severe disaster will ensue after the passage of ten years. But let us imagine that both of these disasters occurred at the exact same time. Imagine that 20 million Pakistanis are infected by June and then the 2020 summer monsoon brings the same sort of rainfall to Pakistan that the 2010 summer monsoon did. I imagine the result would be apocalyptic for our nation.

This is very unlikely to happen though. The monsoon was recently behaving in an unusual manner. We had these unprecedented floods in 2010 and then more flooding every monsoon up to 2015. But after that, the summer monsoon has been relatively calm every year. But judging by its historical patterns, the probability is very good that Pakistan will be struck with severe flooding in the months ahead.

We cannot prevent this if it were to happen. But is there any chance or any way that we can avoid the COVID-19 outbreak happening during that time so that Pakistan doesn’t have to fight a two-front war? In China, the epidemic raged for three months, starting in the beginning of January. Now, it is dying down, new local infections are rare, and life in China is starting to come back to normal. If the same thing happens here in Pakistan, then the epidemic, which began at the beginning of March, will go away in time for the arrival of the monsoon. But China successfully contained the virus by enforcing strict lockdown measures and it is a very prosperous country. Pakistan has very little capacity to do any of the things China did. PM Imran Khan has said that locking down Pakistan will cause more harm through impoverishment than the virus will, especially with the economic problems and rising food prices happening right now. So it is expected that the virus outbreak will progress to a very high level in Pakistan. That means that it should go on for a long time.

Now, hold on a minute, the epidemic going on for a lengthy period of time is also what everyone is clamoring for. This is the whole “flatten the curve” protocol. With proper medical treatment, people have a high chance of recovering from being ill with COVID-19. But the pandemic is wreaking so much havoc because it is causing so many people to be infected so rapidly that healthcare systems around the world cannot cope. So if we slow the spread of the virus, the burden on the medical sector is kept low, even if it persists for a long time until the virus runs out of fresh people to target or a medical breakthrough that can fight it is achieved. Therefore, if Pakistan successfully flattens the curve, the coronavirus outbreak will be kept under low intensity, but it may continue going on and on for a long time, most likely well into the monsoon season. If that season brings severe flooding or some other disturbance, everything could break down and Pakistan will have a convergence of calamities on its own.

(Note: Reading the two paragraphs above might be confusing, as the first one says lack of containment measures will prolong the epidemic and the next one says that it is containment measures that will prolong the epidemic. But there is an explanation of the confusion several paragraphs down. Also, by the end of this article, you will hopefully understand the perplexing nature of the subject.)

We may therefore be standing on the cusp of a profound quandary. If we let the virus run rampant, it will infect huge numbers of Pakistanis in a short period of time. Medical services will be overwhelmed and many, many people will die. But the virus will have probably run its course by the end of June.

If we put roadblocks in front of the virus, then the number of people who fall ill every day is very low, so hospitals can take in the steady stream of patients and save many lives. But this goes on for months on end and then the monsoon season begins. If it brings widespread flooding to Pakistan, then “flattening of the curve” will come to an end as we cannot fight the pandemic and the floods at the same time. This will cause the spread of the virus to skyrocket, leading to a flood of infections at the same time the country is dealing with a flood of water. Locusts may be swarming everywhere and we cannot fight them effectively because we are fighting coronavirus at the same time. Mosquitoes may be biting everyone, clogging the hospitals even harder. We cannot deliver essential supplies and lifesaving medicine to people across the floodwaters while flood-stricken people who desperately wade through these waters will spread COVID-19. Pakistan is smothered under the combined burden of all these events and, in the end, many, many more people could end up dead and the survivors will be left to struggle in a devastated nation.

So do we flatten the curve or do we let it grow? The idea of foregoing “flattening the curve” has already been considered elsewhere during this pandemic. The alternative is achieving “herd immunity”. It involves letting the infection spread unhindered and Britain originally planned to do this. The idea is that only a small minority of people will die if infected by the virus, but they all run a big chance of contracting the virus because everyone around them is being infected and is passing on the virus. The virus is spreading through the general population because they lack immunity, but they will gain immunity to it after recovering from the illness. So the epidemic, if unhindered, will run out of steam after a short period of time. During that short period of time, people who are especially vulnerable if they get infected can be kept well-protected. Afterwards, they will be protected by the herd immunity of their country.

Sounds like a plan crazy enough to work, but by now, it has been generally rejected as too risky. But in Pakistan, where we have to deal with the contingency of a very erratic rainy season from June to September, is it possible that “flattening the curve” is actually the riskier option? Perhaps if we go with seeking to achieve herd immunity, we can make the coronavirus outbreak as brief as possible. Then, when the summer monsoon arrives, we can concentrate on preparing for whatever trouble it brings us without having also to deal with the coronavirus. If done right, we can successfully minimize the number of people who die or are seriously harmed.

Flattening the curve could be considered as being for rich countries, while a country like Pakistan may conceivably have to go with the tougher option of herd immunity. Imran Khan’s rationale is that the country has to keep working. Now, the people who are most vulnerable to coronavirus are the elderly and those with health problems. Such people usually do not work anyway and are a minority in Pakistan where there are so many young people. Our strategy may to identify everybody who is at high risk and have them isolated from the rest of society. All the young, healthy people can continue working and will be trusted to come down with only mild symptoms. Once enough of them have been infected and recovered to achieve herd immunity, the partial lockdown can be ended. Hopefully, this can all be finished before the possibility of floods.

But not containing the spread of the virus is still a drastic course of action. Perhaps we should only resort to trying to make the epidemic end by July if there are indications that the upcoming monsoon season will be hazardous. And just when you thought this year 2020 couldn’t be getting any worse, there are. Floods in Pakistan often occur when there is a La Nina weather condition in the Pacific Ocean. Many meteorologists predict that a La Nina system could develop by late summer or fall. One meteorologist, Dr. Michael Ventrice (http://www.atmos.albany.edu/student/ventrice/documents/Resume.pdf), suggests that it could be the strongest La Nina since the one of 2010-2012 (which caused those severe floods in Pakistan).

(Source: https://www.nbc12.com/2020/03/31/la-nia-may-develop-by-fall-could-mean-active-intense-hurricane-season-ahead/)

Clearly, there are some very dangerous times right now for us. And the worst part is our inability to determine what will happen. There is a lot of uncertainty about the outcomes of whatever option we take. We should expect that containing the virus means the outbreak will last a very long time and letting it spread means the outbreak will last a short amount of time. But in China, where they were containing it, they were able to relax after just two months and the outbreak, so far, seems to have died out. Meanwhile, it is Pakistan not being able to suppress the spread of the virus that is supposed to lead to 20 million infections three months from now if. The fact is that the same phenomenon may lead to different outcomes depending on the situation. Also, in the “20 million by June” scenario, the epidemic might just end there. So there are no more new cases of the coronavirus during the monsoon but the nation will have to take care of a lot of sick people. Also, monsoon floods might add in extra input that leads to even more people being infected. But this is a really big question that we need to resolve. Does containing the spread prolong or shorten the epidemic, or more to the point, where does it do what?

If Pakistan does what China does and achieves the same outcome China did, it would be the best scenario. As few people as possible would be infected and the monsoon season will hopefully be coronavirus-free. But it seems that Pakistan can’t do it. It is impossible. What we could try is deliberately getting most of the population infected very quickly. Maybe we can go and inject the virus into millions of Pakistanis (who are carefully chosen). But, really, it is just very drastic.

If Pakistan does not have hopes of making the epidemic come to an end before the monsoon season is in full swing, then at least we can prepare for a combined coronavirus-monsoon crisis starting right now. A long period of preparation appears to be key. If countries around the world started a full-scale response to the coronavirus as soon as news of its outbreak in China came in late January, then they probably would not be suffering so much right now. Pakistan did not do anything during the whole month of February. Let us not make the same mistake right now. We need to be concerned about any eventuality and we need to build-up our capacity to respond to them. Then, we might be able to respond effectively to disasters possibly coming in the months ahead. We must not be complacent and decide to respond to problems only when they come. At the very least, thinking of solutions to the problems described in this article is a really hard task in itself, so the longer we have the time to do it, the better it is, so we better start thinking now.

Our best strategy, as always, is to hope for the best and expect the worst. Let us hope that nature remains friendly for the duration of the epidemic and doesn’t give us further concerns to worry about, that the rains come in the right manner to allow our agricultural harvests to bloom, and that any bad weather that does happen only has the effect of confining people to their homes and to their local areas so as to restrict the spread of the virus. Let us expect that weather-related disasters could come along and strain our country’s emergency response capacity to the limit, that the locust infestations will get worse as time goes on and produce a severe food crisis, that disasters will turn people into refugees that act as the ideal conduit for the virus and prevent us from delivering the means to fight it, and that the projected La Nina will bring back the monsoon catastrophes of 2010-2012 at a time when our nation is already fighting some of the worst kinds of crises possible.

In the meantime, let us remain calm. We got to think rationally about our situation and our outlook and all of Pakistan has to be united in getting things under control. We are already struggling a lot but much worse is likely to come, both with the current trajectory of the virus and with other circumstances coinciding with it. We must not regard this pandemic as existing in a vacuum, as being an issue separate from all our other issues. When you have a crisis of a nature and a magnitude like the COVID-19 pandemic, a lot of different events and circumstances, including other disasters, are going to interact with it and could create a sort of multi-faceted crisis that Pakistan needs to mount an integrated response to.

We may think that because the coronavirus is such a big menace, it should be our
foremost concern and everything else can take a backseat, but actually, this is a time that we especially have to be on the guard against other menaces. We are going through a time of crises. We need to think of a broad strategy to handle what we are faced with. Speed is of the essence, above all else.

These are stormy days. Sitting and listening to the rainfall and thunderstorms outside can give one either a calming sensation or a sense of gloomy foreboding. Our prospects are very uncertain. Maybe we don’t realize that enough. We don’t know if anything that happens makes things better or makes things worse, but we do know that we have to act. As we brace ourselves for the massive storm that is the pandemic, experiencing these real storms should be a reminder for us of how just about anything can happen and we have to get ready for anything. We might have many things coming together to create a perfect storm. If we are to keep our people safe in these dangerous times, if Pakistan is to weather whatever storm comes our way, let us make sure that we are one step ahead.

About the Author:
Shahzeb Khan is a journalist, environment activist, and co-director at PPLDM.

What Pakistan Day Means in this Time of National Crisis

“We are going through fire: the sunshine has yet to come. But I have no doubt that with Unity, Faith and Discipline we will compare with any nation of the world. Are you prepared to undergo the fire? You must make up your minds now. We must sink individualism and petty jealousies and make up our minds to serve the people with honesty and faithfulness. We are passing through a period of fear, danger, and menace. We must have faith, unity and discipline.”

– Quaid-i-Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah

Every 23 March, Pakistanis celebrate the anniversary of Lahore Resolution, when the idea of Pakistan entered the world. It is always a jubilant time marked by many celebrations, including, usually, a large military parade attended by thousands.

Unfortunately, 80 years after the Lahore Resolution, none of this has happened this Pakistan Day. Pakistan, along with the entire world, is battling a severe pandemic of a new disease known as COVID-19. It spreads from human to human, rendering every one of us a hazard and requiring people to forego close contact with other people. Therefore, all festivities have been cancelled and Pakistanis have had to spend Pakistan Day by themselves. Our soldiers who would usually be marching in the parade instead carry out the grim duty of patrolling the streets of major cities to make sure the movement of citizens is restricted.

This is not a normal time for us. We are facing an extraordinary situation and that requires us to adopt extraordinary measures. Not celebrating our national day the usual way is one of the sacrifices we have to make to overcome a threat facing us in this time. We have, of course, faced countless threats throughout Pakistan’s existence. This one is of an unusual nature but, nevertheless, we have to tackle it as we have tackled all other threats. We need to apply the spirit of Pakistan Day and the spirit of the founding fathers we celebrate to fighting this plague of virus, plus an equally severe plague of locusts.

It is a crisis that requires every Pakistani to play their part. Most of us simply have to stay home and be by ourselves to beat the virus, though this itself will likely be severely problematic for a nation of 200 million people, most of whom are poor. This is especially as the locust outbreak will make it impossible for most Pakistanis to stockpile on food for extended quarantine. What our nation needs to survive through this crisis is, first, that we figure out exactly what sort of measures will be needed or can serve as viable solutions and, second, that all people inhabiting Pakistan cooperate and resolve to carry out stringent action.

This can be done. Our national day, Pakistan Day, is a time that brings Pakistanis together in a show of national unity and fervor. If we can do that for celebrating our nationhood, we can do that for saving our nation. Now is more important than ever for all Pakistanis to get together, but not literally as we usually do on 23 March. We need to send out the message to every Pakistani that this virus must be fought and we must make sure they hear it. Our founding father, Quaid-e-Azam, gave us the message of “Unity, Faith, Discipline” to be our guiding principles. Unity, faith, and discipline are exactly what are needed to combat the coronavirus epidemic.

This 23 March is the time for Pakistanis to truly prove that they love this country by joining the fight against the virus. The entire population is always eager to display its patriotism. We hoist the Pakistani flag during national days and we get jubilant whenever Pakistan scores a major victory in the world of cricket. We should be even more eager to halt or slow the spread of this disease through our country to ensure that as many people are saved as possible by, at the very least, making minor sacrifices such as avoiding meeting other people.

Our founding fathers fought a difficult struggle for seven years after the Lahore Resolution to make sure the dream of Pakistan comes true. This struggle we are fighting now may only last weeks or months. PM Imran Khan suggests the country cannot afford a mandatory lockdown and that, therefore, the best response is for people themselves to keep themselves at home and decide when they need to go out. It is far from the sole domain of the authorities to manage this emergency. The full involvement of the masses is necessary. Pakistan is a democracy, which means that its people have a say in the running of the country and are guaranteed their rights. But along with rights comes responsibilities. If a democracy is rule by the people, then the people have essential duties to fulfill. They must act responsibly in order for the nation to thrive and survive.

The people must act together in a synchronous manner. If each individual person kept his or her distance from every other person, then the masses as a whole will disperse and be low-density. Certain habits and instincts must also be controlled. For example, people must avoid touching their faces. That requires a lot of discipline on the very personal level. Certain people have extra special responsibilities, for example, those that run shops and businesses. They must, acting in conjunction with others, ensure that people can continue to get what they need without running the risk of contracting the virus. Different people have different duties to tend to in this crisis depending on their role in life. But we are all together in whatever we have to do. A tremendous nation endeavor needs to be undertaken in order to defend our vital food source from the locust attacks, keep the supply chains of the nation running, and prevent the virus from spreading along its channels. This requires huge amounts of determination and innovation.

Discipline is needed so that people respond to the epidemic with full urgency and strictly behave in the manner needed to keep the spread of the virus at bay. Unity is needed so that people cooperate with each other in the mass response and be aware of the need to keep each other and the general society safe. And faith is needed so that we can be confident that we will make it through the emergency, helping save as many of our people as possible, and that Pakistan will rebound from it stronger than it was before. Now is the time for a new Pakistan Resolution. We must resolve, first, to triumph over the epidemic and, second, to make our nation ready for any threat that may emerge from now on.

So let us all fully engage ourselves in the new battle for our nation and, as always, Pakistan Zindabad!

Coronavirus: The COVID-19 Pandemic

The entire world is right now going through a major pandemic of a disease known as COVID-19, caused by a coronavirus new to science that has been called SARS-CoV-2. This disease emerged in the city of Wuhan in China at the end of 2019 and has since spread to most countries in the world. As of March 22, 2020, around 275,000 thousand people have been infected and more than 11,000 have died, mostly the elderly and those already in weak health. As a result, lockdowns and states of emergencies are happening everywhere across the globe. It is believed that what is happening right now is the biggest global disruption since World War 2.

Within China, the outbreak is currently waning but it is just getting started in many other countries. That includes Pakistan. The contagion arrived here late, at the end of February, when two cases emerged of people who had just visited Iran, which is one of the worst-affected countries. 20 cases were confirmed by the second week of March. Now, 646 people are known to be infected in Pakistan. At the time of writing, https://tribune.com.pk/ (The Express Tribune) has a sticker on the side of their website stating such. Our healthcare system is already giving way under the pressure. Experts generally agree that it is up to the people, everybody, to take measures during this crisis and prevent or delay the spread of the disease.

That requires every person to be well-informed about this disease and what should be done. There have been pandemics before, including the 2009 swine flu which infected millions, but this is considered particularly serious because of how fast it is spreading and because the death rate for infected people is very high. COVID-19, often popularly referred to simply as the Coronavirus, is a respiratory disease that affects the lungs. When people are infected, it is usually around 5 days, but anywhere from 2 to 14 days, before symptoms appear. The virus attacks cells that make up the walls of the lung, usually causing coughing, fever, and shortness of breath, though some have no symptoms. In most cases, it manages to do little harm and tens of thousands have already recovered. But in around 20 percent of people known to be infected, mostly the elderly and those already in poor health, the infection worsens and causes pneumonia. In five percent of infected people, severe organ damage and multi-respiratory failure ensues, sending them into intensive care. The death rate is not clearly ascertained and is varying in time and place, but it is generally believed that between 2 to 4 percent of people known to be infected die. That includes nearly 15 percent of people over 80 years of age.

Infected people are most likely to be able to spread the virus to others when they are showing symptoms, although it can also happen as soon the person is infected. Spread of the virus usually happens by people coughing and sneezing, expelling liquid particles into the air that carry the virus. Other people might inhale the droplets or the droplets might land on surfaces and then other people who touch the surface pick up the virus, which can end up being transferred through the nose, eyes, or mouth. Research suggests the virus can survive outside the human body on surfaces for a few hours to a few days. One new study says it is a day on cardboard and a few days on smooth surfaces like plastic and stainless steel (sources: https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20200317-covid-19-how-long-does-the-coronavirus-last-on-surfaces, https://www.marketwatch.com/story/coronavirus-can-survive-up-to-3-hours-in-aerosols-and-up-to-3-days-on-some-surfaces-peer-reviewed-study-finds-2020-03-18?siteid=yhoof2&yptr=yahoo). Generally, people are at risk of contracting Coronavirus if they are in proximity to many other people and touch objects that lots of other people may have been touching.

Two things that people have to do are avoid catching the coronavirus and avoid spreading it to others, whether or not they know they have the disease. Those who are showing any symptoms of the disease must keep themselves isolated from other people. They should seek medical care, but they have to call a doctor instead of going to the hospital themselves. The government of Pakistan has just established a hotline, 1166, for people to call if they fear that they have COVID-19. People should always cover their faces when they sneeze or cough so that potentially infected droplets do not disperse into the air. They should use their elbows to cover their sneezes and coughs rather than their hands.

People who go out to high-risk areas are recommended to avoid touching their eyes, nose, and mouth with their hands. This is rather difficult advice to follow as most people do it without thinking, but try to get these habits under control. Whenever they can, people should wash their hands thoroughly as this will rid their hands of any Coronavirus that might be there. They should wash their hands thoroughly for 20 seconds, making sure that soap reaches every nook and corner of their hands and gets washed out. People can also carry hand sanitizers with them that contain at least 70 percent alcohol. To disinfect their hands of possible coronavirus, they should rub the sanitizer all over their hands until hands become dry.

People should also limit their contact with the rest of society. This is known as social distancing and is being recommended and even enforced by authorities worldwide wherever the contagion is becoming severe. When going out, you should stay at least six feet away from other people. Large gatherings are to be avoided. When the pandemic really gets into full swing in Pakistan, like it is in many other countries right now, life will have to become very different. People will have to stay home and only go out for the most essential reasons. To learn more, go to this article on the blog of US’s National Institutes of Health, To Beat Covid-19, Social Distancing is a Must, https://directorsblog.nih.gov/2020/03/19/to-beat-covid-19-social-distancing-is-a-must/.

The idea of wearing a clinical facemask is very popular right now. These are meant to prevent small particles in the air from entering people’s nose and mouth and that includes coronavirus-carrying respiratory droplets. But it is not very important for ordinary people to do so. If everybody stockpiles on facemasks, it will create a mask shortage which could make masks unavailable to the people who really need them, people who are already sick and people who expose themselves to high risk of contracting coronavirus. If you are already infected with COVID-19, wearing a facemask means that when you sneeze and cough, the droplets you expel will mostly gather on the mask instead of contaminating the outside world. People like healthcare workers or family members of infected people must also have access to these masks, and a lot of them because masks have to keep being discarded, at all times to minimize the danger they are in. Everyone else should avoid getting too many masks.

Speaking of which, a lot of people are doing panic buying in response to the pandemic, but this is causing shortage of supplies. People should not buy more than what they really need in order to ensure that everybody gets what they need. The lockdown in China has mostly ended after two months. If quarantine has to be imposed on Pakistan, perhaps a similar amount of time is going to be how long people have to avoid going out, so prepare for this scenario.

There is no cure for COVID-19 yet, but people who are infected can increase their odds with medical treatment, like respirators to help the critically ill breathe. This means that the biggest problem with the pandemic is that too many people are getting sick at once for nations’ healthcare systems to handle. If we slow the spread of the disease, then even if the same number of people get infected eventually, their chances of survival will improve dramatically. This is what people mean by our current rallying cry of “Flatten the curve”. We must do everything we can to prevent this virus from spreading rapidly. That includes making sacrifices like staying at home and giving up on socialization for the time being.

It is very important to be well-informed. This is a rapidly progressing pandemic, so we need to know what is going on by the hour. This is also a disease new to the world, which means scientists are constantly learning more about it and how to cope with it. So stay tuned to the news, preferably of the electronic kind, as buying newspapers to read could be dangerous under these circumstances. But watch out for misinformation, as a huge amount of it is spreading around. Seek authentic and verified sources.

The top source for the world on COVID-19 info is the website for the World Health Organization (https://www.who.int/). Go to https://www.who.int/emergencies/diseases/novel-coronavirus-2019 and look for their technical guidance, https://www.who.int/emergencies/diseases/novel-coronavirus-2019/technical-guidance, and the latest situation report, https://www.who.int/emergencies/diseases/novel-coronavirus-2019/situation-reports. For those who want to know more about the pandemic, Our World in Data has comprehensive and constantly updated information on the pandemic (https://ourworldindata.org/coronavirus). News agencies all over the world are now putting all their focus on the pandemic. Almost every piece of news you can read nowadays, especially on the international news agencies, relates to COVID-19 in some way. One particularly relevant news source is the New Humanitarian (formerly IRIN News), https://www.thenewhumanitarian.org/, dedicated to reporting on humanitarian emergencies.

As for the situation in Pakistan, the premier web source is http://covid.gov.pk/. It presents comprehensive up-to-date information on the current crisis in a very easily accessible format. You can also go on to Ministry of National Health Services, Regulations, and Coordination, http://nhsrc.gov.pk/, and the National Disaster Management Agency, http://www.ndma.gov.pk/. There is also website for National Institute of Health, https://www.nih.org.pk/. It may not be loading right now. Here is a cached webpage for their National Action Plan for COVID-19 (Pakistan), https://webcache.googleusercontent.com/search?q=cache:z9r_m2m6d0MJ:https://www.nih.org.pk/wp-content/uploads/2020/03/COVID-19-NAP-V2-13-March-2020.pdf+&cd=13&hl=en&ct=clnk&gl=pk.

There are many popular educational sources on the internet that can help people understand the coronavirus crisis. One of the best is SciShow on YouTube (https://www.youtube.com/scishow). It already has made three videos on the emergence of COVID-19. YouTube channels It’s Okay to be Smart (https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCH4BNI0-FOK2dMXoFtViWHw) and Kurzgesagt – In a Nutshell (https://www.youtube.com/user/Kurzgesagt) have each made one video on the pandemic already which explain the situation very well. More videos are likely to be coming. Another good YouTube channel to turn to is Healthcare Triage, https://www.youtube.com/user/thehealthcaretriage.

Everybody in Pakistan must be awake to this crisis and take the necessary measures as soon as they can. The storm has only just begun. The worst is about to arrive and we must get ready. Stay safe, and may God be with us.

(More coverage of the current pandemic will be coming)