By Saddia Mazhar
Islamabad, April 5 (newsin.asia): It was 6 pm, and the sun was vanishing from the horizon yielding place to another dark night for the poor and the hungry, the special target of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Iqbal, the only bread winner in his family of a wife three children, had been out of work for last 4 weeks because of the lockdown imposed to tackle the coronavirus.
“Our lives have been a continuous struggle since birth and will be so till we end up in a grave,” Iqbal said with tears welling.
In recent months, the novel coronavirus has emerged as a health challenge of international proportions. As with any public health challenge, it is important to keep COVID-19 in perspective. Our response should be measured and guided by cutting-edge technology and best scientific practices. Having said this, it is undeniable that we are living in a time unprecedented anxiety.
Central to our collective task at this moment is to support the work of those who are charged with protecting the public’s health. It is with that in mind that we should recognize and assist federal and local health officials in charge of controlling the pndemic.
Though difficult it is also necessary to pause and reflect on how we arrived here. What can this outbreak teach us, so that we may be better prepared for the next one? And there will be a next one.
The questions that have to be asked are: When and where, and will we have learned lessons from the present challenge, so we can more effectively address what lies ahead? I realize that in some ways it almost seems too soon to think of the next event, but perhaps there is merit in such reflection at a time when our thoughts are sharpened by the present challenge. Perhaps we can then commit to investing in a future where we do not repeat the mistakes that have led us to the current plight.
To my thinking, the core lesson of COVID-19 is the need to change the context in which it emerged, a context of disinvestment in public health preparedness. We tend to focus on public health preparedness episodically, spotlighting it in times of challenge and neglecting it when we feel our vulnerability has diminished. As a consequence, we simply do not have the money invested in a health system that can scale up detection and treatment in time to adequately deal with large-scale outbreaks. This reality has been somewhat mitigated by the dedicated health professionals who are working to address COVID-19.
But the fact is, these professionals, and the populations they serve, are not receiving adequate support.
The Imran Khan administration has worked to dismantle the disease and has announced several immediate programs to help the poor and most venerable sections of society, who don’t have food to eat and money to take care of their loved ones.
However, the health system is only one of the problems. Prevention is another critical area. We have to attend to the conditions in which poor health is created. In particular, it means acting when these conditions create pockets of marginalization that put certain populations at disproportionate risk of disease, as we have seen during the current outbreak.
Older people and people with preexisting diseases are at a greater risk of dying from COVID-19. Obesity-related conditions, for example, seem to worsen the effect of this disease.
Pakistanis’ Health Profile Is Of Concern
People consuming unhealthy food and bad eating habits are at higher risk of COVID-19 complications. Pakistan is ranked 165 (out of 194 countries) in terms of its overweight population, with 22.2% of individuals over the age of 15 crossing the threshold of obesity. This ratio roughly corresponds with other studies, which state that one-in-four Pakistani adults are overweight.
Research indicates that people living in large cities in Pakistan are more exposed to the risks of obesity as compared to those in the countryside. Women also naturally have higher rates of obesity as compared to men.
Pakistan also has the highest percentage of people with diabetes in South Asia, a status created by a range of factors, including poverty, urban design, and agricultural subsidies that make unhealthy food the default fare for those who cannot afford to improve their diet.
All this we can, and should, be addressed.
The other key COVID-19 risk factor, is age It is central to our country’s demographic trajectory. 4.56% (male 4,399,926 /female 5,080,448) of the Pakistani population is 65 and above. When it comes to supporting aging populations, we are still far from the advanced countries of the world that help individuals age well. We do not invest nearly enough in nursing homes or caregivers who support the ageing. We are especially unprepared to support our ageing rural population.
All this has created poor health which is compounded by COVID-19 and will be compounded by the next infectious threat if we do nothing to improve matters. The challenge is that we are almost willful in ignoring conditions that underlie poor health. While COVID-19 has focused us on these conditions, we should not make the mistake of turning away once we feel the threat has passed.
But preparing for the next outbreak means building a society that is truly healthy, one where health inequities do not act as ready-made vectors for each large-scale infectious threat.
And, it is perhaps worth noting that a healthy society is also one that addresses all its epidemics, not just infectious threats like COVID-19.
It is justified to say that we should be talking about health all the time, not only when we feel it is threatened. We should talk about, and fund, robust health systems capable of detecting and responding to epidemics. And we should talk about the conditions that underlie these systems, that shape our health each day: the context of our lives.
Food, schools, investment in the ageing, a fair economy, an end to marginalization—such factors are at the heart of health and should be the focus of our national debate.