Pakistan must strengthen its health system to deal with future epidemics, said Special Assistant to the Prime Minister on Health Dr Zafar Mirza.
We are thankful to China for its assistance, even when it is going through a difficult situation itself, Dr Mirza said on Sunday during a briefing for Chinese doctors at the National Institute of Health in Islamabad.
He counted supplying diagnostic kits and personal protection equipment among the aid China had given Pakistan. It has also sent a team of doctors to help. So far, Pakistan has reported 1,516 cases and none of them are from China, said Dr Mirza, calling this remarkable.
This was only possible because of the coordination and cooperation between the governments of China and Pakistan, he said, explaining that the Chinese government decided not to allow Chinese citizens to travel to Pakistan unless they were quarantined for 14 days and then screened.
The Chinese Embassy in Pakistan then ensured that they quarantined themselves for another 14 days in Pakistan, he said, adding that this was the reason why Pakistan doesn’t have any cases from China.
Dr Mirza said by taking the right measures at the right time, even a country like China, with a population of over 1.4 billion, could make it possible that not a single case moved across the border. This will go down in history, he said.
He said Pakistan followed China’s policies and regulations. China was very nice as it allowed countries to evacuate their citizens against its recommendations, he said. But Pakistan left its students in China and they were well taken care of by the Chinese government.
Today the coronavirus is spreading in Pakistan and those same students are thanking the government of Pakistan for not evacuating them and asking us to take care of their families the same way the Chinese government took care of them. He said the president met students in Wuhan via Skype and they told him they were happy there, despite initially pressuring the government to let them come back to Pakistan.
Dr Mirza said he was glad to know that the team of Chinese doctors comprised medical professionals from different specialties. “We’re interested in all experts and expertise that you bring and we can tremendously benefit from your presence here, especially when we are also starting a major national programme to train health professionals in critical care.”
He said the critical care is an important part of handling an epidemic, where you need timely and expert management of patients who are critically ill. “It’s the difference between life and death.”
We have almost finalised our plan and I would like my team planning this two-day crash training to meet with your critical care experts and see if there is any input or advice they can give, he said.
The special assistant called this a global opportunity to make use of the political and financial attention being given to health. “This attention is unprecedented,” he said, adding that the health sector has never seen this kind of conern and support before.
“Our challenge as health professionals and lawmakers is how we use this attention and turn this into an opportunity to start thinking in the long term about building our health systems in such a way that we are strong enough, relatively strong enough, for when we have these kind of problems again,” he said.
Like other developing countries, Pakistan does not pay attention to building our capacity for health when there are no health emergencies, he said, calling it natural, as other health priorities take precedence.
This outbreak has shown us that we must build health security infrastructure in the country, he said. Dr Mirza counted times of peace (when there is no emergency) as the best time to invest in a country’s capacity and prepare it to respond effectively during a health emergency.
During an emergency you can do limited things and whatever measures you take are ad hoc, he said, adding that once the emergency is over, those efforts are over too. “If you have a good underlying system and you keep investing in it, that system becomes your guarantee for generating an effective response,” said Dr Mirza.
He said it was important for China and Pakistan to strengthen and deepen their cooperation in health so that Pakistan can learn from China. Infrastructure is very important, as are trade and economies, but all these are meaningless unless you don’t have a healthy population to benefit from them, he said.