As different countries take different measures to fight the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, a QF alumnus working with the Pakistani government talks about his experience of being an analyst managing the outbreak
In late February 2020, when Pakistan confirmed its first two cases of COVID-19, Zain Raza, who works with one of the provincial health ministries in the country, knew it was time for his office to speed up the work to fight the sprawling pandemic.
“It really rang bells for us when Pakistan got its first cases, because we knew the virus had entered the country and it would be a matter of days before it starts spreading,” said Raza, a Qatar Foundation (QF) alumnus and member of the coronavirus management team within the health ministry of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP), Pakistan’s northwest province.
As Pakistan imposed a lockdown and accelerated its efforts to curb the virus, one of the challenges Raza and his team have faced is ensuring that the safety measures do not cause people to panic while still being taken seriously.
“We don't want to cause panic, and we don't want people to just feel hopeless and go out and stock up on things as if this is an apocalypse,” said Raza.
We do have to create a certain sense of fear in people's mind so that they can recognize this disease as being something serious.
“But we do have to create a certain sense of fear in people's mind so that they can recognize this disease as being something serious and consider it as something that can be lethal, or at least a painful experience for a lot of people.”
Raza—who graduated from Texas A&M University at Qatar, a QF partner university—has been actively studying the spread of coronavirus in Pakistan, as well as in other countries, to come up with recommendations to combat the virus, suggesting them to the ministry to support potential policies, and raising awareness of these strategies by working with the local media.
Part of the effort to make the masses adhere to government policies and advice involves what Raza calls “myth-busting”: debunking the information that makes people complacent in crisis. These misconceptions can range from preliminary observations that tuberculosis vaccine, which was mandated in Pakistan in 1940s, gives people a stronger immunity against coronavirus, to believing that the smaller number of COVID-19 cases in Pakistan makes strict lockdown measures unnecessary.
“In the government, we also want to cling to hope. Personally, even I want to cling to hope and believe in all those theories out there, but there's no evidence right now to support them,” added Raza. “We need to make sure that things which are unproven do not hinder our efforts.”
Preparing for a pandemic in a developing country
The coronavirus pandemic has not yet hit Pakistan as hard as some Western countries, but Raza emphasized that an uncontrolled spread of the virus in the country could have catastrophic consequences, due to the country’s overpopulation and lack of healthcare facilities.
We underappreciate the value of time in this pandemic. There are a lot of unknowns in this pandemic, and we just need to buy ourselves time to learn more about the disease
“The coronavirus can hit us badly compared to developed countries, because we know that we do not have the healthcare capacity in terms of equipment, beds, and healthcare staff. So, we can have a much, much worse scenario,” added Raza.
At the start of the crisis, Raza was sharing informational articles about the virus in a WhatsApp group with his colleagues and the health minister of KP, when he was asked to put together a presentation overnight about how to flatten the curve. The minister liked the presentation so much that he took it up to the provincial cabinet the next morning and eventually to the federal authorities, using it to strategize KP’s plan to fight the pandemic.
“Even though you aren’t really working on the ground, if you can provide the kind of direction or just the thinking which can have an effect on a very large skill level on the highest decision-making body, I think it is very satisfying,” said Raza.
As the world continues to reevaluate its policies and measures amid the ongoing pandemic, Raza says that time is of crucial importance to mitigate the crisis.
“One thing that I stress a lot, even while sitting in the government or working with the minister, is that we underappreciate the value of time in this pandemic,” he explained.
“There are a lot of unknowns in this pandemic, and we just need to buy ourselves time to learn more about the disease, about some of the consequences of it, or some of the mechanisms of action we have tested so far. So, what I try to tell people is that if you listen to the government right now and pass through this hard time, it will give us time to better prepare for it.”
Raza said certain skills that he picked up from his engineering education at QF have been very helpful when working in policy reform and governance.
“My engineering degree was very holistic, and I think the soft skills from my education are coming in more useful right now, especially problem-solving, communication, and presentation skills,” he said.
Currently, Raza and his team are working on regularly analyzing trends in how the virus is spreading and looking at models from other countries which have been hit hard by the to develop the best plan of action for the KP government.