Asad Umar Image Credit: Provided
Almost a year after its initial impact, on February 20, 2021, government of Pakistan coronavirus statistics continue to reveal the very real threat of the disease. The total number of cases is 569,846, the active cases are 24,081 and the cured patients are 533,202. The number of deaths is 12,563. These statistics are of human beings who have suffered and recovered. These statistics also relate to human beings who have lost their lives. These figures show something else: the commitment of the Government of Pakistan, to the best of its ability, to deal with the pandemic.
Asad Umar is Minister of Planning, Development and Special Initiatives in Prime Minister Imran Khan’s government. Umar is the chairman of the National Command Operation Center (NCOC). With the aim of reviewing the Pakistani government’s 2020 and current strategy for the prevention of the coronavirus, I sent Minister Umar a few questions. Finding time in his 48 hour day, he responded with his honesty and courtesy.
Mehr Tarar: Tell us about the genesis of the NCOC. What do you as a chef bring to the table? What is preventing synergy and a unified national response to the pandemic?
Asad Umar: the national command operations center [NCOC] and the National Command Center (NCC) were set up after the outbreak of COVID-19 cases in Pakistan. It is essential to have an integrated response. This has been the experience in Pakistan: wherever a coordinated response has taken place, from top to bottom, the result is fruitful. Due to Pakistan’s decentralized structure after the 18th Amendment, an institutional structure was needed. And that was the purpose of creating the NCC.
The NOC was created to formulate political contributions on the basis of which the CNC could make decisions as well as for the implementation of policies and day-to-day work, ensuring that the overall strategy is implemented. The NCC is the main policy approval platform for COVID, chaired by the Prime Minister. The four principal ministers and some key ministers are the members of the NCC. More than a dozen meetings have been called since the start of the crisis.
The NOC is the nerve center which draws up all the policy proposals discussed within the CNC. All tactical and operational decisions were taken on a daily basis in coordination with the provinces. All the elements of the COVID strategy have been brought together, organized and tracked from the NCOC.
Do the size and demographics of Pakistanis militate against the implementation of NOC decisions?
Demographics no, but yes Pakistan is one of the biggest countries in the world. Large population. Institutional and decentralized decision-making structures are also weak. It all makes it hard to answer something [as huge as] a pandemic. And therefore, the work done by the NOC has played a vital role in ensuring that these weaknesses are addressed. In addition, the gaps were eliminated in terms of institutional capacity as well as in the establishment of coordination mechanisms, so that the decisions formulated at the center, in consultation with the provinces, are implemented down to the field level. , and everything is monitored, reported and coordinated.
Would it be an exaggeration to say that our Prime Minister is really making the speech in terms of frontline leadership in the fight against COVID-19?
Prime Minister Imran Khan chaired the CCN himself, and the CCN met regularly. Almost a dozen meetings have taken place. All major political decisions were taken during this forum led by the Prime Minister himself. I think an equally important role he played was to speak directly and regularly to the nation. In the midst of the crisis, when things were difficult and scariest in the world, Prime Minister Khan was leading the communication himself, speaking directly to the nation and assuring them that work was underway to ensure security. of their lives and protecting their livelihoods, I think this played a central role in the national response being positive, constructive and collaborative.
Could or should the NOC have done certain things differently?
There are always things that could have been done better; I am sure that when we sit down and document the history of the work done, we will be able to identify ideas for improvement. But given the scale of the challenge, the urgency of the problem and remember, this pandemic was unlike anything we had faced before. You would have something like a war where there is an external enemy, everything is pushed towards a security dimension. Or if there’s an earthquake or a flood, a natural disaster, everybody is trying to protect people from that. This [pandemic] was a unique challenge where there was a direct trade-off between saving lives and saving their livelihoods. And therefore, we had to strategize and implement it on the ground, balancing the two. Saving both lives and livelihoods was an incredible challenge. I think remarkable work has been done in this area.
How soon can all Pakistanis expect to be vaccinated?
Frontline health workers are already getting vaccinated. On March 2, we will have the delivery of the AstraZeneca vaccination. The vaccination campaign will start with people aged 65 and over. And shortly after, we will open it to all Pakistanis. How long will it take for the vaccination to take place? As soon as Pakistanis decide to get vaccinated. I keep saying that our biggest challenge will be convincing people to get vaccinated. It’s not just about making the vaccine available.
A tremendous amount of homework was done. Establishment of vaccination centers, organization of the vaccine [from abroad], training teams [for vaccination], installing reporting systems, all of that is in place. But the real challenge is going to be, as we have seen in many other countries, whether people are afraid or not sure that a vaccine is needed. So that will be the next biggest challenge. A huge communication effort will have to be deployed to convince Pakistanis to be vaccinated.
Asad Umar is known for his reluctance when it comes to highlighting his personal contribution to the Pakistanis’ battle against the coronavirus. To me it seems to be the manifestation of the ideal of actions that speak louder than words. Part of my first question went unanswered: What do you as a chef bring to the table? Umar does not speak about his role in the NCOC. And it got me in touch with a member of his team who wished to remain anonymous described Umars’ work in the famous words of US President Franklin Theodore Roosevelt during his speech in Paris on April 23, 1910:
It is not the critic who counts; not the man who shows how the strongman stumbles, or where the perpetrator could have done them better. The merit belongs to the man who is really in the arena, whose face is marred by dust, sweat and blood; who fights valiantly; who is wrong, who fails again and again, because there is no effort without error and without blemish; but who really strives to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, great devotions; who is dedicated to a good cause; who at best knows in the end the triumph of great success, and who at worst, if he fails, at least fails by greatly daring, so that his place is never with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat.
The NCOC team member added: The contribution of Asad Umar, as head of the NCOC, is the key factor in the NCOC’s success in the fight against COVID-19 in Pakistan. His strategy focused on predicting danger, meticulous planning and fearless implementation. Understanding the enormity of the crisis, he created a synergy between the different actors and all the federating units. If I had to identify the single most important factor in the success of the NCOC’s fight against the coronavirus, it would be the work of Asad Umars as president of the NCOC. His greatest strengths are his vision and his calm [under stress].
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