A reputed public health institute in the United States has claimed that based on their modelling and projections, Pakistan can avoid around 25,000 deaths due to COVID-19 by October 1, 2020, if it convinces all its citizens to wear masks while going out in the public.

According to the study, COVID-19 cases and deaths are constantly on the rise in Pakistan at the moment, however, the number of casualties in the future can be significantly decreased if the people of Pakistan adopt precautionary measures.

“Our modeling shows that if all Pakistanis wear a mask when going out, as many as 25,000 lives could be saved. I encourage all to wear a mask to save lives and protect the economy,” said Dr Ali Mokdad, a senior faculty member and chief strategy officer for population health at the Institute of Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME), University of Washington, while talking to The News on Saturday.

The IHME, University of Washington, has a long history of collaboration with the Aga Khan University (AKU) as well as the government of Pakistan. Several Pakistani health officials, including epidemiologists and public health experts, have been trained at the reputed institute in Washington.

Dr Mokdad, who has also served in Pakistan, told The News on a phone call that in its first projections for Pakistan, the IHME had forecast that a total of 42,188 people would die of the contagious disease in the country until October 1.

“Pakistan is on a concerning trajectory,” the expert said. “As per our modelling and estimates, there would be over 42,000 deaths in Pakistan if protective measures are not taken. But a tight lockdown which the country adopted at the start of the outbreak is also not the solution. The only option left for Pakistanis is the behaviour change, which includes mandatory use of masks while coming out of their homes, practising social distancing and frequent hand washing,” he added.

Urging the Pakistani authorities to promote the use of all kinds and types of masks among the people, he said if a person could not afford an N-95 or surgical mask, he or she should use hand-made cloth masks, adding that the objective was to cover the face to prevent the wearer and others from contracting the disease which is spread through air-borne droplets and aerosols.

“As it is an Islamic country, I have observed women in Pakistan covering their faces with pieces of cloths and this can prevent them also from spreading and contracting the illness. Otherwise, everybody should wear a mask in public places, especially around Eid-ul-Azha when there would be a lot of mingling among each other on the holy festival,” he added.

To a query, he said Pakistan had implemented a strict lockdown at the start of the outbreak which prevented the spread of the novel coronavirus in the general population and it also resulted in a slow death rate in Pakistan. He, however, added that with the ease in restrictions, the disease had been spreading like wildfire and due to economic reasons, the country could not afford another strict lockdown similar to which it had implemented in the earlier days of the outbreak.

“A strict lockdown would have other serious implications for Pakistan as it would further aggravate the malnutrition and stunting issue among children. At this moment, the circulation of virus among the population is widespread and the only viable option left for Pakistan is promoting the mandatory use of masks as well as other protective measures, including social distancing and frequent hand washing,” Dr Mokdad explained.

The IHME has forecast that deaths in Pakistan would continue to rise and wound not reach the peak in the near future. According to the study, the country is expected to record 1,430 daily deaths on October 1. According to the forecast, Punjab would record 916 deaths on October 1, and Sindh 254 deaths per day.

The IHME’s forecast predicts deaths from the virus if countries impose social distancing measures for six weeks at the point when the death rate reaches eight per one million people. “Pakistan is not predicted to reach that threshold before October 1,” Dr Mokdad said.

According to the study, the number of deaths due to COVID-19 in different regions of the country till October 1 would be 861 in Azad Jammu and Kashmir, 2,188 in Balochistan, 54 in Gilgit-Baltistan, 262 in Islamabad, 4,894 in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, 9,098 in Sindh and 24,830 in Punjab.

The forecast is based on the IHME’s latest model and includes health system data, such as hospitalisations, ICU admissions, and ventilator needs, as well as infections, deaths, and antibody prevalence. Other factors included in the model are testing per capita, mobility per capita, social distancing mandates, mask use, social contact rates and seasonality, the IHME expert said.

Dr Sameen Siddiqi, professor and the community health sciences department chairperson at AKU, endorsed the recommendations of the IHME in order to reduce deaths due to COVID-19. He emphasised the need for wearing masks as it would significantly reduce deaths in the country.

He also stressed that Eidul Azha was just a month away and learning from the experience of Eidul Fitr, people should take precautions and the government should create awareness to ensure that another surge in the COVID-19 cases does not occur.