Former Health Minister of Pakistan speaking at the School of Public Health

Faisal Sultan, who led his government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, discussed the use of data and the centralization of government policy.

Giri Viswanathan

11:36 PM, October 26, 2022

Contributing reporter

Yale Daily News

When the COVID-19 pandemic began to rage around the world in 2020, Faisal Sultan found himself in the middle of the crisis. As health minister and special adviser to the prime minister, Sultan was responsible for coordinating Pakistan’s response to the emerging pandemic.

Two years later, Sultan visited the Yale School of Public Health to share lessons he learned from his experience monitoring Pakistan’s COVID-19 efforts as part of the Institute for Global Health’s ongoing Global Health Conversation Series health of yale.

In an Oct. 26 public discussion moderated by Yale Institute for Global Health Director Saad Omer, Sultan described the challenges Pakistan faces in coordinating a centralized response to the pandemic and the data-driven methods the country is using to combat the spread of the disease.

“I think in general people have bad expectations of a public health response, whereas in this case I think it was a good response and the public thinks it was,” Sultan told the News. “I think it’s very important to share the positive parts of our story.”

To date, according to the World Health Organization, Pakistan has 1,573,725 confirmed cases of COVID-19 with 30,624 deaths. A total of 313,046,883 doses of vaccines were administered, an effort Sultan was involved in overseeing.

The “Global Health Conversation Series” aims to present “today’s key decision makers in the world of global health,” according to Michael Skoniecny, associate director of the Yale Institute of Global Health and one of the event’s organizers. The talks are co-sponsored by the Yale Institute for Global Health and a fund from the MacMillan Center for International and Area Studies.

Since the outbreak of the pandemic, according to Omer, the series’ focus has shifted to the challenges and responses to COVID-19. Past speakers include former Secretary of State John Kerry ’66 and Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and chief medical adviser to the president.

“Given Dr. Sultan’s role as Pakistan’s former health minister, we wanted to better understand the challenges and lessons learned in responding to a pandemic in a federally delegated health care system,” Skonieczny wrote to the News. “We also wanted to get an inside look at a response to a global crisis and the leadership lessons that can be learned.”

During the conversation, Sultan, who completed his medical residency at the University of Connecticut and completed a rotation at Yale, described his experience leading Pakistan’s response to the pandemic. He noted how Pakistan had a relatively “better score” than other countries of similar size and health structures, stressing the importance of a centralized and federally coordinated response to the pandemic that was “coherent, data-driven and flexible”.

Sultan highlighted how Pakistan adopted a data-driven approach to its response to the pandemic in real time: COVID-19 tests, positivity and vaccine distribution were linked to the national registration of Pakistani citizens and digital identification. Pakistan’s Pandemic Response Team is also using mobile phone data to geolocate COVID-19 cases and generate heat maps of COVID-19 hotspots.

“One of the most important things was to have real-time data,” Sultan said. “We were able to detect the presence of the disease because it was flagged. A few other big federal states have suffered quite a bit, and compared to them I think we’ve come out ahead.”

Still, Sultan identified challenges to Pakistan’s response. While Pakistan tried to use geographic data to create “smart lockdowns” isolated to specific neighborhoods, Sultan reflected that such specificity could “have been introduced a little earlier.” He noted that his team could better communicate to the public the “why,” a rationale for the pandemic measures.

Sultan also detailed the political obstacles associated with communicating the science of the COVID-19 pandemic. Initially, coordinating the federal response to the pandemic with Pakistan’s provincial governments proved difficult due to parties and officials with different perspectives.

“There was a whole rainbow of colors as far as parties go,” Sultan said. “People singing different tunes was a challenge at first. Conversations, contacts and professional conversations between equals bring together opinions and views.’

For Sophia Rabbani ’25, an in-person attendee of the hybrid event, Sultan’s talk highlighted the differences between the pandemic responses in Pakistan and the United States from an insider’s perspective.

Rabbani told the News he found the opportunity to hear from a senior public health official “enriching.” She noted the importance of hearing perspectives in health care outside the United States, a theme Sultan also told the News she hopes to convey at the event.

“I think college conversations about these topics really often focus on the US (which makes sense) and other major world powers,” Rabbani wrote to the News, “but a country like Pakistan (which had a very different system to work with) is really an important perspective to center in discussions about global health and global crises like COVID-19.”

The Yale School of Public Health is located at 60 College Street.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *