Pakistan braced for double blow of coronavirus outbreak

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Nazir Hussain (left), a sole bread earner of five, including four daughters, sit with his family in a shanty in outskirt of the city on Monday, March 23, 2020. He collects used stuff on his cart and has not been out for last five days due to fear of coronavirus. He says a fourteen day curfew will further force him to stay at home without any food. “If the government has imposed curfew, it needs to provide us food for the day,” Hussain told Arab News (AN photo by S.A. Babar)
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A Volunteer is helping an elderly man wear his mask a day before lockdown in Karachi on March, 22, 2020. Different charity organisations have announced to support the Sindh government in its fight against the coronavirus (AN Photo by S.A. Babar)
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A deserted look of Zaibnuisah Street, one of the busiest markets in Karachi, a Pakistani megacity where one has died and 354 have infected by the coronavirus (AN Photo by S.A. Babar)
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People are queued up for their number at a Utility Store in Karachi in the evening on Sunday, March 22, 2020, following the government’s announcement to impose curfew, which will only allow small grocery stores in neighbourhood to open (AN Photo by S.A. Babar)
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Railway staff fumigating a train which is leaving for up country in the evening on Sunday, March 22, 2030. The cantt station of Karachi witnessed large number of people despite the railways suspending operations of 34 trains due to lockdown in Karachi, which will force people to stay at home (AN Photo by S.A. Babar)
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Small traders and owners of the grocery shops are uploading utility items from Karachi’s wholesale market, Joria Bazaar, on Sunday, March 22, 2020. The Sindh Government’s lockdown allows small grocery shops to open and provide stuff to the households (AN Photo by S.A. Babar)
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A woman and her child are being checked with thermal gun before their departure from cantt railways station for hometown in Punjab on March 22, 2020. “Our village is small and we will be safe from the virus there”, the woman Aleena Bhatti told Arab News.
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Updated 08 April 2020

Pakistan braced for double blow of coronavirus outbreak

  • Soaring cases raise pressure on health system as lockdown threatens livelihoods of millions
  • Each province now enforcing own partial or full lockdown to slow the spread of infections

KARACHI: Just a few days after he had returned from a visit to Iran, Yahya Jafri, a 22-year-old Pakistani national, became “patient zero” of Pakistan’s now explosive coronavirus outbreak.

Once he was diagnosed as having the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) on Feb. 27, his family was moved to Aga Khan Hospital in Karachi, according to Meeran Yousuf, a spokesperson for Sindh province’s Health Department.

Around the same time several other Pakistanis returning from pilgrimage in Iran also tested positive for the virus, prompting authorities to suspend all flights to Iran.

Given the highly infectious nature of COVID-19, the move was perhaps a case of too little too late.

On March 25, Pakistan’s health minister claimed that 78 percent of the country’s total coronavirus patients had a history of travel to Iran.

“Every state defends its own interests first in such times," Umair Muhammad Hasni, a Balochistan government spokesperson, said while announcing the sealing of the border with Iran.

“Returning pilgrims are being pushed by Iran into a buffer zone between the two countries. We just cannot leave those people here.”

Iran has been accused by Gulf countries too of letting pilgrims depart without screening them for COVID-19 infection.

But that is scant comfort for a country of 220 million people reeling from a full-blown outbreak.

Pakistan’s cities have been under a partial lockdown for the past several weeks.

Schools, educational institutions, shopping malls and other usually crowded public places have been shut across the country.

After facing criticism for lacking a unified response to the public-health crisis, the government has extended a nationwide lockdown till April 14.

It has set aside economic concerns for now and suspended flights and business activities in an effort to halt the spread of COVID-19 infections.

Pakistan, like neighbor India, faces an uphill battle in its belated attempt to "flatten the curve” of infections.

As of Sunday, the country had a total of 2,665 active COVID-19 cases, 45 deaths and 170 recoveries.

The government is getting flak for moving too slowly to stop large gatherings when the need of the hour is “social distancing” among other precautionary measures.

But as analysts have pointed out, the political leadership faces a painful choice between protecting public health and preventing an economic meltdown.

With blunt speeches, Prime Minister Khan is seeking to convince Pakistanis of the seriousness of the situation.

Attending a ceremony recently in Lahore, he said about 50-60 million of his compatriots are already below the poverty line and cannot afford to have two meals a day.

"Above these people are 50-60 million others, who are right at the border,” he said.

“If one misfortune befalls them, they are pushed below the poverty line."

Pakistan was beset with problems ranging from an anemic economy and political dissension to dwindling investment flows when the coronavirus storm hit.

Now the challenge confronting the country is of a completely different order from anything it has dealt with in living memory.

Even the accuracy of the government’s coronavirus data is questioned by many Pakistanis.

Earlier this last week, Faisal Edhi, who heads Pakistan’s biggest charity, Edhi Foundation, accused officials, especially those in the largest province, Punjab, of underreporting COVID-19 cases.

“We are daily burying six to seven people with respiratory (illness) symptoms,” Edhi told Arab News.

A spokesperson of the Punjab health department rejected the charge, adding that COVID-19 deaths were not being concealed.

Edhi estimates that Punjab has 14,000 confirmed cases, a figure several times the number cited by provincial authorities.

As of March 31, according to official data, Punjab and Sindh had tested respectively 15,000 and 7,000 people for the coronavirus infection.

The corresponding figures for Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan provinces was 1,711 and 2,113.

Liaquat Shahwani, a Balochistan government spokesperson, said more tests will be conducted once the province receives 1,000 test kits from the federal government.

He said the official request was for 50,000 kits due to the large number of people affected by the outbreak in Balochistan.

Dr Zafar Mirza, the prime minister’s assistant on health issues, has said more than 15,000 people have been tested across the country.

“The country is rapidly increasing its capacity of testing and treatment to cope with the coronavirus pandemic,” he said.

For his part, Asad Umar, Minister for Planning, Development and Special Initiatives, said “our testing capacity” has been increased from 30,000 to 280,000, and will be raised to 900,000 by mid-April.“

Saqib Mumtaz, a spokesman for the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA), said Pakistan has got ventilators and protective gears from China, adding that orders had been placed for another 3,000 ventilator units.

The UAE announced through its embassy in Islamabad that it had sent its first batch of medical supplies.

Even as foreign medical assistance begins to arrive, reports of new coronavirus cases are pouring in from across the country.

Each province is now enforcing its own partial or full lockdown in an effort to slow the spread of the deadly virus.

The Sindh government has established isolation centers in 12 different hospitals, having won praise for being the first to announce a lockdown with effect from March 23.

At the same time, it has placed a ban on Friday prayer gatherings for fear of local transmission, which accounts for most of the province’s 830 cases.

A number of quarantine and isolation facilities are also up and running across the country.

Punjab says that in addition to its quarantine capacity for 27,000 people, up to 100,000 patients can be treated in hospitals if the situation deteriorates further.

With “flattening the curve” of infections beyond the realm of imagination, Pakistan’s provincial governments and the national government have their work cut out for them.

In his address in Lahore, Khan said there is no denying that these are difficult times.

"It is difficult because no one has the experience to deal with such a crisis,” he said.

Khan noted that countries with far greater resources, competent institutions and well-funded health systems were reeling from the pandemic’s blow.

“The US has prepared a $2,000bn relief package whereas we can barely manage a $8bn one,” he said, pointing out that despite its resources, there is “a breakdown of (US) systems.”

Khan added: “If this is what can happen to them, our situation was dire to begin with.”

Related


Philippines cracks down on clandestine COVID-19 clinics

Updated 29 May 2020

Philippines cracks down on clandestine COVID-19 clinics

  • Intelligence, immigration officials investigating illegal facilities that catered mostly to foreigners

MANILA: The Philippines has intensified its crackdown on uncertified medical facilities offering treatment to people, particularly foreigners, with COVID-19 symptoms.
Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra on Thursday ordered the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) and the Bureau of Immigration (BI) to help the Philippine National Police (PNP) track down foreign nationals behind the illegal clinics.
“It seems that clandestine medical clinics catering mostly to foreign nationals have sprouted and have been operating without proper authority,” Guevarra told reporters.
He said the facilities could have compromised the health of those who had undergone treatment.
“I’ll therefore ask the NBI and the BI to help the police in locating other similar underground clinics and the people running them, and if warranted, to file the appropriate charges against them,” he added.
Guevarra issued the order following a raid on Tuesday on an illegal clinic catering to Chinese patients in Makati City. Arrested in the operation were Chinese nationals Dr. David Lai, 49, and Liao Bruce, 41.
The clinic was reportedly operating without a permit, while the arrested did not have a license to practice medicine in the country.
Seized from the site were swab sticks, vials, syringes and boxes of medicine with Chinese labels — believed to be unregistered with the Food and Drug Administration.
Last week, law enforcers also swooped on a makeshift hospital for Chinese patients in the Fontana Leisure Park in Clark, Pampanga province.
The raid came after police received information that a COVID-19 patient was “undergoing medical attention” in a Fontana villa.
Arrested during the raid were Chinese nationals Liu Wei, who reportedly supervised the facility, and Hu Shiling, allegedly a pharmacist. Both were released on the same day without charge.
Immigration officials on Thursday said the duo had been placed on their watch list to prevent them from leaving the country while an investigation is underway.
BI Commissioner Jaime Morente said intelligence operatives will trace four of the patients, and are looking into the case of the Chinese nationals arrested in Makati.
“I’ve instructed our intelligence division to investigate if these alleged Chinese doctors are legally staying in the country,” he said.
“Should we find they violated our immigration laws, they’ll be charged with deportation cases before our law and investigation division,” he added.
“Even if no criminal charges were filed against them, they can be charged for immigration law violations if we can establish that they violated the conditions of their stay in the country.”
If criminal charges are filed, however, the BI will only deport them after their cases have been resolved or they have served their sentences, if convicted.
Opposition Sen. Risa Hontiveros called for the “immediate deportation and blacklisting” of the Chinese nationals because of their “blatant disregard of our laws.”
She added that while the Philippines is working hard to protect its people from the virus, “these criminals freely roam and pose a danger to public health.”