ISLAMABAD: Iran forced about 5,000 Pakistani nationals over the border into Balochistan, despite a plea by Islamabad to wait until quarantine facilities were ready to accommodate them, Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi said on Monday.
“I spoke with the Iranian foreign minister and requested time to make arrangements (for the pilgrims) but they couldn’t do it due to economic sanctions,” Qureshi said during a National Assembly session, the first convened in two months. He added that Pakistan had been left with no option but to admit its nationals.
Iran, a popular destination for Shiite pilgrims, is one of the countries worst affected by the coronavirus pandemic. Islamabad has blamed Iranian authorities for accelerating the spread of the virus by sending Pakistani pilgrims home without screening them for COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus.
In late March, Prime Minister Imran Khan’s special assistant on public health, Dr. Zafar Mirza, said: “Eighty percent of the COVID-19-confirmed patients in Pakistan originated from Iran, which lacked the capacity to deal with an international public-health emergency.”
During Monday’s parliamentary session, which was convened to discuss the latest coronavirus developments, opposition parties argued that the blame for the spread of the virus rests with Pakistan’s own government.
“You failed to test them, you could not quarantine them,” said Pakistan Peoples Party Chairman Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari. He condemning the government’s inability to ensure proper arrangements were in place at the main border crossing in Taftan, and accused the prime minister of lacking a strategy to limit the spread of the virus.
Senior Pakistani Muslim League (N) politician Khawaja Muhammad Asif criticized the government for a lack of testing capacity, and the prime minister’s “confused policy” on the lockdown.
“We are tired of it,” he said. “He isn’t providing leadership, he is providing confusion.”
Khan did not attend the session. The government began to ease precautionary lockdown measures across the country on Saturday, and Qureshi defended this decision by stating that had it not done so, about 71 million people would have been forced into poverty. He added that the testing capacity has risen to 20,000 a day.
“I admit that this capacity is still low but we will improve it gradually,” he said. Infections in the country have yet to peak but, he noted, the national mortality rate of 2 percent is lower than the global average of 6.8 percent.
There were nearly 31,000 confirmed coronavirus cases in Pakistan as of Monday, and 667 deaths linked to COVID-19. The country, which has a population of 210 million, has conducted about 295,000 tests, including about 11,400 in the past 24 hours.