Pakistan research body chief urges virus vigilance for Eid Al-Adha holiday

A paramedic takes nasal swab samples from the glass booth as people waiting to be tested for the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in Karachi, Pakistan July 15, 2020. (Reuters)
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Updated 15 July 2020

Pakistan research body chief urges virus vigilance for Eid Al-Adha holiday

  • Despite ‘plateauing’ in COVID-19 cases, government was not downplaying death toll: Head of research body

ISLAMABAD: The head of a Pakistani health research body has urged the public to stick to rules aimed at stopping the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) especially during the upcoming Eid Al-Adha holiday.

Maj. Gen. Prof. Aamer Ikram, executive director of Pakistan’s National Institute of Health (NIH), warned of the vital need for people to continue to follow social-distancing guidelines, wear face masks, and adhere to other virus precautionary measures.

After reporting its first COVID-19 case in late February, Pakistan has to date officially recorded 255,769 infections, with 5,386 deaths.

Cases spiked in May after the government lifted an almost two-month-long lockdown, mostly over its economic and financial impact, and ahead of the Eid Al-Fitr festival. Instead, it imposed smart lockdowns in selected areas of several cities, saying that it feared COVID-19 cases could multiply eightfold by the end of July and hit 1.2 million.

“After Eid Al-Fitr, we witnessed a surge in COVID-19 positive cases. Now Eid Al-Adha is arriving, and by strictly adhering to standard operating procedures we can make a real difference,” Ikram told Arab News.

The government was not downplaying the true extent of the country’s COVID-19 death toll, he said, but the rate of infections had gone down in the last week and the virus curve had “plateaued.”

He added: “We cannot hide the number of deaths. If you see the statistics of the last one week, there is a reduction in the number of deaths.”

Ikram pointed out that Pakistani authorities wanted to ensure “data accuracy” and were vigilant in digging out any discrepancies in numbers.

The health official noted that data from the last 10 days showed that Pakistan had “attained the plateau and it is coming down now. The government’s strategy of smart lockdown has played a very pivotal role in reducing the number of COVID-19 cases.”

On Tuesday, Pakistan recorded 1,979 new cases of COVID-19, following 21,020 nationwide tests in 24 hours, marking the lowest number of new infections in weeks.

However, critics said the rate of infections had gone down because less testing was taking place.

“One of the reasons of reduction in tests is that the WHO (World Health Organization) has changed earlier policy of two mandatory negative tests of recovered patients, 24 hours apart, before discharging them from hospital, which is not required now,” Ikram said.

He added that Pakistan had previously been testing all incoming international passengers but was now only testing those who showed COVID-19 symptoms. “We are now only screening them, that also reduced the (testing) load.”

The NIH chief said Pakistan had been the first country in the region to start COVID-19 polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests, initially conducting 300 tests per day but now carrying out more than 150,000 daily checks using 135 testing labs.

On Wednesday, the government’s COVID-19 portal showed that 21,749 tests had been conducted in the last 24 hours, with a running total of 1,627,939 tests since March.

Last month, Pakistan’s minister for science said the country would begin manufacturing testing kits locally from July. However, Ikram said indigenous kits were still under final evaluation and would be put out for commercial use after all mandatory protocols had been completed.

He added that the government was already working on preparing a strategy to acquire a vaccine for COVID-19 as soon as one became available anywhere in the world.

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Over 70 Afghan government troops killed in Taliban attacks

Updated 58 min 38 sec ago

Over 70 Afghan government troops killed in Taliban attacks

  • Defense Ministry spokesman Fawad Aman: The Taliban have increased their raids since the start of the talks, the reason for it is to seek concessions at the negotiation table
  • Fawad Aman: Government troops, who were on active defense status because of the talks in Qatar, were forced to respond and managed to foil Taliban attacks and inflict heavy losses

KABUL: More than 70 government security forces have been killed across Afghanistan in Taliban attacks during the past two days alone, officials said Tuesday, even as negotiators from both sides engage in direct peace talks to end decades of war.

“The Taliban have increased their raids since the start of the talks and, as the defense minister said recently, the reason for it is to seek concessions at the negotiation table which is impossible to gain through violence and killing,” Fawad Aman, Defense Ministry spokesman, told Arab News.

He said that government troops, who were on “active defense status” because of the ongoing talks in Qatar, were forced to respond and managed to foil Taliban attacks and inflict heavy losses.

The Taliban had the intention of capturing towns and districts from the government, like it had done in the past, while the talks were going on in Qatar, but they had not succeeded and faced a tough response from security forces, Aman added.

Tariq Aryan, a spokesman for the Interior Ministry, said that while the Taliban had carried out attacks in 24 out of 34 provinces since the start of the talks last week, seven provinces had come under renewed assault in the past 48 hours.

Southern Uruzgan has been the site of the worst strikes, which began on Sunday night and continued until early Tuesday morning, he said.

“At least 24 government forces were killed after the Taliban stormed their posts on Sunday night,” Uruzgan’s deputy governor, Sayed Mohammad Sadat, was reported as saying by local media. 

Overnight, at least 14 more government troops were killed in a separate Taliban attack in Gizab district, the governor’s spokesman Zergai Ebadi said on Tuesday.

In Kandahar which, like Uruzgan serves as the Taliban’s birthplace, 11 soldiers lost their lives in two separate attacks on Sunday night, while 20 troops were killed in two different raids in Maidan Wardak province, which lies on a strategic highway to the west of Kabul.

Several dozen soldiers were killed in other parts of the country, such as Takhar and Baghlan in the north and Tagab in Kabul’s northeast, but officials at the defense and interior ministries did not provide an exact figure when contacted by Arab News.

The Taliban blamed the government for the escalation of attacks, accusing it of building new posts in regions close to Taliban-controlled areas, and dispatching additional troops in nine provinces.

“We have been on defense mode, and the reason why they have suffered is because they were trying to establish new positions in ours, making them vulnerable to our attacks,” Zabihullah Mujahid, the group’s spokesman told Arab News by phone, adding that the government was carrying out air raids “in retaliation” for its casualties that “only killed civilians.”

“Talks are going on in Qatar but, in the battlefield, we are not allowing them to make any progress,” he said.

The significance of the timing is not lost on officials. 

Zalmay Khalilzad, US special envoy for Afghanistan, tweeted on Monday: “Over the last few days, there has been a clear rise in violence in Afghanistan. This escalation is regrettable as Afghans, including many civilians, are losing their lives.” He called on all sides to reduce violence.

Sediq Seddiqi, President Ashraf Ghani’s chief spokesman, said that while talks were underway in Qatar the “continuation of violence will further disappoint the people.”

“We have lost a large number of our troops (in recent days), and people ask why there is violence when we talk about peace,” he told Arab News. “Both people and the government believe that the Taliban do not have any justification for the continuation of violence.”

Seddiqi said that the continuation of Taliban attacks may damage the consensus created at home and in the region on the peace process, with the US eyeing a complete withdrawal of its troops from the country by next spring.

One presidential palace source, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that if the Taliban insisted on the continuation of violence then there was a probability that “the peace process will collapse.”

Experts, however, viewed the recent attacks as part of “political pressure tactics.”

“The warring sides in Afghanistan, like in other past peace processes in other parts of the world, want to build pressure on each other on the battlefield to have the upper hand in the political bargaining,” Attiqullah Amarkhail, a retired general, told Arab News.

But he said that, in Afghanistan’s case, the government suffered the most.

“It’s because it deals with maximum pressure and faces rising public anger because of the casualties and from other sides, there are people in government who want to prolong the war because it is through that they have thrived, earned wealth and power.”

Amarkhail, without naming any leader, said that some in top government positions were also “fanning ethnic and sectarian tension” while the serious process of talks in Qatar had yet to begin, fearing it could “lead to mistrust and possibly derail the peace process.”

Amanullah Hotaki, a former provincial council member in Uruzgan, said: “If the talks fail, then they (the Taliban) have to be in the upper position for implementing their Plan B which is to get power by force.”