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Coronavirus: Pakistan braces for a 'lethal' second wave

S. Khan Islamabad
November 19, 2020

Pakistan is facing a second coronavirus wave, with authorities urging the public to follow health guidelines. But experts say both the government and people are still not taking the pandemic seriously. S Khan reports.

Health workers checks people's body temperature in Lahore city
Image: picture-alliance/Zumapress

On October 29, Pakistan reported over 1,000 coronavirus cases — the first time since July, when it got the pandemic pretty much under control. In the last six days, the South Asian country has registered around 12,000 cases, bringing the total COVID-19 infections to 365,927 and 7,248 related deaths.

Health experts say the country is in the grip of a second coronavirus wave, which could prove to be more lethal than the first wave.

Prime Minister Imran Khan's government imposed a partial COVID-19 lockdown in March to contain the virus spread. However, the restrictions were lax, and most people did not follow the health guidelines. Large gatherings — both religious and political — resumed in July, with most people believing the pandemic was over.

Read more: How denial and conspiracy theories fuel coronavirus crisis in Pakistan

Large gatherings

Mass rallies and congregations have continued to take place in Pakistan since the start of the pandemic. Their numbers and frequency have increased in the past few weeks, especially with opposition parties holding massive anti-government rallies in different cities, hoping to topple PM Khan's government.

Election rallies in Gilgit-Baltistan largely violated social distancing measures
Election rallies in Gilgit-Baltistan largely violated social distancing measuresImage: PPI/ZUMA/picture alliance

Last week, the northern Gilgit-Baltistan region held elections for its legislative assembly, which involved huge political rallies and door-to-door canvassing.

Religious congregations, including Friday prayers and mosque sermons, continue across the country, with little or no regard for the coronavirus restrictions. It is important to note that two large-scale religious events in March had led to a sharp spike in coronavirus cases at the start of the pandemic in the Muslim-majority country.

Read more: Coronavirus: Pakistanis dejected over Hajj restrictions this year

Winter is usually a wedding season in Pakistan, and although the government has imposed a ban on large-scale weddings, it is likely that indoor wedding events would continue to take place amid the second pandemic wave.

"Large gatherings are making the virus transmission easier. I am not only talking about coronavirus; even the flu cases are rising. If a patient, who is already infected with other viruses, catches coronavirus, his survival chances are very low. That is why this second coronavirus wave is more dangerous, more lethal," Tipu Sultan, former president of the Pakistan Medical Association, told DW.

Imran Bhatti, a spokesman for the Young Doctors Association, says that most Pakistanis were afraid of the first coronavirus wave. "Now they believe they have achieved a herd immunity, which, of course, is wrong," he told DW, adding that people are doing things as if the virus doesn't exist.

Read more: Coronavirus: Pakistani laborers hit hard by pandemic

Uptick in COVID-19 cases after Pakistan reopened schools

Inadequate health facilities and low testing

Sultan says the country's health facilities are unable to deal with the pressure. "Hospitals are already short of beds. Medical and paramedical staff are also getting infected by COVID-19."

Health workers complain that they are facing a shortage of protective gear to treat COVID-19 patients. Some doctors claim the government has reduced facilities to deal with the coronavirus.

"The number of coronavirus cases is rising. Instead of opening new health facilities, the government has closed a field hospital in Lahore, leaving the city of over 12 million people with only one hospital dedicated to coronavirus patients. The COVID-19 testing remains as low as ever, and hospitals are short of equipment," said Bhatti.

Arsalan Mahmood of the Young Doctors Association urges the government to ramp up coronavirus tests. "We still don't have the true picture of the pandemic. We are a country of 220 million people and we are not testing enough. We need to test at least 1 million people per day. We cannot formulate a proper COVID-19 policy without it," he told DW.

Read more: Coronavirus: Is low testing behind Pakistan's falling daily new cases?

Taxila artisans struggle to survive COVID-19

Another lockdown?

Health experts believe the government needs to impose a fresh lockdown to deal with the second coronavirus wave in the country. So far, PM Khan has ruled out the lockdown possibility. He has been arguing since March that a lockdown would ruin the country's economy.

Read more: How the COVID-19 crisis is affecting Pakistan's economy

"The government needs to immediately announce a countrywide lockdown to stop the renewed coronavirus spread," Bhatti said

Sultan says authorities must ban all public gatherings immediately.

Senator Pervaiz Rasheed, an opposition politician, blames PM Khan for the current health crisis. "Imran Khan, just like US President Donald Trump, initially dismissed coronavirus as a simple flu. He made fun of people who demanded that the government take the contagion seriously," he told DW.

Rasheed, however, said the opposition parties will hold anti-government rallies regardless. "We will follow the health guidelines," he said, adding that the government wants to use the pandemic as an excuse to ban opposition demonstrations.

Muhammad Iqbal Khan, a ruling Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party lawmaker, told DW that the government has canceled its own public rallies and that he expects the opposition to do the same. "The government has been praised by several international organizations for its handling of the pandemic. The virus is spreading again because of the opposition rallies. We will take measures to deal with this situation," Khan told DW.

Read more: Coronavirus makes life more difficult for Pakistan's transgender community