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Pakistan risking disaster with its coronavirus strategy

Haroon Janjua Islamabad
June 3, 2020

Pakistan has recorded more than 4,000 coronavirus cases in a single-day – taking the total number of reported infections to over 82,000. Some reports suggest the actual cases in the country could be in millions.

Peshawar, Pakistan
Image: DW/F. Khan

Pakistani media recently reported that a provincial health department's finding revealed that the number of COVID-19 cases only in the city of Lahore could be around 700,000.

"No workplace and residential area… is disease-free" in the provincial capital, according to the report, which was presented to Punjab province's Chief Minister Usman Buzdar almost two weeks ago.

According to Dawn newspaper, the health department advised the chief minister to immediately enforce a complete lockdown for "at least four weeks," adding that asymptomatic cases became the "main source of infection and local transmission" in the city.

"Any subsequent decision of lifting, relaxing or doing away with lockdown measures should be taken after reviewing the results of smart sampling conducted with regular intervals till the final tapering down of the virus," the report recommended.

Read more: Eid festivities raise coronavirus surge fears in South Asia

Even the reported cases in Pakistan have seen a huge spike in the past few weeks. As of Wednesday, the South Asian country had recorded more than 82,000 COVID-19 cases and almost 1,700 related deaths. The high numbers are despite a low testing rate in the country.

Yet, Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan has rejected calls for a complete lockdown. Instead, his government has lifted all public restrictions in an apparent attempt to revive the economy.

"Unfortunately, the [previous] lockdown has already hit the poor people. We no longer can afford that," Khan told media in the capital Islamabad. "Therefore, except for a few sectors, all other sectors will stay open," Khan said, adding that the government wants to "save people from coronavirus and hunger simultaneously."

"Coronavirus is going nowhere, at least this year. That means we have to live with it following safety guidelines," Khan said.

PM Khan: 'We have to live with the virus'
PM Khan: 'We have to live with the virus'Image: Reuters/P. Song

'No strategy'

Health experts say the drastic surge in coronavirus cases has already overburdened the country's public healthcare system.

"This is an alarming situation. An increased testing will likely see the reported numbers increase to millions. I fear the pandemic is also becoming more lethal in Pakistan," Khizar Hayat, chairman of the Young Doctors Association (YDA), told DW.

"There is an increased local spread and public hospitals in Lahore are packed with COVID-19 patients," he added.

Read more: COVID-19: Why Ramadan could be a disastrous month for Pakistan

The government, however, continues to downplay the pandemic threat, with Yasmeen Rashid, Punjab province's health minister, saying "the recent survey is an estimate from a small sample size and is not accurate."

"People should not panic," Rashid said, referring to the provincial health department's report.

PM Khan has repeatedly spoken against imposing a nationwide lockdown to contain the virus spread. In his latest media talk, he even announced the resumption of tourism activities in the country.

Khan has been slammed for an apparent "lack of policy" to tackle the COVID-19 pandemic. Critics say his government has been sending mixed signals about the lockdown, which has resulted in people not taking it seriously. The prime minister has also been lenient with Islamic groups even though the primary coronavirus infections were detected among the returning pilgrims from Iran and the Sunni hardliners who refused to follow physical distancing rules in their assemblies.

Read more: Coronavirus and Islam: Pakistani clerics refuse to shut down mosques

Talking exclusively to DW, Former Pakistani PM and opposition leader Shahid Khaqan Abbasi said that Khan has "no strategy to contain COVID-19."

"Imran Khan announced that the government would open the tourism sector but the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, where his own party is in power, has imposed an emergency," Abbasi said.

"The infection rates are increasing but our testing capacity is not," the ex-premier said.

Hayat agrees with the assessment. "The government has no coronavirus policy. It has not consulted doctors and health officials to devise the lockdown mechanism. Its decisions are solely based on economic interests."

Read more: Pakistan's fight against COVID-19 threatens polio, measles vaccine programs

Imminent catastrophe?

Doctors fear the easing of physical distancing restrictions could put them in harm's way.

"We are facing an acute shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE), ventilators and other medical facilities. The government is not helping us, not providing protective gear to the medical staff working in emergency wards," Tipu Sultan, former president of the Pakistan Medical Association (PMA), told DW.

Read more: COVID-19 in Pakistan: Why the government and doctors are at odds

"On top of it, the government is easing restrictions and clerics are holding mass prayers in mosques. It could all lead to a surge in coronavirus cases in the country. I fear that our entire public healthcare system will be overwhelmed," Sultan added.

Many people in the country feel the country is heading toward an unmanageable health crisis due to bad governance.

"The onus is on the incumbent government and PM Khan. They don't know to deal with this situation," Abbasi underlined.

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