• Tuesday, Jul 05, 2022
  • Last Update : 04:24 pm

Coronavirus: Pakistan teeters on the edge of disaster

  • Published at 10:25 am April 4th, 2020
File photo: A man walks on the deserted road, past the Karachi Municipal Corporation building, during a lockdown after Pakistan shut all markets, public places and discouraged large gatherings amid an outbreak of coronavirus, in Karachi, Pakistan on April 3, 2020 Reuters

Pakistan’s infection rate has fuelled by a jump in cases related to members of Tablighi Jamaat, a Sunni Muslim group, which had planned a congregation in the city of Lahore last month

As of Friday, coronavirus cases in Pakistan — the world’s fifth most populous country — climbed to 2,450 and 35 people have died. The densely populated country of more than 210 million currently has the second highest number of cases in South Asia after India. 

Pakistan is facing its biggest challenge ever: how to mobilize its poor health system as the number of coronavirus cases rapidly spreads.

Doctors are refusing to show up for work. Clerics are refusing to close their mosques. And despite orders to stay at home, children continue to pack streets to play cricket, their parents unwilling to quarantine them in crowded homes.

The country even gravely mishandled the return of coronavirus-infected pilgrims from Iran, and its cricket star prime minister has waffled on messaging and implementing a full, federally mandated lockdown. 

In recent weeks, as the coronavirus’s march across the globe was intensifying, Prime Minister Imran Khan played down its dangers. Pakistani officials bragged that the country was virus-free, but little was being done to set up testing anywhere.

The consequences of letting the disease spread further would be devastating. And Pakistan’s initial coronavirus response is already exposing concerning political patterns — including the powerful army asserting competence over the civilian government — that will persist beyond the pandemic.

Now, the government tries to enforce a strict lockdown to prevent people from going to mosques to offer Friday prayers and fuel a rise in coronavirus infection, officials said, after failing to prevent large congregations last week.

Pakistan’s infection rate has fuelled by a jump in cases related to members of Tablighi Jamaat, a Sunni Muslim group, which had planned a congregation in the city of Lahore last month.

The meeting was postponed but by then hundreds of people had already arrived at the premises and they stayed on.

With a broken healthcare system, Pakistan remains at risk of a wide scale spread of the coronavirus, experts have warned.

Religious extremism could pose a bigger threat to efforts to block the spread of the respiratory disease, officials say.

Villagers in remote conservative areas also need to be educated, Mir wais Kaka, a social activist running a coronavirus awareness campaign in the southwestern Zarate district, told Reuters.

"My cousin told me that he would prefer to die (of the virus) if he dies just for saying a prayer (at a mosque)."

The government in Pakistan's southern province of Sindh, home to the country's largest city, Karachi, will enforce a "curfew-like" lockdown for three hours beginning 12 noon Friday to deter people from coming out of their homes for prayers, officials said.

Health experts have warned of an epidemic in South Asia, home to a fifth of the world's population, that could easily overwhelm its weak public health systems.

An official at the provincial health department, who requested to remain anonymous, told the Nikkei Asian Review the government is not capable of effectively quarantining people in Taftan. 

"The government has sent a coronavirus testing van to Taftan but it's not operational because of the lack of a [stable] power supply," the official said.

Pakistan ranks 105 out of 195 countries in the well-respected Global Health Security Index 2019, leading experts to question Pakistan's ability to deal with the virus.

Dibyesh Anand, head of the School of Social Sciences at the University of Westminster London, believes that Pakistan's health care system is not only patchy, but ridden with inequities and inefficiencies. "[Pakistan] will struggle badly to cope with a crisis of this scale," he told Nikkei.

Another top health official was gloomy about the prospects of tackling a major outbreak.

“We don’t have human resources, we don’t have the required inventory, we don’t have a capacity to cope with a big emergency with the given resources,” Shahid Malik, secretary general of the Pakistan Medical Association, told Reuters.

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