The outbreak of a novel coronavirus in China has set off a global frenzy.
The scare is more widespread in Pakistan – especially in Gilgit-Baltistan (G-B) – due to its geographical proximity with China, and frequent movement of people and goods between the two countries through the only border crossing located in the region.
Authorities in G-B have stopped two shipping containers carrying goods from entering Pakistan through Khunjerab Pass while requesting the federal government to delay the reopening of the border crossing for trade as a precautionary measure.
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Sited at over 4,600 metres above sea level, Khunjerab Pass is the highest paved border crossing in the world on the fabled Karakoram Highway which traders and travellers have to traverse to transit between Pakistan and China.
“We have denied entry to two shipping containers which arrived at the border crossing from China after the outbreak of the mysterious coronavirus,” Shams Mir, a spokesperson for the G-B government, told The Express Tribune. “The information has been shared with the federal authorities.”
On average 15 shipping containers loaded with goods cross into Pakistan every day, an official of Pakistan Customs said. Similarly, on average 10 passenger vehicles – including one bus of the G-B government – also cross the border daily, said the official who wished not to be named.
Trade and travel through Khunjerab Pass is suspended from November and February due to heavy snowfall in the region, but in special cases containers are allowed to enter Pakistan through this border crossing.
The spokesperson said authorities in the region fear that the mysterious virus could be transmitted through trade goods or even through air because G-B shares a border with China.
“We have requested the federal government to delay the reopening of the border crossing for trade and travel,” he added.
Meanwhile, the G-B government has directed the health department to put in place necessary safety protocols, including screening travellers from China, at the border crossing.
The spokesperson revealed that around 55 people are stuck in China as they are not allowed by the Chinese authorities to return to Pakistan following the outbreak of the novel coronavirus.
“Approximately 75 people from G-B were visiting Kashgar city in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. In the meantime, the mysterious virus broke out and these travellers were stranded as Chinese authorities put in place mass quarantine measures,” he said.
“The G-B government contacted Chinese authorities to evacuate the stranded people, but only 20 of them have been allowed to return, while the rest are still stuck,” he added.
Pakistan’s foreign ministry sought to allay fears on Sunday, saying that over 500 students and other community members in Wuhan, and in other parts of China, are safe. “There is no report of infection in any Pakistani community member thus far,” it added.
Wuhan in China’s Hubei province is said to be the epicenter of the viral outbreak. Authorities believe the virus might have spread into the human population from an infected animal at a wet market in Wuhan, the city of 11 million which has been quarantined, halting all public transportation, including city buses, trains, and ferries.
The order also prevents any buses or trains from coming into or leaving the city and grounds all planes at the Wuhan airport.
Meanwhile, a group of Pakistani students stuck in Wuhan have appealed to their government to evacuate them. A video clip shared on social media platforms shows the Pakistani students wearing surgical masks and making the impassioned appeal.
According to them, around 200 Pakistani students are stuck in an engineering university in Wuhan. They said they are living in fear and running out of food supplies as the city is in a complete lockdown.