QUETTA: A sharp uptick in novel coronavirus cases in Iran has put the neighbouring Pakistani province of Balochistan on alert, as authorities have rushed health teams to the Taftan border crossing and declared an emergency in districts along the south-western frontier.
Prime Minister Imran Khan on Saturday called up Balochistan Chief Minister Jam Kamal Khan and discussed with him the coronavirus spread in Iran and its implications for the border province.
Kamal informed the prime minister that he is personally overseeing the government efforts to prevent the deadly infestation from seeping into Balochistan.
Since it outbreak in December, the mysterious virus, named COVID-19, has killed 2,345 people in China, the epicentre of the epidemic, and 17 elsewhere in the world. The outbreak surfaced in Iran on Wednesday when authorities said the disease claimed the lives of two elderly people in the holy city of Qom.
On Saturday, Tehran ordered the closure of schools, universities and cultural centres as the death toll soared to five along with 10 new cases. The latest cases take to 28 the total number of confirmed infections in Iran. The deaths are the first in the Middle East region and the highest number of fatalities outside the Far East.
‘Pakistan has effective drug for COVID-19’
In Balochistan, “special teams have been constituted for safety and precaution against coronavirus, while all district headquarters hospitals have been directed to stay vigilant,” Chief Minister Kamal told the prime minister.
“The provincial government has deputed special health teams at Taftan border, while an emergency has been declared in the districts that share border with Iran,” added Kamal, who also discussed the preventive measures with the de facto health minister Dr Zafar Mirza.
Foreign fears rise
Dr Mirza has repeatedly said that there has been no case of novel coronavirus in Pakistan, which spread from central Chinese province of Hubei and its capital Wuhan. Several Pakistani students study in Wuhan and Chinese authorities confirmed four of them had caught the disease but were cured after treatment.
The rise of the new cases and fatalities outside China stoked fears as the outbreak spread to over 25 countries, while the World Health Organisation (WHO) warned of a shrinking window to stem the proliferation of the deadly disease.
Besides Iran, reports also emerged of the first European death from COVID-19. A 78-year old Italian man died after testing positive for the virus. Also on Saturday, a second person died in South Korea as the number of cases in the country spiked.
After the fatality, Italy locked down 10 towns and asked over 50,000 people to stay home – a move with echoes of China's lockdown of entire cities in Hubei. Outside Hubei, the number of those under quarantine has been declining, but new hotspots were found in prisons and hospitals.
WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus warned that the "window of opportunity" to contain the international spread of the outbreak was "narrowing", as cases surged across the Middle East and in South Korea.
Ghebreyesus said African health systems would be ill-equipped to respond to the deadly outbreak should cases start to proliferate on the continent. He called on African Union member states "to come together to be more aggressive in attacking" COVID-19.
"Our biggest concern continues to be the potential for COVID-19 to spread in countries with weaker health systems," Ghebreyesus, speaking by video link from Geneva, said during a meeting of African health ministers at the AU headquarters in Addis Ababa.
With the first cases reported from Israel and Lebanon, Middle Eastern nations are forced to take appropriate steps. Iraq and Kuwait, which share borders with Iran, were on high alert after banning travel to and from the country, although they have not confirmed any cases domestically.
“We have 10 new confirmed cases of COVID-19,” Iran’s health ministry said on Saturday. “One of the new cases has unfortunately passed away,” it added, noting that eight of them had been hospitalised in Qom and two in Tehran.
As a "preventive measure", authorities ordered the closure of schools, universities and other educational centres in Qom and the nearby city of Arak from Sunday, state television reported. The government also announced that "all art and cinema events in halls across the country have been cancelled until the end of the week".
Nearly 350 people have been infected in South Korea, including two deaths, making it the hardest-hit country outside China. Several Australians and an Israeli evacuated earlier this week from the stricken Diamond Princess cruise ship tested positive for coronavirus on returning to their homes.
Earlier, two former passengers of the ship, both Japanese and in their 80s, died in Japan on Thursday, while a woman who left the ship on Wednesday tested positive for the virus following her return to her home in Tochigi Prefecture, Kyodo news agency reported.
Japan's health minister apologised that 23 passengers were allowed to leave the ship without being properly tested. Yet authorities allowed around 100 more passengers to disembark from the virus-stricken cruise ship. The passengers had been in close contact with infected people on board, local media said.
The British government confirmed on Twitter that an evacuation flight left Japan on Saturday, with 32 British and European passengers on board.
Nearly 400 new cases were reported nationwide in China on Saturday, less than half the number of new cases the previous day. The drop in new cases of the novel coronavirus came as officials in Hubei province were ordered to revise figures to clear "doubt" around the data.
(With additional input from Agencies)