QUETTA.: As the novel coronavirus threatens to become a global pandemic with confirmed cases reported in some Middle Eastern countries, Pakistan has started quarantining pilgrims returning from Iran where the infestation has claimed 12 lives amid allegations of cover-up against the Islamic Republic.
Pakistan, which has already sealed its border with Iran, has quarantined at least 200 pilgrims near the Taftan border crossing in Balochistan on Monday – the day Afghanistan’s health ministry confirmed the first case of the virus, medically named COVID-19, in the country.
“We have decided not to take any chance and keep all of them under observation for the next 15 days,” Assistant Commissioner Najeebullah Qambrani said.
Provincial Health Secretary Mudassir Malik confirmed between 200 and 250 will remain under observation for the incubation period. Around 7,000 pilgrims have returned to Pakistan from Iran this month alone, he added.
Pakistan has deployed 67 doctors at its border crossing with Iran to treat suspected patients of the deadly virus. At the same time, the government has declared a “coronavirus emergency” in five districts of the province – including Chagai, Washuk, Panjgur, Kech and Gwadar – as a preemptive measure
Meanwhile, activities at the Pak-Iran border remain suspended for a second consecutive day as the provincial government has completely sealed the border at five points not allowing anyone to cross into Pakistan from Iran.
The provincial government has also announced it would not allow around 5,000 pilgrims currently in Iran to return following the outbreak of the infestation there.
In a video posted on social media platforms, the pilgrims have urged the Pakistan government to let them return stating that the Iranian authorities have also given them permission to travel.
“The Iranian government has granted [us] permission to travel to Pakistan but we are being told by Pakistani officials that we cannot travel without screening and medical check-up that would take [at least] 15 days,” says one pilgrim in the video.
The pilgrims said they were facing shortage of food and other necessities and were accompanied by children and women.
Hundreds of trailers carrying goods are stranded, while screening of pilgrims continues at the Pakistan House established by the Provincial Disaster Management Authority (PDMA) and health department at Taftan border.
Chief Minister Jam Kamal also expressed his concern over the outbreak of coronavirus in Iran. “The border has been completely closed and we are taking every possible precautionary steps to prevent the [spread of] the virus. The [spread of] disease could not be prevented globally but we have to adhere to the safety measures,” he said.
Replying to a question regarding illegal activities in the border districts, Kamal noted that Balochistan shares a porous border with Iran and Afghanistan hence curbing all activities at all points was not possible.
However, he said, the main points were constantly monitored and sealed. “Pakistan has completely fenced its entire border with Afghanistan in Balochistan, while fencing with Iran has also started. We have directed all DCs to maintain vigilance in the border towns,” he said.
The chief minister observed that the health department has been carrying out screening at a 100-bed isolation ward established at Taftan border. “The Provincial Disaster Management Authority has delivered health equipment, including masks, at Taftan border,” he said.
Assembly supports China, Iran
The Balochistan Assembly on Monday also expressed deep concerns over the issue and approved a resolution for providing technical, financial and other assistance to China and Iran.
“This house assures the Chinese and Iranian governments of full assistance and support following the outbreak of novel coronavirus in the two countries,” Sardar Rind said and added that the “Balochistan Assembly shares full solidarity with both nations and expresses sorrow over the mortalities caused by the virus”.
Pakistan International Airlines on Monday also suspended all flight operations to China and Japan till March 15. The decision was taken in view of the ongoing viral outbreak which has claimed more than 2,400 lives – mostly in China.
The decision to resume flight operations or further extend the suspension will be taken after a week.
Meanwhile, the Iran government vowed to be transparent after being accused of covering up the deadliest coronavirus outbreak outside China, dismissing a lawmaker’s claim the toll could be as high as 50.
The government announced Iran’s coronavirus death toll had jumped by four to 12 – by far the highest outside China – as several regional countries reported their first cases on Monday, even after imposing travel restrictions and strict quarantine measures.
But Ahmad Amirabadi Farahani, a lawmaker from the city of Qom, alleged the government was “lying” about the death toll.
“As of last night, about 50 people have died” from the COVID-19 outbreak in Qom alone, he was quoted as saying by ILNA news agency after a closed session of parliament on the crisis. The government rejected the claim.
“I ask our brother who declared this figure of 50 deaths to provide us with a list of their names,” said Deputy Health Minister Iraj Harirchi. “If the number of deaths in Qom reaches half or a quarter of this figure, I will resign.”
Iran has been scrambling to contain COVID-19 since Wednesday when it announced the first two deaths in Qom. Authorities have ordered the closure of schools, universities and other educational centres across the country as a “preventive measure”.
Many of Iran’s neighbours have reported infections in people who had travelled to the Islamic republic.
Afghanistan on Monday reported its first case in a person who had been to Qom.
Baghdad and Muscat also reported their first cases – an elderly Iranian citizen living in Iraq’s Najaf and two Omani women who had returned from the Islamic republic.
Kuwait and Bahrain also confirmed their first novel coronavirus cases, all of whom had come from Iran.
The novel coronavirus has spread to more than 25 countries, with more than 2,500 dead in China, and is causing mounting alarm due to new pockets of outbreaks in Europe, the Middle East and Asia.
(With additional input from Agencies)