Pakistan reported its first coronavirus case on February 26. As of March 26, coronavirus cases had climbed to 1,190. Till now, 12 people have died. But what is more important for us is to ask why Pakistan has the highest number of cases in South Asia, much more than India which has a much larger population and very similar living conditions.
Does this have to do with the way the government has mishandled the situation? The Prime Minister is still unclear on how to move ahead. He insists that the poor should not suffer economically and has continued to delay restrictions on the movement of people.
His speeches on national TV, which also should have been made much earlier, misled the nation on the severity of the effects of the virus. To date, like other like-minded leaders across the world — including Boris Johnson and Donald Trump — the Pakistani PM is unwilling to take measures that the United Nations and other entities have declared crucial in the fight against the virus.
Much of the blame should be shared by the PM’s adviser on health, Dr Zafar Mirza. Despite knowing fully well the potential of the spread of the virus, except for Islamabad airport, no other point of entry was properly manned to monitor the inflow of people from other countries.
One should remember that before Pakistan had any cases of the virus, it made the decision to not allow 800 Pakistani students stranded in Wuhan, China, to return to the country. Pakistan’s government did not want to risk them returning and spreading the disease at home.
And yet, despite news of the raging of the virus in neighbouring Iran, no restrictions were placed on the returning pilgrims from that country. Their entry seems to have tipped the balance. Initially, the cases reported in the country rose by single digit numbers. However, from March 15, the numbers started rising significantly as pilgrims began arriving back into the country.
The first reported Covid-19 victim, Yahyah Jaffery, in a blog written in this newspaper, does not mention if he was in any way checked when he returned from Iran where he had gone for pilgrimage. He had gone to Iran on February 6 and returned on February 20. In his words, “We visited the holy shrines in the cities of Qom, Mashhad and Tehran.... By then, the coronavirus outbreak had hit Qom.” And yet the government here was sleeping.
When the government woke up following public outcry, the response was inadequate. It started to detain pilgrims at Taftan at a tent city where living conditions were terrible. There was no testing, and those with symptoms were not isolated. Instead of containing the virus to those who had it, it spread to others at the camp.
As the infected people returned to their homes, PML-N leader Khawaja Asif alleged that Special Assitant to the PM for Overseas Pakistanis Zulfi Bukhari was involved in allowing the pilgrims from Taftan to enter Pakistan. Bukhari denied this through a tweet and clarified that he never talked to the Balochistan CM either to restrict pilgrims or allow their entrance in Pakistan. Either way, hundreds had slipped through the net.
It is unclear what precautions were taken as the pilgrims travelled, but they were tested by the provincial governments once they arrived, and those who tested positive were re-quarantined at centres created in those provinces. Thousands of returnees remain in quarantine centres across the country. Many of them have reportedly attempted escape. Nearly 600 returnees in total have tested positive.
But there was no national policy in place. While the returning pilgrims’ saga was ongoing, the Tablighi Jamaat was conducting its annual gathering outside Lahore. Thankfully, it was asked to close it down, forcing participants to pack up and go home. More than 150,000 people were gathered there until March 12. A number were later diagnosed with coronavirus — including two Palestinian men who returned to Gaza and became the first known coronavirus positive cases there.
According to Leader of the Opposition in the National Assembly Shehbaz Sharif, Pakistan’s Covid-19 outbreak would never have progressed to this degree had the federal government ensured proper protocols and arrangements at the quarantine facility at Taftan. Who do we hold responsible for the mess we are in today? And what punishment should they be given?
Published in The Express Tribune, March 30th, 2020.
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