Pakistan ready to deal with more pilgrims returning from virus-hit Iran

In this file photo, a health personnel checks the body temperature of a pilgrim returning from Iran via the Pakistan-Iran border town of Taftan on Feb. 29, 2020. (REUTERS)
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Updated 15 March 2020

Pakistan ready to deal with more pilgrims returning from virus-hit Iran

  • About 2,200 people have already been quarantined near the Taftan border
  • Pakistan has confirmed five coronavirus cases, and the WHO has praised its handling of the problem

KARACHI: Authorities in Pakistan’s southwestern Balochistan province said on Wednesday they were ready to screen and quarantine several thousand pilgrims coming from Iran, adding that 2,200 people, who previously arrived from the neighboring state, had already been kept in isolation units at the Taftan border.
Pakistan on Tuesday confirmed its fifth case of coronavirus.
All of the infected individuals have recently returned from Iran that has reported the highest number of coronavirus deaths outside China.
“We now have 5th confirmed case of COVID19 in federal areas,” Zafar Mirza, the country’s health minister, said in a tweet and added that the patient was stable and being managed well.
“We have made all necessary arrangements, with teams of qualified doctors present at the Taftan border,” Liaquat Shahwani, spokesperson of the Balochistan government, told Arab News, adding that the province was also setting up a quarantine center in its capital, Quetta, since it would not be possible to keep the growing number of pilgrims returning from Iran at the Taftan border in the coming days.
Asked about the viral video wherein the pilgrims were apparently protesting the lack of facilities, Shahwani said they were getting all the necessary facilities but did not want to stay. “We cannot allow them to leave the quarantine facility before the completion of the required isolation period,” he clarified.
Speaking to Arab News, Najibullah Qambrani, a senior official at the Taftan border, said some 2,200 people had been quarantined by Tuesday evening. “We are expecting more pilgrims in the next few days,” he said, adding the pilgrims would be allowed to leave once their quarantine period was over.
“We will also count the period they have spent at the quarantine facilities in Iran,” the official said.
On Wednesday morning, the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) said in a handout that it had sent 600 tents, 1,200 tarpaulins and 3,500 blankets to the provincial disaster management authority. “These items have been provided at the quarantine centers at Chaman and Taftan borders,” the statement read.
The World Health Organization has recently expressed its satisfaction over the way the Pakistan government has handled the coronavirus epidemic, state-owned news agency, the Associated Press of Pakistan (APP), reported on Sunday.
Since the recent outbreak in its western neighborhood, Pakistan has sealed its borders with Iran and Afghanistan and stepped up surveillance at all entry points and airports. A ‘National Action Plan’ to contain the spread of the virus was unveiled at a press conference on Saturday, and the government of southern Sindh province announced it would be closing all schools until March 13.
“I am impressed by the swift and diligent way the government has handled the crisis so far, and WHO is committed to supporting them every step of the way,” APP quoted Dr. Palitha Mahipala, the international health organization’s representative in Pakistan, as saying.
The WHO has upped the status of the current epidemic to its highest level, stopping just short of declaring the outbreak a pandemic. The disease has so far claimed 3,000 lives and infected roughly 87,000 people in 64 countries.

In Pakistan, coronavirus test results sometimes delivered in weeks — or never

Updated 10 July 2020

In Pakistan, coronavirus test results sometimes delivered in weeks — or never

  • Data available with Arab News shows testing numbers have decreased steadily since last month
  • The timely delivery of results by government-run testing facilities has become a major problem

KARACHI: On June 2, a government coronavirus testing team came to the Peshawar Press Club to collect journalist Mehmood Jan Babar’s sample after he called a helpline and informed authorities several people in his immediate circle had tested positive for the disease and he needed a diagnosis.

Babar soon developed symptoms of the coronavirus and has since fully recovered. But his test results have still not arrived.

“I’m still waiting,” he told Arab News via phone from Peshawar this week. “Despite several reminders I have not gotten my results yet.”

The World Health Organization has called on all countries to ramp up their testing programs as the best way to slow the advance of the coronavirus pandemic. In a letter to the government last month, WHO said Pakistan should increase its daily testing to 50,000.

But data available with Arab News shows testing numbers have decreased steadily since last month and the timely delivery of results by government facilities has become a major issue. Meanwhile, infections continue to grow, with the government’s coronavirus portal recording 243,599 cases and 5,058 deaths on Friday.

Dr. Azra Pechuho, the health minister of Sindh province which has recorded the highest number of confirmed coronavirus cases in Pakistan, said reported delays in results were due to a temporary shortage of testing kits, a problem that had since been resolved. 

“It [getting results] can take from a few hours to a day or two, depending upon the lab’s workload and efficiency,” Dr. Faisal Sultan, the prime minister’s focal person on COVID-19, said, denying that there were weeks-long delays.

But 24 percent of those who participated in a Twitter survey conducted by Arab News said they themselves, or their relatives, had to wait more than a week for results.

“Why should I get tested if I will get my result after I have recovered or been killed by the virus?” said Muhammad Naeem Khan, a young trader in Quetta who said his results were delivered after three weeks. 

A news TV cameraman in Karachi, who declined to be named, said he was tested as part of official policy at his workplace eight days before an attack on the Pakistan Stock Exchange building on June 28.

“While I was covering the attack, our human resource officer informed me that I had the virus,” he said. Meanwhile, he had continued to go to the office and cover events and said he feared he might have infected others.

Such stories are becoming more and more common and were contributing to people’s resistance to getting tested, experts said, and may be one reason for the downward trend in recent testing figures.

Other reasons include that the government had not worked on improving testing capacity, said Dr. Abdul Bari Khan, Chief Executive Officer of Karachi’s Indus Hospital.

“Second, when a person is diagnosed, others living with him or her don’t get tests assuming they may also be positive already,” he said.

Conspiracy theories around the coronavirus have also not helped. Misinformation on social media platforms, including viral memes that say people who test positive will be immediately quarantined in shamblic government facilities where they will be injected with poisonous substances leading to death, have kept people from getting tested.

But the government insists the decline in testing numbers is because fewer people are getting infected or developing symptoms.

“Very clearly downward demand is the main reason. Other factors are possible but reduced demand is key in my view,” Sultan, the PM’s focal person, said.

An analysis of up to four weeks of data obtained from officials in Pakistan’s four provinces and the country’s capital show testing cuts.

In Sindh province, data shows 80,499 tests with a daily average of 11,500 were conducted between June 15 and June 21, 2020. The number sharply dropped in the next seven days to 56,544 (daily average 8,078) and slightly improved with 66,986 tests (daily average 9,569) between June 29 and July 5, 2020.

In Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, where health officials have been directed to scale up testing, the number of tests conducted between June 29 to July 5 were 13,407 with an average of 1,915 tests conducted per day whereas a week earlier, 17,305 people were tested.

In Punjab, according to official data, 60,540 (average 8,648) tests were conducted between June 5 and June 11, and 69,845 (average 9,977) between June 12 to June 18. The number of tests dropped to 64,237 (average 9,176) and 56,923 (average 8,133) between June 26 and July 2.

In Balochistan 6,650 people were tested with an average of 9,50 daily tests done between June 5 and June 11, 2020. The number of tests dropped to 5,554 — average 793 — in the next seven days and then to 5,057 with an average of 722 the following week. Data showed 4,130 (average 590) tests between June 26 and July 2.

In Islamabad Capital Territory, 16,401 tests were conducted with a daily average of 2,343 between June 29 and July 5, 2020. A week before this, the number of tests was 16,856 with an average of 2408 tests a week, 19,878 (2,839) tests two weeks earlier, and 24,189 tests with a daily average of 3,455 three weeks ago, between June 8 and June 1.