Only 25,000 coronavirus test kits available in Pakistan — health minister

A man wearing a facemask walks past a sign board displaying preventive meausres against the spread of the COVID-19 novel coronavirus, outside a mall in Islamabad on March 16, 2020. (AFP)
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Updated 17 March 2020

Only 25,000 coronavirus test kits available in Pakistan — health minister

  • Dr. Zafar Mirza says large order for testing kits placed with Canada, “no need” to impose national emergency
  • Says less than 500 people tested so far, $200 million offered by World Bank, Asian Development Bank, brotherly nations to fight outbreak

ISLAMABAD: There are currently around 25,000 coronavirus testing kits available in Pakistan, the country’s health minister has said, raising fears that a shortage of vital equipment may hamper the government’s ability to slow the advance of the coronavirus outbreak.

The World Health Organization called on all countries on Monday to ramp up their testing programs as the best way to slow the advance of the coronavirus pandemic. Without testing, it said, cases cannot be isolated and the chain of infection will not be broken.

Around a million Pakistanis have been screened for fever with thermometer guns and checked for signs of a cough or difficulty in breathing, common symptoms of the coronavirus, at entry points to the country.

But to estimate the true size of the outbreak in Pakistan, testing for the virus itself must become widely available.

Between the provincial and the federal governments, Pakistan currently has about 25,000 kits at hand and had placed a number of large orders, including for more than 100,000 kits from Canada, Dr. Zafar Mirza, State Minister of Health of Pakistan, told Arab News in an interview late on Sunday evening.

However, he said the country would “within weeks” be able to produce its own testing equipment.

“We are also buying a synthesizer … which is a technology through which you can produce [testing kits] yourself,” Mirza said. “So then you become self sufficient.”

Fewer than 500 Pakistanis have as yet been tested for the coronavirus, the health minister said, raising concerns about missed chances by the government to ensure more widespread testing during the early days of the outbreak which could make containment easier.




A paramedic staff stands outside an isolation section, set up for the precautionary measures for the coronavirus patients treatment at the Jinnah Postgraduate Medical Center (JPMC) in Karachi, Pakistan February 3, 2020. (REUTERS)

Pakistani health officials put the tally of confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus, which causes the disease known as Covid-19, at more than 180 on Tuesday morning. The first confirmed case in Pakistan emerged on February 26.

Experts say they have no way of knowing the true national figures because access to testing is severely limited at present in the nation of 208 million people. They have also faulted Pakistan’s narrow testing criteria.

Currently, individuals with flu-like symptoms are only tested if they have traveled to a country where the virus is spreading, triggering fears there are far more cases in Pakistan than currently recorded, which could become an enfeebling weakness in Pakistan’s response effort in the coming weeks.

By this point in its outbreak, South Korea — where a downward trend in daily cases has raised hopes that Asia’s biggest epidemic outside China may be slowing — had tested more than 100,000 people for the disease, and was testing roughly 15,000 people every day.

“I think we are nearing around more than 400,” Mirza said on Sunday evening when asked how many people had been tested for the coronavirus so far.

The minister explained that only people who had returned from travel to countries where the virus had spread, and people who returning travelers had interacted with, and who in turn developed “signs and symptoms” similar to the coronavirus infection, were being tested.

“Apart from this, nobody needs testing,” Mirza said.

When asked about reports that officials at a 1166 helpline set up to assist citizens who suspected they had coronavirus-type symptoms were discouraging people from getting tested unless they had traveled to virus-hit countries, Mirza said:

“They should be discouraged … Over here, every person who has a cold suspects that they have coronavirus and says why don’t I get tested; they will exhaust all our [testing] kits.”

Mirza said no senior government officials were currently at risk from the virus and denied reports of two deaths in Sehwan city in the southern Sindh province, where 155 of Pakistan’s total have been confirmed.

Pakistan borders China and Iran, both of which have been badly hit by the virus. Pakistan reported its first locally contracted case on Friday, though officials say most Pakistanis with infections had recently traveled to Iran.

Last week, Pakistan announced it would temporarily shut all land borders and limit international flights and public gatherings to halt the spread of the disease.

Mirza said Pakistan had tracked and screened around 6,000 Pakistanis who had returned from Iran since February and knew about the whereabouts of all incoming travelers: “Each one of them,” he said. “Absolutely.”

Responding to reports in Chinese media which quoted Chinese foreign ministry officials saying Pakistan had donated its entire inventory of protective masks to China after the coronavirus first broke out there late last year, the minister said:

“This is nonsense … The world is going through an outbreak. Can a country be so irresponsible that they send all their protection equipment to another country?”

The minister could not provide specific figures for how many beds had been assigned for coronavirus patients across the country but admitted that there was a shortage of ventilators.

According to 2014 data from the World Health Organization, Pakistan has 0.60 hospital beds per 1,000 people. Indeed, like most South Asian countries, the nation’s health care infrastructure is ill-equipped to deal with any large-scale emergency.

Mirza said the prime minister had approved a request for Rs5 billion to be used by the National Disaster Management authority to combat the spread of the virus. Six provincial disaster management bodies had around rupees two billion each, he said, and would get additional financial support from the provincial governments on an as-needed basis.

“And then, at the same time, we have been approached by different multilateral and bilateral agencies, development partners,” Mirza said. “So we are talking about roundabout $200 million dollars, which have been offered to us by World Bank, Asian Development Bank, different brotherly countries.”

Speaking about the government’s communication strategy, he said health officials had been using television channels to send out public service messages about the disease daily and from Monday (today), advertisements would begin appearing in national dailies educating people about symptoms and prevention. A new website for the health ministry and a dashboard, which would provide real time numbers of cases, would also be uploaded on Monday, Mirza said.

He also said Facebook had agreed to give ad credits worth $50,000 to the government for coronavirus-related awareness campaigns.

Mirza said Pakistan had set up ten “disease surveillance units” across the country, comprising rapid response teams and others, and “few hundreds” of people were now involved in screening and contact tracing efforts. Paramilitary Rangers had also been deployed at the Karachi, Lahore and Islamabad airports since last week so screening of passengers could be done in a “disciplined way,” he said.

“No country is equipped to face an outbreak like this,” Mirza said when asked if Pakistan’s leadership and medical infrastructure was ready to contain the virus if it spread more widely. “It’s an imminent threat, imminent risk that we are running at the moment, and we are trying, according to our resources, to do our best.”

When asked if Pakistan would declare a national health emergency in the near future over fears the virus could spread, the minister said: “No need.”


Islamabad says Beijing has agreed to 'phased return' of Pakistani students to China

Updated 21 May 2022

Islamabad says Beijing has agreed to 'phased return' of Pakistani students to China

  • Pakistani embassy says both sides are finalizing arrangements for the return of first batch of students 
  • 28,000 Pakistani students are enrolled in Chinese varsities, with a majority stuck in Pakistan since 2020 

ISLAMABAD: Beijing has agreed on a "phased return" of Pakistani students to Chinese universities, the Pakistani embassy in China said on Friday, which would be subject to the COVID-19 situation in the host country.

Around 28,000 Pakistani students are enrolled in Chinese educational institutions, with most of them stuck in Pakistan since China suspended entry of foreign nationals in March 2020 to stop the spread of COVID-19.

For more than a year, the Pakistani government had been saying it was in touch with the Chinese authorities to help Pakistani students return to their colleges and universities.

In a telephonic conversation on May 16, the Pakistani embassy said, Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif discussed the issue with his Chinese counterpart Li Keqiang and conveyed the sentiments of the families of Pakistani students who wished to resume their studies in China.

“The embassy had long been engaged with the relevant Chinese authorities regarding the return of Pakistani students to their universities in China,” the Pakistani embassy said in statement.

“Resultantly, the two sides have agreed for phased return subject to the Covid-19 situation in China.”

In the recent telephonic conversation, the statement said, the Chinese premier assured that Beijing accorded “high priority” to the matter. “Two sides are now finalizing arrangements for return of 1st batch of students at an early date,” it read.

The Pakistani embassy said it would keep pursuing the matter with the Chinese authorities for the return of the remaining students as well.


Pakistan’s Azhar Ali makes unbeaten double hundred in English county game 

Updated 21 May 2022

Pakistan’s Azhar Ali makes unbeaten double hundred in English county game 

  • Azhar reached his double century in the final over of the day with a cover drive for four 
  • Azhar arrived at Worcestershire’s headquarters after a successful Test series against Australia 

LONDON: Pakistan’s Azhar Ali made an unbeaten double century as he helped Worcestershire rewrite the record books in an English County Championship match against Leicestershire on Friday.
Azhar and former England Under-19 international Jack Haynes put on 281 for the third wicket — a record partnership against Leicestershire, surpassing the 278 by Cyril Walters and Harold Gibbons in 1934.
Their stand was the cornerstone of Worcestershire’s 456 for three, a lead of 308, at stumps on the second day of four at New Road.
Haynes was eventually dismissed for 127 but Azhar reached his double century in the final over of the day with a cover drive for four off Rehan Ahmed.
By that stage Azhar had faced 328 balls, with one six and 18 fours, and also shared in another century stand with Brett D’Oliveira (52 not out).
Azhar arrived at New Road, Worcestershire’s headquarters, after a successful Test series against Australia which included a marathon 185 spanning 11 hours at Rawalpindi.
The 37-year-old struggled at first with the change to English conditions and his opening six innings for Midlands county Worcestershire yielded 34 runs.
But the former Pakistan captain has found his form since hitting 92 against a Durham attack including new England skipper Ben Stokes.


‘Dance Icon’: Breakdancing makes school boy a household name in Pakistan’s Balochistan

Updated 21 May 2022

‘Dance Icon’: Breakdancing makes school boy a household name in Pakistan’s Balochistan

  • 10-year-old Subhan Sohail was inspired to dance after seeing Michael Jackson’s videos online
  • Sohail has never received professional training and hones his skills by watching online videos 

QUETTA: Subhan Sohail was six years old when he first saw a video of the “King of Pop,” Michael Jackson, on his mother’s cellphone and announced he wanted to be a break-dancer.
Four years later, Sohail, 10, has become a household name in his home province of Balochistan in southwest Pakistan since a video of him in his school uniform breakdancing went viral after a teacher shared it on social media.
“People started praising me, which gave me confidence,” the resident of Degari Kahan village in Kech district told Arab News.
Subhan’s mother, who only identified herself by her first name Shereen, said she supported her son pursuing breakdancing as a career, though the family had faced some opposition in Balochistan where many conservative Pakistanis frown on dancing. And breakdancing, an art form born on the streets of New York City in the 1970s, is a novel concept in the impoverished province. 
“I was very happy after hearing that my son’s video was appreciated,” Sohail’s mother said. “But later many people in our family discouraged Subhan and told him that dancing was not thought to be a good profession within our rural society.”
“Despite such negative comments,” she added, “I still want him to take up dancing as a career because my son wants to be a world class dancer.”
Sohail, who has never taken any professional lessons, says he learns new skills by watching online videos. That’s also how he started his dancing journey:
“I learned how to breakdance by watching videos on my mother’s cellphone. I was six years old and started practicing at my house without taking any dance classes.”
On a regular day, Sohail said, he spends two hours after school practicing.
Lately, performing in public has become a favorite activity.
“Initially, I was shy and hesitant to dance in public,” Sohail said. “Then my family supported me and emboldened me to perform at school and family events.”
Amul Sakin Baloch, a teacher at the dancer’s school for the last 11 years, said her young student was a “hero,” entertaining others with his unique talent.
“I first uploaded his dance video on social media after which many people requested me to share it again because they loved his performance,” Baloch told Arab News. “Now he has become a dance icon for the whole province of Balochistan.”
Sohail Ismael, a driver employed at the school his son attends, said he had never discouraged Sohail from pursuing his passion, but wanted him to become an engineer to secure a more viable future.
“He was reluctant to dance in front of me and used to practice in my absence,” Ismael said. “But I have been encouraging him and now he often shows me his new dance moves.”


Pakistani FM says Islamabad and Washington entering new engagement after years of strain

Updated 21 May 2022

Pakistani FM says Islamabad and Washington entering new engagement after years of strain

  • Bilawal Bhutto Zardari says United States and his country must move beyond past tensions over neighboring Afghanistan
  • Recalls legacy of his mother and grandfather, calls them “towering figures on world stage” and says he feels “burden of history”

UNITED NATIONS: Pakistan’s new foreign minister says the United States and his country must move beyond past tensions over Afghanistan and are entering a new engagement after years of strained relations under former Prime Minister Imran Khan.

Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, the 33-year-old son of assassinated former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, spoke in an interview with The Associated Press in New York, where he was attending meetings this week on the global food crisis at UN headquarters. He has also held talks with top diplomats, including a one-hour discussion with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken.

Bhutto Zardari called the meeting with Blinken “very encouraging and very positive and productive.”

“We believe that Pakistan must continue to engage with the United States at all levels,” he said. “This meeting was indeed an important first step.”

Bhutto Zardari co-chairs one of the two largest parties in Pakistan’s disparate governing coalition, which spans the political spectrum from the left to the radically religious. The coalition removed Khan in a no-confidence vote on April 10. Shahbaz Sharif, the leader of the other major party, replaced Imran Khan as prime minister.

US-Pakistani ties deteriorated under Khan, who as prime minister tapped into anti-American sentiment in Pakistan that has spread ever since the 9/11 terrorist attacks by Al-Qaeda, and the US war on terror. The 2011 American raid that killed Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in Pakistan angered many hard-liners in the country.

Khan accused the Biden administration of colluding with the opposition to oust him, a claim the administration denies.

Afghanistan also raised mistrust between the two countries. Washington felt Islamabad did too little to help ensure peace as the US and NATO withdrew their troops from Afghanistan; Pakistan insists it did all it could to broker peace and blamed the abrupt US pullout. During the final weeks of the American withdrawal, the Taliban overran Kabul in mid-August and seized power.

Bhutto Zardari said the Pakistan-US relationship in the past had been “too colored by the events in Afghanistan, of the geopolitical considerations, and it’s time for us to move beyond that to engage in a far broader, deeper and more meaningful relationship.”

Under Khan, Pakistan pushed hard for the world to engage with Afghanistan’s new Taliban rulers, and Bhutto Zardari said his country continues to do so.

“Regardless of what we feel about the regime in Afghanistan,” the world can’t abandon the Afghan people and must immediately address the country’s humanitarian crisis and crumbling economy, he said. A total collapse of the Afghan economy would be a disaster for Afghans, Pakistan and the international community, he said, expressing concern that many Afghans would flee the country.

Pakistan is also insisting the Taliban live up to their international commitments that the country not be used for terrorism, that girls and women be able to pursue education, and that they form an inclusive government, he said.

The Taliban, however, have taken a more hard-line turn in recent weeks, imposing new restrictions on women. At the same time, tensions have grown between the Taliban and Pakistan over militants based in Afghanistan carrying out attacks in Pakistan.

Bhutto Zardari said the more the humanitarian crisis is alleviated and the economy is saved from collapse, “the more likely we are to succeed in our pursuit for women’s rights and the more likely we are to succeed in our efforts against terrorism.”

He said his focus in talks with Blinken was on increasing trade, particularly in agriculture, information technology and energy. He said he is looking forward to working with the US on an initiative to empower women, including women entrepreneurs.

On economic, defense and military coordination, “if we continue to engage, then we can move forward in a more positive direction,” Bhutto Zardari said.

Asked about Khan’s anti-US rhetoric, Bhutto Zardari dismissed the ex-premier’s accusation of American collusion, calling it a “fanciful conspiracy theory based on a big lie” to explain his removal.

“I am particularly anti the politics of hate, division and polarization,” the foreign minister said. “If we consistently pursue the politics of `you’re with us or against us,’ whether that’s on an international level or a domestic level, I don’t believe it serves the interests of the people of Pakistan.”

He said he believes Pakistanis understand their country needs to engage with the US and all countries, in order to become democratic and progress economically.

President Joe Biden has strengthened ties with Pakistan’s arch-rival India, but Bhutto Zardari said Pakistan is not “jealous” of their relationship. “We believe the world is big enough for both Pakistan and India,” he said.

Biden will meet Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the leaders of Australia and Japan at a summit in Tokyo on May 24 of the so-called Quad, an Indo-Pacific alliance which China sees as an attempt to contain its economic growth and influence.

Pakistan has a very close economic and military relationship with neighboring China, where Bhutto Zardari is heading to on Saturday. He told the AP he didn’t think the growing relationship with the US would hurt its ties to Beijing.

Pakistan has abstained on UN General Assembly resolutions condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and withdrawal of its troops. Bhutto Zardari said Pakistan used to rely a lot on Ukrainian wheat and fertilizer and has been affected by rising food prices and calls for diplomacy to end the war.

The lives of the Bhutto Zardari family have in many ways reflected their country’s turbulence. Bhutto Zardari took over his mother’s Pakistan People’s Party after she was killed in a suicide bombing in December 2007.

The daughter of Pakistan’s first democratically elected prime minister, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, who led Pakistan in the 1970s and was overthrown and executed by the military, Benazir Bhutto was Pakistan’s first woman premier and twice served as head of government.

At the time of her assassination, she was rallying in a third bid for premiership. Bhutto Zardari’s life in politics was also shaped by his father, Asif Ali Zardari, who served as Pakistan’s president from 2008 to 2013.

In the interview with the AP, Bhutto Zardari recalled the legacy of his mother and grandfather. He called them “towering figures on the world stage,” and said he feels “the burden of history.”

“What motivates and drives me is the pursuit of their unfulfilled mission,” he said. “I hope that we live up to the expectations of the people of Pakistan” who have longed for true democracy and struggled for their economic, political and human rights.

“These are the ideals that we hold dear and we work toward every day,” Bhutto Zardari said.


Ex-PM Khan says Islamabad march to begin between May 25 and 29 

Updated 21 May 2022

Ex-PM Khan says Islamabad march to begin between May 25 and 29 

  • Former premier has been calling for early election in the South Asian country 
  • In April, he became the first Pakistani PM to be ousted through a no-trust vote 

ISLAMABAD: Former Pakistan prime minister Imran Khan on Friday announced his party would begin its anti-government march to Islamabad between May 25 and May 29 to compel the new administration to announce a snap election in the South Asian country.

Last month, Khan became the first prime minister in Pakistan’s history who was driven out of power in a no-confidence vote.

He has accused the United States (US) of orchestrating his removal with the help of his political rivals, saying that Washington was displeased with his desire to pursue an independent foreign policy for Pakistan. US officials have repeatedly denied the allegation.

The former premier has since held scores of rallies across the country, urging the masses to prepare for a march to the Pakistani capital to pressure the new government of PM Shehbaz Sharif into announcing fresh polls.

“I have summoned my core committee to Peshawar on Sunday. And let me tell you we are to decide between 25th and 29th May,” Khan said at a rally in Multan Friday night.

“God willing, I will clear this to you the day after tomorrow so that you may get enough time to prepare.”

He told the attendees he wanted them all to prepare for the final showdown in the Pakistani capital.

Supporters of Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party of former Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan listen to speech by the party leader during a rally in Multan on May 20, 2022. (AFP)

“God willing, when the sea of people will come, we will only ask them for one thing,” he said, “when will the assembly be dissolved and election announced.”

Khan, who is the chairman of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party, has called for early elections in the country.

The ex-premier has vowed to keep holding political protests until the new government announces the next election.