Pakistan braced for double blow of coronavirus outbreak

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Nazir Hussain (left), a sole bread earner of five, including four daughters, sit with his family in a shanty in outskirt of the city on Monday, March 23, 2020. He collects used stuff on his cart and has not been out for last five days due to fear of coronavirus. He says a fourteen day curfew will further force him to stay at home without any food. “If the government has imposed curfew, it needs to provide us food for the day,” Hussain told Arab News (AN photo by S.A. Babar)
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A Volunteer is helping an elderly man wear his mask a day before lockdown in Karachi on March, 22, 2020. Different charity organisations have announced to support the Sindh government in its fight against the coronavirus (AN Photo by S.A. Babar)
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A deserted look of Zaibnuisah Street, one of the busiest markets in Karachi, a Pakistani megacity where one has died and 354 have infected by the coronavirus (AN Photo by S.A. Babar)
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People are queued up for their number at a Utility Store in Karachi in the evening on Sunday, March 22, 2020, following the government’s announcement to impose curfew, which will only allow small grocery stores in neighbourhood to open (AN Photo by S.A. Babar)
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Railway staff fumigating a train which is leaving for up country in the evening on Sunday, March 22, 2030. The cantt station of Karachi witnessed large number of people despite the railways suspending operations of 34 trains due to lockdown in Karachi, which will force people to stay at home (AN Photo by S.A. Babar)
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Small traders and owners of the grocery shops are uploading utility items from Karachi’s wholesale market, Joria Bazaar, on Sunday, March 22, 2020. The Sindh Government’s lockdown allows small grocery shops to open and provide stuff to the households (AN Photo by S.A. Babar)
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A woman and her child are being checked with thermal gun before their departure from cantt railways station for hometown in Punjab on March 22, 2020. “Our village is small and we will be safe from the virus there”, the woman Aleena Bhatti told Arab News.
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Updated 08 April 2020

Pakistan braced for double blow of coronavirus outbreak

  • Soaring cases raise pressure on health system as lockdown threatens livelihoods of millions
  • Each province now enforcing own partial or full lockdown to slow the spread of infections

KARACHI: Just a few days after he had returned from a visit to Iran, Yahya Jafri, a 22-year-old Pakistani national, became “patient zero” of Pakistan’s now explosive coronavirus outbreak.

Once he was diagnosed as having the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) on Feb. 27, his family was moved to Aga Khan Hospital in Karachi, according to Meeran Yousuf, a spokesperson for Sindh province’s Health Department.

Around the same time several other Pakistanis returning from pilgrimage in Iran also tested positive for the virus, prompting authorities to suspend all flights to Iran.

Given the highly infectious nature of COVID-19, the move was perhaps a case of too little too late.

On March 25, Pakistan’s health minister claimed that 78 percent of the country’s total coronavirus patients had a history of travel to Iran.

“Every state defends its own interests first in such times," Umair Muhammad Hasni, a Balochistan government spokesperson, said while announcing the sealing of the border with Iran.

“Returning pilgrims are being pushed by Iran into a buffer zone between the two countries. We just cannot leave those people here.”

Iran has been accused by Gulf countries too of letting pilgrims depart without screening them for COVID-19 infection.

But that is scant comfort for a country of 220 million people reeling from a full-blown outbreak.

Pakistan’s cities have been under a partial lockdown for the past several weeks.

Schools, educational institutions, shopping malls and other usually crowded public places have been shut across the country.

After facing criticism for lacking a unified response to the public-health crisis, the government has extended a nationwide lockdown till April 14.

It has set aside economic concerns for now and suspended flights and business activities in an effort to halt the spread of COVID-19 infections.

Pakistan, like neighbor India, faces an uphill battle in its belated attempt to "flatten the curve” of infections.

As of Sunday, the country had a total of 2,665 active COVID-19 cases, 45 deaths and 170 recoveries.

The government is getting flak for moving too slowly to stop large gatherings when the need of the hour is “social distancing” among other precautionary measures.

But as analysts have pointed out, the political leadership faces a painful choice between protecting public health and preventing an economic meltdown.

With blunt speeches, Prime Minister Khan is seeking to convince Pakistanis of the seriousness of the situation.

Attending a ceremony recently in Lahore, he said about 50-60 million of his compatriots are already below the poverty line and cannot afford to have two meals a day.

"Above these people are 50-60 million others, who are right at the border,” he said.

“If one misfortune befalls them, they are pushed below the poverty line."

Pakistan was beset with problems ranging from an anemic economy and political dissension to dwindling investment flows when the coronavirus storm hit.

Now the challenge confronting the country is of a completely different order from anything it has dealt with in living memory.

Even the accuracy of the government’s coronavirus data is questioned by many Pakistanis.

Earlier this last week, Faisal Edhi, who heads Pakistan’s biggest charity, Edhi Foundation, accused officials, especially those in the largest province, Punjab, of underreporting COVID-19 cases.

“We are daily burying six to seven people with respiratory (illness) symptoms,” Edhi told Arab News.

A spokesperson of the Punjab health department rejected the charge, adding that COVID-19 deaths were not being concealed.

Edhi estimates that Punjab has 14,000 confirmed cases, a figure several times the number cited by provincial authorities.

As of March 31, according to official data, Punjab and Sindh had tested respectively 15,000 and 7,000 people for the coronavirus infection.

The corresponding figures for Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan provinces was 1,711 and 2,113.

Liaquat Shahwani, a Balochistan government spokesperson, said more tests will be conducted once the province receives 1,000 test kits from the federal government.

He said the official request was for 50,000 kits due to the large number of people affected by the outbreak in Balochistan.

Dr Zafar Mirza, the prime minister’s assistant on health issues, has said more than 15,000 people have been tested across the country.

“The country is rapidly increasing its capacity of testing and treatment to cope with the coronavirus pandemic,” he said.

For his part, Asad Umar, Minister for Planning, Development and Special Initiatives, said “our testing capacity” has been increased from 30,000 to 280,000, and will be raised to 900,000 by mid-April.“

Saqib Mumtaz, a spokesman for the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA), said Pakistan has got ventilators and protective gears from China, adding that orders had been placed for another 3,000 ventilator units.

The UAE announced through its embassy in Islamabad that it had sent its first batch of medical supplies.

Even as foreign medical assistance begins to arrive, reports of new coronavirus cases are pouring in from across the country.

Each province is now enforcing its own partial or full lockdown in an effort to slow the spread of the deadly virus.

The Sindh government has established isolation centers in 12 different hospitals, having won praise for being the first to announce a lockdown with effect from March 23.

At the same time, it has placed a ban on Friday prayer gatherings for fear of local transmission, which accounts for most of the province’s 830 cases.

A number of quarantine and isolation facilities are also up and running across the country.

Punjab says that in addition to its quarantine capacity for 27,000 people, up to 100,000 patients can be treated in hospitals if the situation deteriorates further.

With “flattening the curve” of infections beyond the realm of imagination, Pakistan’s provincial governments and the national government have their work cut out for them.

In his address in Lahore, Khan said there is no denying that these are difficult times.

"It is difficult because no one has the experience to deal with such a crisis,” he said.

Khan noted that countries with far greater resources, competent institutions and well-funded health systems were reeling from the pandemic’s blow.

“The US has prepared a $2,000bn relief package whereas we can barely manage a $8bn one,” he said, pointing out that despite its resources, there is “a breakdown of (US) systems.”

Khan added: “If this is what can happen to them, our situation was dire to begin with.”


Pompeo inks deal for US troop move from Germany to Poland

Updated 9 min 35 sec ago

Pompeo inks deal for US troop move from Germany to Poland

  • Some 4,500 US troops are currently based in Poland
  • Pompeo has used his Europe trip to warn the region’s young democracies about threats posed by Russia and China

WARSAW: US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has sealed a defense cooperation deal with Polish officials that will pave the way for the redeployment of American troops from Germany to Poland.
In Warsaw on Saturday at the end of a four-nation tour of central and eastern Europe, Pompeo and Polish Defense Minister Mariusz Błaszczak signed an Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement that sets out the legal framework for the additional troop presence.
The pact supplements an existing NATO Status of Forces Agreement and allows for the enhancement and modernization of existing capabilities and facilities by granting US forces to access additional Polish military installations. It also sets out a formula for sharing the logistical and infrastructure costs of an expanded US presence in the country.
Some 4,500 US troops are currently based in Poland, but about 1,000 more are to be added, under a bilateral decision announced last year. Last month, in line with President Donald Trump’s demand to reduce troop numbers in Germany, the Pentagon announced that some 12,000 troops would be withdrawn from Germany with about 5,600 moving to other countries in Europe, including Poland.
In addition, several US military commands will be moved out of Germany, including the US Army V Corps overseas headquarters that will relocate to Poland next year.
Trump has long and loudly complained that Germany does not spend enough on defense and has repeatedly accused Germany of failing to pay NATO bills, which is a misstatement of the issue. NATO nations have pledged to dedicate 2 percent of their gross domestic product.
In addition, several US military commands will be moved out of Germany, including the US Army V Corps overseas headquarters that will relocate to Poland next year.
Saturday’s signing came just a day after the Trump administration suffered an embarrassing diplomatic loss at the United Nations when its proposal to indefinitely extend an arms embargo on Iran was soundly defeated in a UN Security Council vote that saw only one country side with the US Pompeo will visit that country, the Dominican Republic, on Sunday for the inauguration of its new president.
Pompeo has used his Europe trip to warn the region’s young democracies about threats posed by Russia and China and has received a warm welcome. In Poland, the reception was particularly kind given the friendship between Trump and conservative Polish President Andrzej Duda, who was sworn in for a second five-year term earlier this month after a hotly contested election.
Many of Duda’s Law and Justice party’s policies have put Poland at odds with the European Union, which is concerned that government efforts to reshape the judiciary and other actions have eroded the rule of law and democracy in the EU member country.