In Pakistan, ICU occupancy reaches breaking point as virus cases surge

Pakistani doctors would need to triage COVID-19 patients in the coming weeks if the government failed to ensure a stricter lockdown. (Photo Courtesy: SKMCH&RC)
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Updated 27 April 2020

In Pakistan, ICU occupancy reaches breaking point as virus cases surge

  • Private hospitals no longer accepting COVID-19 patients who require ventilators
  • At least 253 medical practitioners are infected with coronavirus with three doctors’ deaths

ISLAMABAD: Pakistani doctors would need to triage COVID-19 patients in the coming weeks if the government failed to ensure a stricter lockdown and as hospitals run out of intensive care unit [ICU] beds and ventilators, the Pakistan Medical Association said on Sunday.

Doctors and lawyers have been pushing the federal government for a stricter nationwide lockdown to ensure social distancing and stem the rapid spread of the virus. But authorities say they are trying to save people and the economy from the virus through a “smart lockdown” –   a partial lockdown of cities with some exemptions to businesses and industry.

“We are currently having around 75 to 80 percent occupancy of ICU beds, while private hospitals have stopped taking [COVID-19] patients on ventilators,” Dr. Qaisar Sajjad, secretary-general of Pakistan Medical Association told Arab News.

In the next ten days, the number of coronavirus cases is projected to reach at least 25,000, when public hospitals will not have ventilators for their seriously ill patients, he said.

“Ultimately, the doctors will have to triage between a father and a son,” he said. “And if we prioritize to treat the son first, there is no guarantee he’ll recover. We should be prepared for the worst.”

Sajjad said that his association had repeatedly warned the government about rapid growth in cases, but that their advice had fallen on deaf ears.

“If the number [of cases] keeps increasing, then nobody will be safe including the rulers,” he said.

The only treatment for the pandemic is social distancing, he said, urging the government to ensure strict lockdown at least for two weeks to flatten the curve.

Healthcare practitioners are frontline workers against the disease and are faced with multiple challenges to treat patients, including a shortage of personal protection equipment [PPE], ventilators and beds. At least 253 medical practitioners have been infected with the coronavirus in Pakistan so far including 124 doctors, 39 nurses and 90 health workers according to the Ministry of National Health Services.

“We are losing precious lives to coronavirus while the government is not consulting PMA to formulate an effective strategy to safeguard health practitioners,” Sajjad said while referring to the deaths of three doctors and a nurse due to COVID-19.

Pakistan has 1,279 public sector hospitals; 5,527 basic health units; 686 rural health centers and 5,671 dispensaries. These facilities, together with 220,829 registered doctors, 22,595 registered dentists and 108,474 registered nurses mean there is one healthcare practitioner for 963 people and one hospital bed for 1,608 people in the country of 210 million, according to Pakistan Economic Survey 2018-19.

Echoing doctors’ concerns, the Pakistan Bar Council – the highest elected body of lawyers in the country – has also urged the government to impose a stricter lockdown for two weeks to contain the spread of the virus.

“As the situation emerges, Pakistan can see a peak by end of May if the social distancing isn’t ensured in markets and mosques,” Syed Amjad Shah, vice chairman Pakistan Bar Council, told Arab News on Sunday.

He said that the courts could continue with “urgent work only” for the next two to three weeks. “We should sacrifice at least two weeks under the stringent lockdown to save our lives and protect others too around us,” Shah added.

Pakistan reported its highest 24-hour surge in virus cases since the outbreak on Sunday, with the tally at 12,723 COVID-19 cases and 269 deaths. Experts however, believe the number of suspects could be much higher in the impoverished nation as testing rates are still low.

Prime Minister Imran Khan’s special assistant on Information and Broadcasting Firdous Ashiq Awan said on Sunday that the government was doing its work, but that the public was still not practicing social distancing and self-isolation.

“We are taking into account the reservations put forward by doctors regarding leniency in the lockdown,” she said, while talking to reporters on Sunday.

However, Awan said the government’s decision of a ‘smart lockdown’ would continue to help save people from the virus. 

“Only those areas will be locked down where clusters of the virus are suspected,” she said while ignoring calls for a stricter government-imposed lockdown.


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.