New virus, new fears: Pakistan’s polio teams mobilized to fight COVID-19

A Pakistani health worker administers polio vaccine drops to an Afghan refugee child during a polio vaccination campaign in Lahore on June 19, 2019. (AFP)
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Updated 01 June 2020

New virus, new fears: Pakistan’s polio teams mobilized to fight COVID-19

  • In absence of protective equipment, healthcare workers in northwestern province fear for safety
  • This year, 49 cases of poliovirus detected in Pakistan but large scale immunization facilities have been diverted

PESHAWAR/ LAHORE: Kaleemullah Khan, a healthcare worker in Pakistan’s northwestern city of Peshawar, has spent the last week in fear. Every morning, he checks his temperature for fever and then monitors himself for signs of the flu.

The 37-year-old’s paranoia is not unfounded. A day before Eid holidays, Khan had to check up on a man in his area who had tested positive for the deadly coronavirus. 
“He had all the symptoms of the virus,” the health care worker told Arab News. “Symptoms can take up to 14 days to appear in an infected person. So I am very scared. Seven more days till I am safe.”




Kaleemullah Khan, a healthcare worker in  Pakistan’s northern city of Peshawar, marks shops and mosques in his area to ensure people follow social distancing rules on May 30, 2020. (Photo courtesy: Kaleemullah Khan)

For Khan, being on the front lines of fighting a major healthcare emergency is nothing new. For eight years, he has been working for the government in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province to eradicate the wild poliovirus.

But this new disease it different. It is more intimidating.

“For polio, we would go to people’s homes to talk to them, give drops, organize seminars in small rooms,” Khan said. “We did all this without fear because we knew we would not get the virus.”
“Now you just don’t know.”




Kaleemullah Khan, a healthcare worker in  Pakistan’s northern city of Peshawar, marks shops and mosques in his area to ensure people follow social distancing rules on May 30, 2020. (Photo courtesy: Kaleemullah Khan)

Khan lives with his wife, two small daughters and his old parents. He says he is always worried about bringing the virus home.

Till March 22, the father of two was preforming his routine duties of administering anti-polio drops to young children. Then suddenly the polio program was put on hold and Khan and other health care workers were reassigned to fight a new virus– COVID-19.

Since polio is still endemic in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the only two countries in the world where the disease has not been eliminated, the national polio program had footprints in even smaller administrative units of the country. That is why state officials turned to the polio staff to help track down coronavirus carriers.

Khan’s job now entails tracing people who have arrived in the province from other countries, checking them for symptoms, spreading awareness about safety protocols and reporting on those who violate the government’s lockdown rules. 




Kaleemullah Khan, a healthcare worker in  Pakistan’s northern city of Peshawar, marks shops and mosques in his area to ensure people follow social distancing rules on May 30, 2020. (Photo courtesy: Kaleemullah Khan)

He completes his daily 12-hour shift with only a face mask, gloves and a hand sanitizer to protect him.

“People in our culture, they always want to hug or shake hands to greet you,” he says, “It difficult to maintain a distance here.”

In March, the government prepared national guidelines on COVID-19 and PPEs (personal protection equipment) for the rational utilization of hazmat suits.

Those conducting “in-person interviews” of suspected or confirmed patients and their contacts, the document outlines, will be given an N95 mask, a gown, gloves and eye protection.

But KP’s polio staff members are making do with much less.
Muzdalifa Ilyas, a polio staff member in Peshawar, only covers herself with an abaya, wears a pair of gloves and a face mask while moving through neighborhoods. “That is what our getup looks like,” she told Arab News.
 “We don’t have PPE gowns. But we do have sanitizers which we use regularly.”




Muzdalifa Ilyas, a polio staff member in Peshawar, now works to fight coronavirus in the region on May 30, 2020. (Photo courtesy: Muzdalifa Ilyas)

For Ilyas and her colleagues, the bulk of their work includes reporting violators to the district administration in the province- shopkeepers, business owners and mosque staff who are not following the government’s standard operating procedures (SOPS) which were put in place in May when the Prime Minister allowed more business and industrial sectors to open. 

Rizwana Dar Khan Wazir, the assistant commissioner in Peshawar, has so far fined 400-500 violators and collected Rs 800,000 in fines. 
“We fine 30-40 people daily,” she told Arab News over the phone. 

Although healthcare workers like Ilyas and Khan are now deployed full time to combat the coronavirus, they are still required to track and report cases of polio virus in the country. “We are doing both things simultaneously,” Khan said. “If there is a new case of paralysis in a child we have to report it.”

This year, 49 cases of wild poliovirus type 1 have been recorded in Pakistan, according to Dr. Rana Muhammad Safdar, the National Coordinator for Polio Eradication in Pakistan.

Safdar told Arab News that since the “country’s fragile health system was seriously challenged” with the outbreak of the coronavirus, the polio program had to be put on hold and all its facilities diverted.

Now, the field staff, he explained, helps in tracing potential high risk international travelers and their contacts, while the religious clerics they had on board for their polio program are promoting social distancing in mosques.

Separately, Safdar and his team are also compiling data of the coronavirus for the ministry of health and using social media to bust myths about the disease.

In a recent meeting of the national polio management team, he revealed, it was decided to resume supplementary immunization campaigns for polio in July till routine and mass campaigns can be restarted. The supplementary campaign will administer the oral polio vaccine in areas where cases have been detected recently, while also following government-mandated safety protocols for the coronavirus.

By the end of the year, three nationwide polio campaigns will be launched back-to-back to make up for missed time. 

“Personally, I feel sad that our efforts of pushing polio virus back had to be halted just as we were gaining momentum,” Dr. Safdar said. “But I am glad that our program was able to build a robust surveillance system for COVID-19 which is helping in the quick detection, isolation and contact tracing of patients in every corner of Pakistan.”


Pakistani rupee hits new all-time low against greenback

Updated 29 November 2021

Pakistani rupee hits new all-time low against greenback

  • US dollar closed at Rs176.20 on Monday despite clearance of Saudi deposits
  • Pakistani currency has lost 15.7 percent of its value since May this year

KARACHI: Pakistan’s national currency continued to lose its value against the US dollar and hit a new all-time low as the greenback closed at Rs176.20 on Monday. 
The rupee has lost its value by 15.7 percent, or more than Rs24, since May this year, when the dollar was trading at around Rs152. 
While analysts believe the rupee is weakening against the greenback due to a high demand for imports and an expectation of higher import bills for November 2021, currency dealers say the reasons for rupee’s depreciation were not clear, despite a decline in oil prices and the clearance of a Saudi financial package.
Pakistan and Saudi Arabia on Monday formally signed an agreement under which the Saudi Fund for Development (SFD) will deposit $3 billion in the State Bank of Pakistan (SBP). 
In October, SFD announced a financial package of $4.2 billion to help the South Asian nation as it struggled with depleting foreign reserves. The package includes suppling $1.2 billion worth of oil to Pakistan on credit. 
“The demand of dollar for imports is exerting pressure on Pakistani rupee besides it is expected that November import bill will be higher as well,” said Samiullah Tariq, research director at the Pakistan Kuwait Investment Company (PKIC). 
Tariq said the flow of Saudi dollars into Pakistan would improve market sentiment despite an expected high demand for dollar for imports. 
“The Saudi deposits will improve the sentiment of the market,” he said. “The deposit will increase the import coverage of the country for three months.” 
But Zafar Paracha, general secretary of the Exchange Companies Association of Pakistan (ECAP), said analysts were unable to comprehend why the dollar was appreciating in the interbank market, despite the clearance of the Saudi deposit facility and around 10 percent decline in oil prices. 
On Monday, the rupee appreciated in the open market and the US dollar traded at Rs177.80 for selling and Rs177.30 for buying. The greenback traded at Rs179 for selling and Rs178 for buying the previous day.  
“There is more supply of dollar than the demand in the open market,” Paracha said, explaining the rupee’s appreciation. 
Pakistan’s equity market jubilated over the clearance of the Saudi deposit facility, with the benchmark KSE 100 index gaining 1215.89 points on Monday. 
“Stocks closed record higher after reports that federal cabinet approved terms of $4.2 billion Saudi package,” Ahsan Mehanti, chief executive of Arif Habib Corporation said. “Strong economic outlook ahead of release of IMF tranche and surging exports, remittances and global crude oil prices played a catalyst role in the bullish close.” 


Pakistan mob sets fire to police station over alleged Holy Quran desecration 

Updated 58 min 40 sec ago

Pakistan mob sets fire to police station over alleged Holy Quran desecration 

  • Crowd of up to 5,000 people surrounded police station in Charsadda town on Sunday night
  • On Monday morning, 2,000 people remained outside police station burning uniforms of officers

PESHAWAR: Thousands of people mobbed a Pakistani police station, setting fire to it and nearby checkposts after demanding that officers hand over a man accused of burning the Holy Quran, police said Monday.
The crowd of up to 5,000 people surrounded the police station in Charsadda town in northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province on Sunday night, also setting fire to more than 30 cars.
On Monday morning, around 2,000 people remained outside the police station burning uniforms of officers.
"The mob stormed the police station asking to hand over the man to them so they could burn him alive like he burnt the Holy Quran," district police chief, Asif Bahadur told AFP.
The identity and religion of the accused has not been disclosed by police, Bahadur said.
"The motive behind burning the copy of the Holy Quran is still unknown but we are investigating."
Blasphemy is a hugely sensitive issue in Muslim-majority Pakistan, where even unproven allegations can stir mobs and violence.
Rights groups say the legislation is often hijacked for personal vendettas, with minorities largely the target.
A Christian couple was lynched then burnt in a kiln in Punjab in 2014 after being falsely accused of desecrating the Holy Quran. A former Punjab governor Salman Taseer was gunned down by his bodyguard, Mumtaz Qadri, in Islamabad in 2011 over his call for reforms of the blasphemy law.
Asia Bibi, a Pakistani Christian woman and a labourer from central Punjab province, was convicted of blasphemy in 2010 and was on death row until her acquittal in 2018, which prompted days of violent demonstrations by hardliners. She and her family later fled the country for Canada.
The country has frequently been paralysed in recent years by anti-blasphemy protests waged by the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan party, often linked to the publishing of cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammed (peace be upon him) by a French satirical magazine. 


Islamabad, Saudi Arabia sign agreement on $3 billion deposit in Pakistani central bank

Updated 29 November 2021

Islamabad, Saudi Arabia sign agreement on $3 billion deposit in Pakistani central bank

  • State Bank of Pakistan says funds will help support country’s foreign currency reserves
  • In October, Saudi Fund for Development announced financial package of $4.2 billion for Pakistan

ISLAMABAD: Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, represented by the Saudi Fund for Development (SFD), on Monday formally signed an agreement under which SFD will deposit $3 billion in the State Bank of Pakistan (SBP). 
In October, SFD announced a financial package of $4.2 billion to help the South Asian nation as it struggled with depleting foreign reserves. The amount includes suppling $1.2 billion worth of oil to Pakistan on credit. 
A deposit agreement was signed in Karachi by SFD Chief Executive Officer Sultan Bin AbdulRahman Al-Marshad and SBP Governor Dr. Reza Baqir, the SBP said in a statement on Monday.


“The deposit amount under the agreement shall become part of SBP’s Foreign Exchange Reserves. It will help support Pakistan’s foreign currency reserves and contribute toward resolving the adverse effects of the COVID-19 pandemic,” the statement said. 
Pakistan and Saudi Arabia enjoy deep-rooted strategic ties. Around 2.5 million Pakistani expats are living in the kingdom, and are the biggest single source of foreign remittances to the South Asian nation. 
Saudi Arabia also supported Pakistan in 2019 with $3 billion deposits and a $1.2 billion deferred oil payments facility. 
“The deposit agreement reflects the strong and special relationship and will augment economic ties between the two brotherly countries,” the SBP said.


At Pakistan Pavilion at Expo Dubai, a night to promote tolerance, inclusivity

Updated 29 November 2021

At Pakistan Pavilion at Expo Dubai, a night to promote tolerance, inclusivity

  • Acclaimed motivational speaker Muniba Mazari shares Jubilee Stage with singer and actor Meesha Shafi
  • Speakers urge people to cherish individuals who are differently-abled, unique in their own way

DUBAI: The Pakistan Pavilion at Expo 2020 Dubai on Sunday organized an evening of music and inspiration where speakers and musicians highlighted and celebrated tolerance, inclusivity and equality.
Exhibitors from almost 200 countries, including Pakistan, are participating, with many countries and companies looking to the expo — the first major global event open to visitors since the coronavirus pandemic — to boost trade and investment.
The Pakistan pavilion was officially inaugurated by President Dr. Arif Alvi on October 9. The Expo itself commenced on October 1 and will last till March 31, 2022. 
On Sunday, acclaimed motivational speaker Muniba Mazari shared the Jubilee Stage, one of the main event platforms at the exhibition, with singer and actor Meesha Shafi at an evening themed ‘Pakistan — Connected through Diversity.’ 
Speaking to the audience, Mazari said the world celebrated sameness and labelled those who were ‘different,’ which needed to change. 
“What about the people who don’t look alike? Those who look different, unique and want to see the world as they want to see it, people who think out of the box, those people are labelled crippled, handicapped, disabled,” she said. “Tonight, let us change this narrative and replace these negative labels with positive words like courageous and resilient.” 

Muniba Mazari, an acclaimed motivational speaker, speaks on inclusivity and equality at an event organized by the Pakistan Pavilion at Expo 2020 Dubai in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, on November 28, 2021. (AN Photo courtesy Pakistan Pavilion)

Mazari, who is wheelchair bound since an accident crushed her backbone 13 years ago, said while recuperating in hospital for over two months, she made life-changing decisions to give back to society, started painting and adopted her son, Neil, who is now 10. 
“I decided to accept myself as I was and move on and move forward in life,” said Mazari, who delivers motivational talks around the country and beyond, and showcases her paintings globally. She was Pakistan’s first UN goodwill ambassador and named in Forbes 30 under 30, BBC’s Top 100 Women and many other global lists.
“Tonight, I am going to dedicate all these titles to all those people in the world who are unique and who are differently-abled,” she said. 
The event was also attended by young upcoming singer Maria Unera, who rocked the stage with her powerful voice while paying tribute to her mother whom she lost to cancer. 
Meesha Shafi delivered a surprise performance with Mazari and Unera as a closing to the event.
“Pakistan has a lot of reasons to be proud of at the Expo because the pavilion is very impressive,” Shafi said. “It was not just a show but there was an intention behind it and I was really glad to be part of it.” 

Singer and actor Meesha Shafi performs at an event organized by Pakistan Pavilion at Expo 2020 Dubai in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, on November 28, 2021. (AN Photo courtesy Pakistan Pavilion)

 


‘Impossible’ to stop Omicron variant from entering Pakistan – planning minister

Updated 29 November 2021

‘Impossible’ to stop Omicron variant from entering Pakistan – planning minister

  • Pakistan to increase testing in high risk areas, launch booster shot program for high-risk segments of population
  • Detection of Omicron has triggered global alarm as governments world over scrambled to impose new travel curbs

ISLAMABAD: Planning Minister Asad Umar, who also heads the national pandemic response body, the NCOC, said on Monday it was “impossible” for Pakistan to block the Omicron coronavirus variant from entering the country and the only protection against it was to increase vaccinations.
The detection of Omicron has triggered global alarm as governments around the world scrambled to impose new travel curbs and financial markets sold-off, fearing the variant could resist vaccinations and upend a nascent economic reopening after a two-year global pandemic.
In its statement, the WHO said it was working with technical experts to understand the potential impact of the variant on existing countermeasures against COVID-19, including vaccines.
Addressing a press conference alongside Special Assistant to the Prime Minister on Health, Dr Faisal Sultan, Umar stressed the need for citizens to get vaccinated, saying the government would take new measures to protect against the Omicron variant. These include increased testing in high risk areas, and the launch of a booster shot program for high-risk segments of the population such as the elderly and the immunocompromised.
On Saturday, Pakistan banned travel from six South African countries and Hong Kong following the emergence of the new coronavirus variant.
“We can take measures to delay the entry into Pakistan of this variant, we can reduce its numbers, but it will spread all around the world,” Umar said. “As we saw before, once a new variant comes, the world is so interconnected, there is so much travel, that it is impossible to stop it. So what is the solution, what is in our hands? The answer is vaccination.”
“This is a very dangerous variant but vaccination will still be effective against it,” the minister said. "So it is my appeal to Pakistanis, particularly those who've gotten one dose, to get the second dose.”
"This variant will come to Pakistan, and we have the next 2-3 weeks to reduce its threat,” Umar added.
The Omicron variant spread around the world last week, with new cases found in the Netherlands, Denmark and Australia even as more countries imposed travel restrictions to try to seal themselves off.
WHO has said it was not yet clear whether Omicron, first detected in Southern Africa, is more transmissible than other variants, or if it causes more severe disease.