In a first, Punjab Assembly holds session in hotel to prevent virus spread

Members of the provincial assembly of Punjab prepare for the first-ever session of the House outside the historical assembly building at a local hotel in Lahore on June 5, 2020. (Photo courtesy: social media)
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Updated 06 June 2020

In a first, Punjab Assembly holds session in hotel to prevent virus spread

  • The assembly speaker says social distancing was not possible in the small chamber of the building
  • The assembly building was constructed in 1937 for 140 members

LAHORE: For the first time in history, the provincial assembly of Pakistan’s most densely populated province of Punjab held a session out of its historic building on Friday, choosing a local hotel for the purpose to ensure social distancing among its members amid growing coronavirus infections.
The assembly building was constructed in 1937 and has a small chamber to accommodate all lawmakers. Its foundation stone was laid in 1935 and it was inaugurated in November 1937 by Sardar Jogendra Singh who served as the agriculture minister back in the day.
The building was originally constructed to cater to the needs of 140 members of the united province of Punjab. After the division of the region into two separate countries in August 1947, the structure was continued to be used for the sessions of the Punjab provincial assembly. Later, it also catered to the needs to the West Pakistan assembly.
After 2002, the number of Punjab Assembly members was raised to 371. The construction of a new assembly building with the capacity of 500 legislators was initiated in 2005 by the former chief minister of the province, Chaudhry Pervaiz Elahi, but the idea has not materialized until now, even though the construction project was scheduled to be implemented in two years.
“The COVID-19 pandemic has gripped the whole world and the situation requires social distancing to save people from the disease,” Elahi, who is now the assembly’s speaker, said in his opening remarks at the beginning of the session. “It was not possible to maintain that distance in the assembly building due to insufficient space. We were, therefore, forced to change the venue of the meeting to this place.”
The session began Friday afternoon and was attended by a large number of politicians on both sides of the political divide. Some members criticized Federal Minister for Science and Technology Chaudhry Fawad Hussain during the debate since he undermined the idea of a physical session while advocating a virtual meeting.
“Holding the assembly session is a constitutional requirement and we can only deplore the thoughts of those who insist on calling virtual meetings,” leader of the opposition in the Punjab Assembly Hamza Shahbaz said in his comments.
Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) legislators raised the issue of farmers during the session, accusing the government of “snatching wheat” from the growers against their will.
“The government is harassing the farmers, snatching their wheat on cheaper rates than they are likely to get in open market. Locust swarm has already ruined the produce. Now the government is adding to the miseries of farmers,” PPP leader Hasan Murtaza said.
Before the session began, leaders of various political factions in the House held a meeting at the speaker’s chamber and reviewed the COVID-19 situation.
Special precautionary measures were also taken to prevent the spread of the virus as a disinfection gate was installed at the entry point and assembly members were requested to wear masks and gloves.


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

Updated 5 min 19 sec ago

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.