In Pakistan’s Lahore, doctors worry as toxic air meets COVID-19

A vendor selling facemasks waits for customers on a bridge amid heavy smoggy conditions in Lahore on November 10, 2020. (AFP)
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Updated 12 November 2020

In Pakistan’s Lahore, doctors worry as toxic air meets COVID-19

  • Lahore ranked first on Swiss firm IQAir’s list of the world’s most polluted cities on Thursday
  • Recent studies have offered links between long-term exposure to pollution and coronavirus death rates

LAHORE: Rising levels of air pollution in Pakistan’s second largest city could cause “serious” medical complications for people suffering from COVID-19, doctors say, as Lahore ranked first on Swiss firm IQAir’s list of the world’s most polluted cities on Thursday. 
Pakistan has so far reported over 349,000 infections and more than 7,000 deaths. On November 11, Pakistan recorded 34 deaths, its highest single-day coronavirus death toll in four months, according to government data. 
Recent international studies have offered links between long-term exposure to pollution and COVID-19 death rates, saying coronavirus patients in areas with high levels of air pollution are more likely to die from the infection than patients in cleaner cities.
On Thursday, Swiss firm IQAir showed Lahore, the capital of Punjab province, had an air quality index of 306, which is considered hazardous. 
“Smog affects our health adversely in so many different ways, causing allergies, exacerbation of bronchitis, asthma and other chronic airway diseases; it also lowers our overall immunity and resistance to infections and impacts our respiratory system,” Dr. Mehmood Shaukat, head of the Punjab government’s COVID-19 program, told Arab News. “The coronavirus also enters our body through the mucous membrane lining our respiratory tract, thus making things worse.” 
Indeed, one of the most common symptoms of severe coronavirus cases is breathing difficulty. And doctors say that if the ambient air suddenly becomes more toxic, as it does every year around this time in Pakistan’s Punjab province, then more people infected by the virus might end up on ventilators or die.
“Since coronavirus patients usually face breathing difficulties, smog and an unhealthy environment can endanger the lives of those suffering from COVID-19,” said Dr. Asad Aslam, head of the Punjab Corona Experts Advisory Group, adding that the number of coronavirus patients was increasing in Lahore and pollution could “aggravate the situation.”
Aslam said the biggest challenge at the moment was convincing people to comply with health care guidelines.
Air pollution in Lahore and other parts of Punjab province is caused by a combination of vehicle and industrial emissions, smoke from brick kilns, the burning of crop residue and general waste, and dust from construction sites. Other factors of air pollution include large scale losses of trees to the construction of new roads and buildings.
“Pakistan was ranked the second most polluted country in the world by the 2019 AirVisual report; it’s unfortunate that we have continued to witness crop burning, poorly maintained vehicles on roads and operational brick kilns even after the Provincial Disaster Management Authority’s order on smog,” WWF Pakistan’s Nazifa Butt said. 
“The rising air quality index can cause significant health care issues and result in respiratory illnesses,” she added. “Smog 2020 may turn out to be quite tough for COVID-19 patients.”
On its part, the provincial administration of Punjab says it is acting against environmental regulation violations.
“The Provincial Disaster Management Authority is closely monitoring the smog situation and issuing daily reports,” the organization’s director operations, Nisar Ahmad Sani, told Arab News. “Strict action is being taken against the violators of environment laws. Factories and outlets have been sealed and police reports lodged.”
“The Punjab government has also noted with concern that smog compounds the miseries of COVID-19 patients and delays their recovery,” Sani said. “Special arrangements have therefore been made to control the menace.” 
He declined to comment on what the new arrangements are. 


In Karachi, 104-year-old migrant from India recalls potent memories of a violent partition

Updated 11 August 2022

In Karachi, 104-year-old migrant from India recalls potent memories of a violent partition

  • Muhammad Akram Khan’s family swapped an affluent life for an uncertain future in Pakistan in 1947
  • Khan got his passport made a few years ago but the dream to travel back to India could not come true

KARACHI: With six metal suitcases, three filled with gold and three with clothes, the family of Muhammad Akram Khan fled Jabalpur in the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh for newly created Pakistan in 1947, leaving without saying goodbye even to best friends and forsaking a sprawling home and a vast business for an uncertain future in Karachi.

In this undated photo, Muhammad Akram Khan, 104-year-old migrant, photographed with the children in his family in his hometown, Jabalpur in India. (AN photo)

Khan’s family was among the millions whose lives were thrown into turmoil by the partition of colonial India into two states, mainly Hindu India and mostly Muslim Pakistan, when British rule ended in 1947.

One of the biggest mass migrations in history was marred by violence and bloodshed as about 15 million Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs swapped countries in a political upheaval that cost more than a million lives.

Muhammad Akram Khan, a 104-year-old transporter who migrated from Jabalpur in India after the independence of Pakistan 75 years ago, shares with Arab News his story of partition at Frere Hall, Karachi on August 2, 2022. (AN photo)

Before partition, Khan, now 104 years old, recalled that his family lived in harmony with Hindu neighbours and the young man’s best friend was a neighbour called Shankar Lal. But in the months running up to the partition of India on August 14, Khan said he began to feel unsafe and started convincing his reluctant father to leave for Pakistan.

“I’m alive today but tomorrow they’ll kill me,” he said, quoting his words to his father. “All young men will be killed if we don’t leave.”

When the family eventually left, they took the route of Khokhrapar, a border town situated in Tharparkar District in Sindh, considering it safer compared to Punjab province where much of the violence was taking place. With death looming over him, Khan walked for miles and miles with his family, often carrying his disabled mother on his shoulders, until they made it safely to the other side. 

The Sikh personnel who checked the family’s luggage at the border were kind, he said, and the Sikh and Hindus they met along the way, who were en route India, also didn’t show hate.

But the ordeal didn’t end there.

Muhammad Akram Khan, a 104-year-old migrant, chats with his sons and grandchildren in Karachi, Pakistan, on August 2, 2022. (AN photo)

In Pakistan “there was no shade,” Khan said, and his family had to wait a whole day to catch a train to Karachi. At first, the family lived in a small house owned by a relative, before moving to a shanty for several years. Finally, at a cost of Rs2,400, the government allotted them two small quarters in Karachi's Korangi area.

Muhammad Akram Khan, a 104-year-old transporter who migrated from Jabalpur in India after the independence of Pakistan 75 years ago, shares with Arab News his story of partition at Frere Hall, Karachi on August 2, 2022. (AN photo)

It took Khan a few months to grasp the new reality of his life, but he ultimately resumed the scrap business after selling the 12 kilograms of gold the family had brought with them from Madhya Pradesh and eventually bought cycle-rickshaws to launch a transportation business.

“I earned and built bungalows,” Khan said, smiling. “I have constructed 25 to 30 houses, all through my hard work.”

The centenarian said he had lived a full life, tying the knot four times.

“Now at my home there are 200 people,” he said smiling. His eldest daughter is in her 90s and youngest is 14 years old.  

Though he does not regret his decision to migrate to Pakistan, Khan said he was distressed by the country’s ever worsening economic situation.

“We dreamt of a great Pakistan,” he said. “We wanted young people to be honest, hardworking and respectful toward their parents and country.”

Khan got his passport a few decades ago and had a strong urge to return to Jabalpur to meet old friends. The dream of traveling back to India, however, has not come true.

“I don’t think I will be able to go now since my eyes don’t open,” he said, wistfully. “In any case, who am I going to meet there after so much time has passed?”


Norwegian woman climber on track to break 'super peaks' record

Updated 11 August 2022

Norwegian woman climber on track to break 'super peaks' record

  • Kristin Harila successfully summit Pakistan's Gasherbrum I on Thursday  
  • Pakistan has enjoyed a record-breaking climbing season this year

ISLAMABAD: Norwegian climber Kristin Harila has just three mountains left in her bid to climb the world's 14 "super peaks" in record time after successfully summiting Pakistan's Gasherbrum I, officials said Thursday.
Nepali Nirmal Purja holds the record for climbing the world's 8,000 meter-plus (26,000 feet) mountains -- six months and six days -- but Harila now has until early November to complete her quest and beat his time.
Harila's latest successful summit was reported on her official social media pages and confirmed by Karrar Hadri, secretary of Pakistan's Alpine Club.
"The second phase in Pakistan was very challenging and dangerous: ever-changing weather conditions, being hit by a rock, illness and a very tight schedule," read a message on Harila's Instagram page.
"But here we are with only three peaks left."
Five of the 14 super peaks are in Pakistan -- including K2, the world's second highest mountain -- and the country has enjoyed a record-breaking climbing season this year.
Sajid Hussain, head of the tourism department in Gilgit Baltistan, told AFP they had issued about 1,780 permits for the top peaks.
"It has boosted our tourism and has increased our foreign exchange," he said.
Only around 40 people in history have summited all 14 of the super peaks, but none have come close to Purja's 2019 expedition.
He demolished the previous record for accomplishing the feat with supplemental oxygen, set by Poland's Jerzy Kukuczka in the 1980s at seven years, 11 months and 14 days.
In an interview with AFP earlier this year, 36-year-old Harila said she was inspired to show women were as capable as men of achieving great mountaineering feats.
"In history and until now, it has been the strong macho men going out climbing mountains," she said.
"When I talk to people that are not in this sport, they believe that men are more capable than women... If we are going to change, we need to get attention and show that women are just as capable."
The three remaining mountains for Harila are Cho Oyu (sixth highest, in Nepal/China), Manaslu (eighth, Nepal) and Shishapangma (14th, China). 


Government in Pakistan’s northwest takes note of Taliban resurgence, pledges to ensure writ of state

Updated 11 August 2022

Government in Pakistan’s northwest takes note of Taliban resurgence, pledges to ensure writ of state

  • Swat Valley was a former Pakistan Taliban bastion seized by Pakistan’s army in a major offensive in 2009
  • This week saw widespread reports of the return of the Pakistani Taliban to Swat and parts of Waziristan

PESHAWAR: A spokesperson for the government of Pakistan’s northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) province said on Thursday the local administration had taken notice of a protest against reports of the return of a banned militant outfit to the area, ensuring the public that the government would ensure it write.

Swat Valley was a former Pakistan Taliban bastion seized by Pakistan’s army in a major offensive in 2009. During a reign of terror under the Taliban before the military operation, militants decapitated people and tied the heads to the victim’s feet. Bodies were left hanging by telephone poles and for days no one was allowed to take them down for burial.

This week, there have been widespread reports of the return of the Pakistani Taliban, also known as the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, or TTP, to Swat and parts of Waziristan.

“The provincial government has already taken notice following a security incident in Swat and a sit-in by tribesmen in the country’s restive North Waziristan tribal district,” KP government spokesman Barrister Muhammad Ali Saif told Arab News on Thursday.

“The province’s top police officer, district administration and security officials are in Swat to address reservations of people regarding the presence of some armed men in remote mountains. We’ll ensure writ of the government at every cost because our security officials have already rendered matchless sacrifices for peace there.”

The reports of the resurgence of the Taliban come as the government of Pakistan and the TTP are holding peace talks to end violence in the country, with the latest round of negotiations held last month in Kabul and mediated by the Afghan Taliban who rule Afghanistan.

The TTP, which has carried out some of the bloodiest attacks in Pakistan since 2007, is not directly affiliated with the Afghan Taliban.

Swat police spokesperson Moin Fayyaz said a search operation by Swat police was being conducted in remote areas, including Kabal and Khwazkhela, to purge the region of” miscreants” who two days ago opened fire at a police party, leaving a senior police officer wounded.

For the past several days, an unverified video has been making the rounds on social media, showing security officials, including a senior police officer, in the captivity of militants. The hostages were later released on the mediation of tribal elders in the area, according to media reports.

Zahid Khan, an elder and social worker from Swat, told Arab News the presence of militants had been observed in the Kanala and Balasoor mountainous regions of Swat, who were threatening well-off people, traders and contractors to pay extortion money.

“We’ve summoned a grand jirga on August 17 of all tribes in Mingora, the main town in Swat, in which we will develop consensus on how to deal with emerging threats posed by militancy,” Khan added.

In 2009, thousands of families in Swat were forced to flee to safer areas after authorities asked people to leave their homes following a military operation against militants there.

“We can’t afford to leave our homes again and live a refugee life in other districts. We’ll offer stout resistance against any eventuality,” Khan added.

Jamal Dawar, a tribal elder from the North Waziristan tribal district, said that a sit-in staged by thousands of tribesmen has entered its 26th day, closing all main arteries of the district including a route leading to the Pak-Afghan Ghulam Khan border.

He said the protesters were demanding security following a sharp rise in targeted killings in the restive district.

“We’re just told that a high level delegation of all political parties including government and security officials will meet the protesters in Edak, a village where the sit-in is underway, to address our prime demand of security and getting rid of targeted killings,” Dawar added.

According to a notification, a copy of which was seen by Arab News, the federal government has constituted a committee comprising senior political leaders to meet tribesmen in North Waziristan district and address their concerns.

“The formation of a committee by the federal government to meet protesters in North Waziristan is nothing but a political gimmick and political point-scoring,” the KP spokesperson said. “The provincial government is already in contact with the elders of the district to address their legitimate issues.”


PM Sharif hopes GSP+ trade status will continue for Pakistan beyond 2023

Updated 11 August 2022

PM Sharif hopes GSP+ trade status will continue for Pakistan beyond 2023

  • European Union is Pakistan’s second biggest trade partner
  • Pakistan’s GSP+ status is set to expire on December 31, 2023

ISLAMABAD: Pakistani Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif said on Thursday he hoped the European Union's (EU) preferential trade arrangement with Pakistan known as the GSP+ would continue beyond 2023.

Sharif was meeting with Dr. Riina Kionka, the newly appointed Ambassador of the European Union to Pakistan.

The Generalized Scheme of Preferences Plus (GSP+) was first institutionalized in 1971 and has since been a trade and development policy instrument which allows the EU to remove duties from products exported by vulnerable developing countries.

Under the GSP+ status, designated countries get special access to the European market after making commitments to implement several international conventions on human rights, environmental protection and governance.

Pakistan’s GSP+ status is set to expire on December 31, 2023.

In a meeting with ambassador Kionka PM Sharif underlined that Pakistan attached "high importance" to its relations with the EU, as well as its historically close and cooperative bilateral ties with EU member states.

“He [PM Sharif] credited the current GSP Plus scheme with enhancing the mutually beneficial trading ties between Pakistan and EU and hoped that Pakistan would continue to be part of the arrangement beyond 2023,” a statement from the PM Office said.

The EU is Pakistan’s second biggest trade partner, accounting for 14.3 percent of the country’s total trade in 2020 and absorbing 28 percent of its total exports.

“Prime Minister expressed the confidence that the upcoming visits to Pakistan by the EU Parliamentary delegations as well as the next rounds of political and security Dialogues under EU-Pakistan Strategic Engagement Plan would pave the way for more substantive cooperation between the two sides,” the statement added.

“Dr. Riina Kionka thanked the Prime Minister for receiving her and expressed her resolve to work for further deepening of EU-Pakistan relations during her tenure in Islamabad,” the statement said. 

Last year in April, the European Parliament moved a resolution against Pakistan, seeking an immediate review of its eligibility for GSP+ status over what it called violence and discrimination against religious minorities and other vulnerable groups, as well as a crackdown on media.


Spain evacuates 294 more Afghan workers and families through Pakistan 

Updated 11 August 2022

Spain evacuates 294 more Afghan workers and families through Pakistan 

  • Group included who had worked for or helped Spanish government officials and Spanish troops 
  • Government will continue to bring former Afghan workers and their families, says Spanish foreign minister

MADRID: A plane provided by the Spanish government has brought 294 Afghan refugees via Pakistan to Spain, authorities said Thursday, bringing to 3,900 the number of people evacuated by Madrid since the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan last year.

A government statement said the latest group of Afghan workers and their families flew into an air base near Madrid late Wednesday and were met by government officials, including Spanish Foreign Affairs Minister José Albares.

“This flight is further evidence that we are keeping our commitment to not leave anyone behind,” Albares said in the statement.

The group included people who had worked for or helped Spanish government officials and Spanish troops stationed in Afghanistan before the Taliban takeover.

The statement said Spain has carried out five evacuation operations over the past year.

Albares told Spanish National Television on Thursday that the government will continue to bring former Afghan workers and their families to Spain, but for security reasons he couldn't say how many.

Spain launched the flights to bring workers who hadn’t been able to leave Afghanistan during the airlift operation in August 2021, when it pulled out about 2,200 Spaniards and Afghans via Kabul’s airport.