COVID-19 in Southeast Asia
Pakistan courting disaster with its coronavirus strategy

Pakistan has recorded more than 4,000 coronavirus cases in a single-day – taking the total number of reported infections to over 82,000. Reports suggest actual cases in the country could be in their millions. Haroon Janjua reports from Islamabad

Pakistani media recently reported that a provincial health department's finding revealed that the number of COVID-19 cases only in the city of Lahore could be around 700,000.

"No workplace and residential area… is disease-free" in the provincial capital, according to the report, which was presented to Punjab province's Chief Minister Usman Buzdar almost two weeks ago.

According to Dawn newspaper, the health department advised the chief minister to immediately enforce a complete lockdown for "at least four weeks", adding that asymptomatic cases became the "main source of infection and local transmission" in the city.

"Any subsequent decision of lifting, relaxing or doing away with lockdown measures should be taken after reviewing the results of smart sampling conducted with regular intervals till the final tapering down of the virus", the report recommended.

Even the reported cases in Pakistan have seen a huge spike in the past few weeks.

 
 
Yet, Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan has rejected calls for a complete lockdown. Instead, his government has lifted all public restrictions in an apparent attempt to revive the economy.
 
"Unfortunately, the [previous] lockdown has already hit the poor people. We can no longer afford that," Khan told media in the capital Islamabad. "Therefore, except for a few sectors, all other sectors will stay open," Khan said, adding that the government wants to "save people from coronavirus and hunger simultaneously."

"Coronavirus is going nowhere, at least this year. That means we have to live with it following safety guidelines," Khan said.

 
"No strategy"
 
Health experts say the drastic surge in coronavirus cases has already overburdened the country's public healthcare system.
 
"This is an alarming situation. An increase in testing will likely see the reported numbers increase to millions. I fear the pandemic is also becoming more lethal in Pakistan," said Khizar Hayat, chairman of the Young Doctors Association (YDA). "There is increased local spread and public hospitals in Lahore are packed with COVID-19 patients." 

Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan (photo: Reuters/P. Song)
"We have to live with the virus": Pakistan's Prime Minister has decided his country will have to best out the world's worst pandemic since the Spanish flu of 1918. His government has been slammed for a lack of policy on how to tackle coronavirus, lifting all lockdown measures and announcing the resumption of tourism as the country is hit by a dramatic spike in cases

The government, however, continues to downplay the pandemic threat, with Yasmeen Rashid, Punjab province's health minister, saying "the recent survey is an estimate from a small sample size and is not accurate." With reference to the provincial health department's report, she added that "people should not panic."

Prime Minister Khan has repeatedly spoken against imposing a nationwide lockdown to contain the spread of coronavirus. In his latest press conference, he even announced the resumption of tourism activities in the country.

Khan has been slammed for an apparent "lack of policy" to tackle the COVID-19 pandemic. Critics say his government has been sending mixed signals about the lockdown, which has resulted in people not taking it seriously.

The prime minister has also been lenient with Islamic groups, even though the primary coronavirus infections were detected among pilgrims returning from Iran and among Sunni hardliners who refused to follow physical distancing rules in their assemblies.

Talking exclusively to the Deutsche Welle, former Pakistani PM and opposition leader Shahid Khaqan Abbasi said that Khan has "no strategy to contain COVID-19."

"Imran Khan announced that the government would open the tourism sector, but the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, where his own party is in power, has imposed an emergency," Abbasi said. "Infection rates are increasing, but our testing capacity is not."

Hayat agrees with the assessment. "The government has no coronavirus policy. It has not consulted doctors and health officials to devise the lockdown mechanism. Its decisions are solely based on economic interests."

 
Imminent catastrophe?
 
Meanwhile doctors fear the easing of physical distancing restrictions could put them in harm's way. "We are facing an acute shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE), ventilators and other medical facilities. The government is not helping us, not providing protective gear to the medical staff working in emergency wards," Tipu Sultan, former president of the Pakistan Medical Association (PMA), revealed.
 
"On top of that, the government is easing restrictions and imams are holding mass prayers in mosques. It could all lead to a surge in coronavirus cases in the country. I fear that our entire public healthcare system will be overwhelmed," Sultan added.
 
An increasing number of Pakistanis feel the country is heading toward an unmanageable health crisis due to bad governance. "The onus is on the incumbent government and Prime Minister Khan. Yet they don't know how to deal with this situation," concluded Abbasi.
 
Haroon Janjua
 
© Deutsche Welle 2020
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