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Covid-19: Pakistan grapples with virus scourge ahead of Eid-Al-Fitr celebrations

Manaal Khurram in Karachi
Filed on May 6, 2021
Reuters

A second wave of the contagion, heightened by a mutating UK strain, vaccination, and infrastructure woes, roils the South Asian nation.


Pakistan’s first case of Covid-19, which traced its origin to Wuhan in central China’s Hubei province, came to light on February 26, 2020.

However, it was not until a month later that the Pakistani authorities realised the intensity of the viral outbreak situation and the rampant spread of the deadly contagion.

The Imran Khan-led government swung into action and enforced lockdown restrictions within weeks.

It was referred to as the first wave of Covid-19, and the South Asian country was hit hard following a peak in SARS-COV-2, the viral infection that causes Covid-19, last June.

June proved to be the cruelest month in 2020 on both counts -- viral caseloads and contagion-related fatalities.

Cut to last September and happy days were back again, as the positivity ratio reported a sharp decline.

Khan’s government was lauded by the World Health Organisation (WHO) chief, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, for effectively curbing Covid-19 cases and simultaneously keeping the debt-ridden economy afloat. “Pakistan's response reinforces the lesson that the choice is not between controlling the virus or saving the economy; the two go hand-in-hand,” the embattled WHO chief had said at the time.

The Pakistani premier also came in for high praise from several world leaders.

However, the euphoria proved to be short-lived. Pakistan’s brush with Covid-19 took a turn for the worse since last November.

The grim situation raised the following question on everybody’s minds: When will the vaccine arrive?

Much like the rest of the world, Pakistanis, too, believed that the vaccines were a potent and befitting response to win over the Covid-19 challenge.

Alas! That was not to be, as the unfolding narrative suggests.

Administering the jab to the country’s senior citizens was the primary concern, as it would take months, if not years, for 100 per cent vaccination coverage in a developing nation like Pakistan.

Spoken too soon

The second wave of Covid-19 hit home early this year, as there has been a consistent uptick in cases since February till May 3.

Pakistan’s hospitals and broken health care system are overwhelmed amid an acute crunch in the supply of the lifeline gas -- liquid medical oxygen -- and fatigued frontline health workers who have been battling the contagion since last year.

Unfortunately, ground realities suggest Pakistan is back to square one on the back of an explosion of daily Covid-19 cases, the shocking discovery of a mutating British viral strain that has further deepened an unprecedented health care crisis in the history of the nation.

Earlier this week, Pakistan’s Minister for Planning and Development Asad Umar warned that the nation could soon surpass its highest tally reported in the first wave, due to the continued flouting of standard operating procedures (SOPs) by the public coupled with a tardy pace of the vaccination drive.

Provinces affected

After the under-developed Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) province was hit by the second coming of the Covid-19 wave, Pakistan’s Health Minister Taimur Saleem Jhagra noted that the spread of the contagion was on the wane.

However, he requested the public to comply with the SOPs in a bid to keep the viral outbreak at bay.

Jhagra said the contagion rate in KP was recorded at 7.1 per cent on Tuesday (May 4), and the total number of active Covid-19 cases stood at 11,706.

Punjab, which accounts for 60 per cent of the country’s population, is the worst-hit province followed by Sindh and KP. And Karachi -- the country’s and one of Asia's most populous cities -- in Sindh has emerged as an epicentre of the fresh and lethal uptick in the viral outbreak.

Pakistani Army steps in

Last week, following the instructions of a broader lockdown proposed by PM Khan, Pakistan deployed troops in 16 major cities to help civilian authorities in enforcing measures to tide over the Covid-19 challenge. Khan appealed to the masses to follow protocols, warning that "or else we will be facing the same situation India currently is in”.

Finally, SOPs are being followed

While ample Pakistanis were breaching Covid-19 regulations for the past many months, the grim situation in neighbouring India has hit home and is a wake-up call. The intervention of armed forces played a pivotal part, too. Umar expressed great happiness over SOPs being complied with by the public again.

Earlier this week, he tweeted, “Significant improvement seen in SOP compliance since the stronger enforcement measures, including military deployment took place. National average compliance has doubled from 34 per cent on April 25 to 68 per cent on May 3. Need to sustain and build on this compliance especially till Eid-al-Fitr.”

A ray of hope

Monday brought some light at the end of the tunnel. Finally, a downward trend was recorded on that day, as both the positivity ratio and the number of cases declined after days on end. But experts believe it may just be too early to rejoice. They argued that Pakistan was in a similar position during the last 10 days of Ramadan 2020, and Covid-19 cases went haywire just when Eid-Al-Fitr celebrations started.

Eid-Al-Fitr – no room for hugs

A similar discernible trend is here to stay during the upcoming Eid-Al-Fitr celebrations as well.

Hopes are high that this year’s Eid-Al-Fitr will be devoid of any social gatherings. Fortunately, the federal government has banned intercity public transports, closed parks, shut down outdoor and indoor dining, and shortened the duration of shopping malls’ operational hours.

Officials and ministers have also urged the public to wear face masks at all times and practice social distancing throughout the festive week.

Indoor gymnasiums have also been urged to close doors under the new restrictions. Markets, except for essential services, will be closed by 6pm onwards to avoid the rush caused by Eid-Al-Fitr shopping. Office timings have been restricted till 2pm and the 50 per cent work-from-home (WFH) policy still applies to all public and private sector institutions.

Vaccination woes

According to figures from the National Command Operation Center (NCOC), less than one per cent of the country’s population has been vaccinated. The rate is alarmingly low, at an estimated 40,000 people per day since the inoculation drive was rolled out in early March.

A million doses of China’s Sinopharm have arrived in the country. While 600,000 single-shot CanSino vaccines also reached in April. Another two million (m) doses of Sinopharm and CoronaVac were scheduled to arrive last Saturday (May 1) and are expected soon, half a million of which are a gift from China, Pakistan’s all-weather ally.

According to , an online international news magazine, Pakistan is slated to receive up to 15m doses of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine by July. The Russian-manufactured Sputnik V vaccine was being administered in a handful of private hospitals till April, but its stock has purportedly been exhausted. More doses are expected to come in after Eid-Al-Fitr.

According to , the country’s oldest and largest English daily, Dr. Faisal Sultan, Special Assistant to the Prime Minister (SAPM) on Health, has revealed the government aims to vaccinate 70m people by the end of this year.

Vaccinations of people above 40 years of age started on Monday. Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) Senator and former Pakistan’s Ambassador to the US, Sherry Rehman, shared her disappointment over the agonisingly tardy pace of vaccination. “Pakistan is vaccinating the least number of people in South Asia. Why? As the virus surges dangerously, no coherent mass roll-out of the vaccine is visible. Protecting people’s lives is the first responsibility, not physically sitting in media narrative meetings while covid positive,” she tweeted.

Hospital woes

Umar disclosed he has started receiving urgent messages that hospitals are nearing their full capacity and there may soon be a dearth of oxygen cylinders and beds. “I’m not sharing it to create fear, but I want to make sure that the nation will act together. We need to know that the situation can affect the livelihood of people. I decided to hold a presser as people are not aware of the situation. The British variant of the virus has been rapidly spreading in the whole subcontinent – Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh,” he said last week.

Education

Life has not been easy for school-going children either amid the raging pandemic. Many students appearing for their Cambridge Assessment International Education (CAIE) examinations and board papers this year felt they were not well-prepared for the assessments due to schools remaining shut for the most part of the academic session. At the same time, others feared crowded examination halls in the midst of a worldwide health crisis.

As pupils demanded school-assessed grades to determine their final grading, a slew of Pakistani celebrities came out to support them. Hundreds of pupils protested for the cancellation of the examinations outside the Karachi Press Club and other cities across the country. Soon after, it was announced that both O-Level and A-Level examinations have been postponed until October/November. However, schools have decided against submitting predicted grades, inevitably making it essential for pupils to sit for the delayed examination when the time comes. The move will only result in a cramped upcoming academic year for pupils, posing a further threat to their lag in studies due to the raging contagion.

Travel ban

Some scheduled flights from the UAE to Pakistan have been cancelled, leaving affected passengers in a state of flux. Many are having to shelve their Eid-Al-Fitr travel plans after receiving emails from airlines about the cancellations.

Earlier, Pakistani authorities had announced a reduction in inbound flights to contain the growing number of new coronavirus cases in the country.

The UAE's largest carriers Emirates Airlines and Etihad Airways have cancelled flights in line with the directives of the Pakistani government.

An Etihad Airways spokesperson said that from Wednesday (May 5), a limit has been placed on the number of international passengers allowed to travel into and from Pakistan.

Etihad Airways is “temporarily reducing its passenger flights between Abu Dhabi and Pakistan, from May 5 to 20,” said the statement.

“Etihad is working to increase the aircraft capacity for those flights it is permitted to operate, and also contacting impacted guests to notify them of the changes to their itineraries and rearrange travel plans,” said the Abu Dhabi-based national carrier.

The UAE airlines said passengers can rebook their flights to a later date or claim refunds.

Pakistan’s NCOC last week announced a reduction in inbound international flights by 80 per cent from May 5 to 20.

As a result, the number of inbound international flights to Pakistan has been reduced from 590 to 123 per week.





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