The World Health Organization has told Pakistan it should implement “intermittent” lockdowns to counter a surge in coronavirus infections that has come as the country loosens restrictions, officials said. Pakistan’s lockdown has been lifted due to the government believing that this is what is most equitable for all strata of society.
Since the start of Pakistan’s outbreak in March, Prime Minister Imran Khan opposed a nationwide lockdown of the sort seen elsewhere, arguing the impoverished country could not afford it.
Pakistan lockdown lifted: massive increase in coronavirus cases seen
Instead, Pakistan’s four provinces ordered a patchwork of closures, but last week Khan said most of these restrictions would be lifted.
Health officials on Wednesday declared a record number of new cases in the past 24 hours. The country has now confirmed a total of more than 113,000 cases and 2,200 deaths — though with testing still limited, real rates are thought to be much higher.
Pakistan lifted its lockdown on May 9, about two weeks before the Eid al-Fitr festival that marks the end of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan and is celebrated with family gatherings and feasting. Transport and most businesses have re-opened but cinemas, theatres and schools remain closed.
Read more: Pakistan coronavirus cases pass 100,000 mark
There has been growing debate among experts globally on whether populous developing nations can afford comprehensive social distancing measures to contain the coronavirus while avoiding economic ruin.
Experts say measures that could curb cases – like limits on religious gatherings and crowded shopping areas and emphasising social distancing – should be reinstated and some doctors are raising the alarm.
WHO says Pakistan must reinstate lockdown to control cases
“As of today, Pakistan does not meet any of the pre-requisite conditions for opening the lockdown”, the WHO said in a letter confirmed by Pakistan officials on Tuesday.
Many people have not adopted behavioural changes such as social distancing and frequent hand-washing, meaning “difficult” decisions will be required including “intermittent lockdowns” in targeted areas, the letter states.
Some 25 percent of tests in Pakistan come back positive for COVID-19, the WHO said, indicating high levels of infection in the general population.
The health body recommended an intermittent lockdown cycle of two weeks on, two weeks off.
The coronavirus cases spread through local transmission showed a dangerous upward trajectory in a recent report published by the World Health Organisation Pakistan chapter in May.
The report presented a dismal picture in terms of local transmission cases in Pakistan, province by province, on a weekly basis.
The report showed that Balochistan had the highest rate of local transmission at 93%, and only 7% were imported cases. At second number was Sindh, where 92% were local transmissions and 8% imported cases.
Pakistan’s leaders not ready to admit that lifting lockdown contributed to coronavirus cases
Responding to the WHO’s letter, Zafar Mirza, the prime minister’s special advisor for health, said the country had “consciously but gradually” eased lockdowns while enforcing guidelines in shops, mosques and public transport.
“We have to make tough policy choices to strike a balance between lives and livelihoods,” Mirza said Wednesday.
“Mask donning has been made compulsory in the country. Along with this we have developed a robust Tracing, Testing and Quarantine policy to identify hotspots and cordon-off them. Currently there are more than 700 such smart lock-downs in place. Other plank of our strategy is ramping up of our health system capacity to cater to the growing number of patients,” he said.
He added that the policies have been guided by the best evidence available about the disease spread and best assessment of the fast deteriorating socio-economic conditions in Pakistan.
Punjab’s provincial health minister Yasmin Rashid, who received the WHO’s letter, said the provincial government had already given “orders to take strict action against those violating” virus guidelines.
Prime Minister Imran Khan, however, has ruled out the possibility of another strict lockdown, saying the elitist idea would collapse the economy and increase poverty.
“Only solution the world has discovered is smart lockdown which allows for economic activity with SOPs [standard operating procedure],” he tweeted on Sunday.
wanting a lockdown – the elite who have the privilege of spacious homes & income unaffected by fallout of lockdown. A lockdown means collapse of the economy & in poorer countries a steep rise in poverty, crushing the poor as happened in Modi's lockdown in India. Only solution as— Imran Khan (@ImranKhanPTI) June 6, 2020
For the government, the idea of Pakistan’s lockdown being lifted seems more appealing, as PM Imran Khan believes that otherwise, people will starve to death.
Pakistan’s healthcare system struggling
Hospitals across Pakistan say they are at or near capacity, and some are turning COVID-19 patients away.
Government officials claim the situation is “under control,” but health authorities believe the already stretched health system is unable to handle the lurking influx of COVID-19 patients.
“Most of the hospital beds have already taken by patients, limiting our ability to handle the influx of COVID-19 cases, mainly in the big cities,” Dr Faiyaz Alam, an office-bearer of Pakistan Islamic Medical Association (PIMA), a nationwide body of medical professionals, said.
Read more: Coronavirus impact oh Pakistan’s hospitals
Doctors, who have been opposing the lifting of a prolonged lockdown, fear the worst is about to come.
“June and July are very crucial as we expect a sharp rise in already fast-increasing coronavirus cases in the country,” according to Qaisar Sajjad, secretary general of Pakistan Medical Association.
WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said Monday that 136,000 cases had been reported in the previous 24 hours, “the most in a single day so far”, with the majority of them in South Asia and the Americas.
Pakistan’s lockdown being lifted could spell disaster for the country, especially as many people are still not complying with SOPs such as social distancing and wearing masks.
AFP with additional input by GVS News Desk