Authorities in Pakistan and doctors in neighboring Afghanistan are preparing for a rise in coronavirus infections after the Muslim celebration of Eid al-Fitr, which involved communal prayers, visits, and gatherings among families and communities.
“Large crowds gathering in the situation I have witnessed during the past couple days in this city could spell disaster,” Hakimullah Salehi, head of the Afghan-Japan Infectious Disease Hospital in the Afghan capital Kabul, told Radio Free Afghanistan.
His hospital is already treating some 60 patients with COVID-19 disease symptoms. While most are expected to recover, some are fighting for their lives. They are among the more than 12,000 Afghans who tested positive for the coronavirus. More than 220 Afghans have so far died of COVID-19.
Like Afghanistan and other South Asian nations, the official number of coronavirus fatalities in neighboring Pakistan is also low. The country has recorded more than 1,220 deaths from among nearly 60,000 positive cases.
Islamabad first imposed a lockdown in late March but eased it with the beginning of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan in late April when communal prayers were permitted. On May 6, the government lifted many restrictions, paving the way for crowds to return to markets. The lockdown practically ended after a top court’s order days before the May 24 holiday of Eid al-Fitr.
Officials are again touting the possibility of imposing a lockdown to stop the spread of the coronavirus. The country has witnessed a sharp rise in infections and deaths because of the highly contagious disease that results in acute or chronic respiratory symptoms for some patients.
"We might go for a nationwide lockdown again because the virus is spreading rapidly," Zafar Mirza, the Pakistani prime minister's special assistant for health, said on May 25. "All warnings by the government were not heeded."
While the government has issued detailed operating procedures for mosques, markets, industries, and other work places, the authorities have largely failed to strictly implement the measures that mostly require robust hygiene practices and at least a 2-meter distance between individuals.
“Unfortunately, there is now this thinking among us that this disease was only here till Eid and that somehow it’ll disappear after Eid. This is a huge misunderstanding,” Mirza noted. “I want to warn Pakistanis that if they don’t take precautionary measures, this crisis could turn into a huge tragedy.”
On May 27, a Pakistani government website dedicated to COVID-19 said the country of 220 million people had recorded 1,446 coronavirus cases and 28 deaths during the previous 24 hours. Testing, however, noticeably decreased over the Eid holidays.
Days before Eid, hundreds of thousands returned to their families or ancestral villages across Pakistan. As crowds thronged the markets, few observed social distancing or wore face masks. The lack of a persuasive campaign about the dangers of the disease has led many to continue believing in myths and conspiracy theories about the coronavirus, according to doctors and journalists.
The southern province of Sindh, the most affected region in the country, is considering reimposing a lockdown. "This situation cannot be left on its own," said Murad Ali Shah, the chief minister or most senior elected official of Sindh. "There seems no option except reverting back to strict restrictions."
Since the emergence of the first coronavirus cases in late February, the Pakistani authorities have struggled with mounting a unified robust response. Border authorities along a southwestern border crossing with Iran were criticized for bungling the quarantine of thousands of pilgrims from Iran. As the pandemic raged globally, airport checks and quarantines were lax or nonexistent.
In late March, Prime Minister Imran Khan said he opposed a lockdown, but the country’s powerful military imposed it anyway. With the onset of Ramadan in late April, Khan’s administration refused to close mosques despite pleas from healthcare workers and rising case numbers.
– With reporting by Radio Free Afghanistan, Dawn, and DPA