Authorities in Pakistan have begun reimposing a partial lockdown and have made wearing masks mandatory as the country races toward turning into a coronavirus hub amid rising infections and a mounting death toll.
Authorities backed by security forces have shut down more than 3,000 shops and markets across the country since June 4 as the cases neared 90,000, surpassing neighboring China where the coronavirus pandemic began earlier this year.
With 4,896 cases, Pakistan recorded its highest daily increase on June 4. The country also recorded 68 deaths the same day. Alarmingly, nearly 25 percent of the 20,168 tests conducted on June 4 turned out positive, which indicates that the deadly virus is spreading fast.
The rapid escalation in rates comes nearly a month after the government first eased and eventually ended a lockdown. On June 5, Prime Minister Imran Khan indicated that he remains opposed to a lockdown.
"It is important for you to ensure that people follow SOPs [standard operating procedures] because we can't go back to lockdown; this country cannot afford it," he said in a televised address to the Corona Relief Tiger Force volunteers. "If we can slow down the [infection] curve because of SOPs, it will reduce pressure on hospitals."
A day earlier, his administration indicated that it was serious about imposing coronavirus restrictions. “Strict administrative action has been initiated against the violators of standard operating procedures and social distancing in public places and high-risk areas of markets, public transport and industrial sectors,” a June 4 statement by Prime Minister Imran Khan’s office said while alluding to Pakistan’s four provinces and northern territories.
The statement said that a fine of some 70 U.S. cents will be imposed on everyone violating the mandatory rule of wearing a face mask in all public places. “The people have generally welcomed the initiative,” the statement said.
Some shopping malls and markets have already been sealed off by the police in the eastern province of Punjab. Many had violated a government rule to serve only those customers who wear masks, provincial minister Aslam Iqbal said.
Murtaza Wahab, a spokesman for the government in the southern province of Sindh, said that some vehicles were confiscated and their owners were fined for violating safety guidelines. In the capital, Islamabad, at least 10 neighborhoods were sealed off.
Mohammad Afzal, the chairman of the National Disaster Management Authority, said that Pakistan is still a month away from the projected peak of the pandemic.
“June will be a tough month, but we will then reach a plateau,” he told a local television station. “Things will begin moving toward improvement in the first or second week of July.
Afzal says that under the three-pronged strategy the government is focusing on protecting health workers by providing them with protective gear. “We are also identifying hotspots through testing,” he said. “Thirdly, we are ramping up the hospital capacity, particularly with regard to ventilators.”
But reports from across Pakistan indicate that new arrivals are already overwhelming hospitals as medical workers braced for a surge of COVID-19 patients. In recent months, medical staff have protested the lack of protective equipment in several Pakistani cities.
Asad Aslam, the CEO of Mayo, a major government hospital in Lahore, the capital of Punjab Province, however, said hospitals were not overwhelmed just yet. “We can handle the further burden of patients,” he told Reuters.
The city of 11 million residents is a likely virus hotspot. According to a government letter discussing the results of “smart sampling” in Lahore, some 670,000 people had likely contracted the coronavirus last month. Many of those are likely to be asymptomatic.
Critics have blamed Khan’s administration for mishandling the crisis, since the first coronavirus cases were confirmed in Pakistan in late February. Opposition leaders and critics are highlighting Khan’s decision to ease the lockdown last month as a key turning point. They point to the rise in infections as evidence for imposing stricter restrictions instead of easing them.
-- With reporting by the Ap, DPA and Reuters