Authorities in northwestern Pakistan are scrambling to lock down a rural community after one of the first reported deaths attributed to COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus that has killed more than 9,000 people globally.
Amid rising concerns, authorities in Mardan, a rural district in the northwestern province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, are struggling to keep track of and isolating the family, friends, and larger community of a 50-year-old man who died of COVID-19 on March 18.
The victim, believed to be a medical technician, had returned from a pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia last week. He visited a local hospital after developing COVID-19 symptoms this week but remained at home until his condition deteriorated dramatically on March 18. He died that evening, and a laboratory in the capital, Islamabad, confirmed that he had contracted the novel coronavirus. Another victim, a 36-year-old man, also died in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa on the same day.
“Authorities here appear to be not ready for dealing with this pandemic,” Aneela Khalid, a journalist in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’s capital, Peshawar, told RFE/RL’s Gandhara website. On March 19, she reported that some 20 family members and friends of the deceased had fled a government quarantine after authorities attempted to isolate them on a university campus the previous day.
“We spent the night sitting on bare floors. The kids kept on weeping because they were hungry,” one of the relatives, whose name was not given, told Khalid. “Nobody asked us about lunch today, and no doctors visited us.”
They eventually broke the quarantine and went back to their village, Manga. Authorities have now declared the village, home to an estimated 50,000 residents, under a lockdown. “People I spoke to are not very clear about whether everyone will be staying in their homes,” Khalid said.
Muhammad Yahya Akhundzada, the health secretary or senior bureaucrat in charge of healthcare in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, says they are worried about Manga because the victim there had interacted widely with the community after returning from Umra, a visit to Islam’s holiest site in Mecca, on March 9.
“He had hosted a feast for the entire village after returning from Umra so had [close] contact with many people,” Akhundzada told Radio Mashaal on March 19. “He then met many more who visited him to congratulate him over performing the Umra.”
Akhundzada says they are trying to follow the World Health Organization’s
standard operational procedures to deal with the coronavirus outbreak. “They are all in danger [of contracting the disease]. We will try to check everyone and test them so we can [ultimately] clear this village.” The authorities have also quarantined a village in the province’s Dir district and a neighborhood in Peshawar.
However, he acknowledges that dealing with the outbreak is challenging. “This entire issue is very difficult to deal with, but we are going to test everyone who shows symptoms and will be treating them,” he said.
Some of the government’s steps, however, have been met with criticism and resistance. In Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, teacher unions of four universities in Peshawar united in opposing establishing quarantine centers on campus grounds. “We demand the authorities to establish quarantine centers away from population in the suburban areas,” read a March 19 statement by the union.
In the southwestern city of Quetta, the capital of Balochistan Province, a mob ransacked and burned a newly established quarantine facility over fears it would prompt the spread of coronavirus in local communities. Islamabad is already facing criticism over mishandling the quarantine of thousands near the Taftan border crossing with Iran in Balochistan.
Most of the country’s more than 440 confirmed coronavirus cases were traced to Tafta.