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Pakistani Coronavirus Cases Rising Despite Spy Service’s ‘Track And Trace’ Efforts


People wait for their turn to get free chest X-rays and other tests during a nationwide lockdown to help avoid the spread of the coronavirus, in Quetta.

Days after Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan said his country is using its intelligence service’s ‘track and trace’ system to combat the coronavirus pandemic, confirmed cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, continue to rise.

The rise came days after Khan eased lockdown restrictions ahead of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan and said the country will eventually move toward a smart lockdown by deploying a surveillance system developed by its Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency to track terrorists.

“Track and trace is the best way [to combat the virus],” Khan said during an April 24 fundraising campaign on television. “This is the only way if you want to restart your businesses,” he added. “The ISI has given us a great system for track and trace. It was originally used against terrorism, but now it has become useful against the coronavirus.”

Faisal Sultan, Khan’s personal physician and focal person on the coronavirus, explained to the BBC’s Urdu Service how they are now using information from the spy services to prevent the spread of infections.

“The intelligence agencies and mobile phone network operators have information about peoples addresses and other [personal] data, which is helping us to determine how much the virus has spread around an infected individual,” he said. “We then collect the information of people in close proximity so that we can prevent [infection] hot spots from forming.”

But there are no apparent signs of the coronavirus outbreak abetting in Pakistan.

Two months after the first cases were reported, infections continue to rise across all parts of the country. On April 29, the country of 210 million had more than 15,500 cases. More than 800 were recorded on April 28 -- the single highest daily figure. At least 20 people died from COVID-19 the same day, which was also the highest daily death toll. Overall, the disease has killed more than 340 people in Pakistan so far as the number of confirmed infections has somewhat consistently increased.

Despite government claims that the rise indicates increased testing, many in the country are worried their nation of more than 210 million is muddling through the pandemic that has killed more than 220,000 people globally.

Opposition politicians and doctors have repeatedly criticized the government’s approach to the crisis. In the initial days of the outbreak, they pointed out insufficient or faulty quarantine procedures and facilities at the borders and airports. Khan’s reluctance to impose a lockdown prompted the military to move in to enforce such a measure last month.

Since the beginning of the crisis, doctors have pleaded with authorities to provide them with sufficient protective equipment and reverse easing lockdown restrictions. Now the government’s decision to keep mosques open during Ramadan to appease the country’s powerful Islamic clerics is coming under fire.

“It is not just about the power of the pulpit; it’s more to do with the culpability of an inadequate leadership unable to take charge,” journalist Zahid Hussain noted. “For the leadership, matters of faith appear to take priority over the lives of the believers.”

Hussain wrote that the government’s argument about the potential devastating impact of a prolonged lockdown holds some merit. “But it is always better to take hard decisions for long-term gains,” he argued in a recent op-ed. “The next few weeks are going to be extremely critical and one can only hope that the worst is over soon.”

Zafar Mirza, a healthcare adviser to Prime Minister Imran Khan, however, said the number of deaths from COVID-19 infections in the country has been stable for two weeks.

“The data on deaths [in an outbreak] is critical because it gives you the true picture of the outbreak in Pakistan,” he told journalists on April 28. “You can then base your decisions on [such an understanding].”

Carefully choosing his words, Mirza warned against abandoning caution, particularly in the run up to iftar, the breaking of the daily fast during Ramadan at dusk.

“Many places are being thronged by shoppers while many mosques are not acting on the standard operating procedures [outlined by the government] regarding social distancing,” he noted.

“It is now in our own hands. If we act on this [advice regarding social distancing], the disease will not spread and fade away quickly,” he said in an apparent attempt to create some wiggle room for the government if the outbreak worsens.

“But if these violations [of social distancing rules] continue, we might need to impose more lockdowns in the future,” Mirza concluded.

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    Abubakar Siddique

    Abubakar Siddique, the editor of RFE/RL's Gandhara website, is a journalist specializing in coverage of Afghanistan and Pakistan. He is the author of The Pashtun Question: The Unresolved Key To The Future Of Pakistan And Afghanistan. 

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