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Restive Impoverished Pakistani Province Ill-Prepared For Coronavirus

FILE: A doctor checks the temperature of a man returning from Iran at a quarantine zone to test for the COVID-19 coronavirus in the Pakistan-Iran border town of Taftan in February.

For nearly two decades, Pakistan’s southwestern province of Balochistan has reeled from separatist violence and military operations and has faced devastating terrorist attacks by radical Islamist groups.

But the vast impoverished region bordering Iran and Afghanistan is now ill-prepared to face the coronavirus pandemic that has already killed some 1,000 people in Iran as the country suffers the third-highest infection rates following China and Italy.

“Balochistan’s porous borders with Iran and poor healthcare infrastructure make is extremely vulnerable for a coronavirus outbreak,” Adnan Aamir, a journalist based in Balochistan's capital Quetta, told RFE/RL’s Gandhara website. “Illegal crossing of the Iran-Pakistan border is a norm in Balochistan for smuggling and visiting relatives.”

Numerous tribes of the Baluch, who make up a majority of Balochistan’s residents, are also a majority of the residents in Sistan-Baluchistan Province in southeastern Iran. The two regions are separated by a 959-kilometer border.

FILE: Men with face masks spray near tents used as a quarantine facility in Balochistan.
FILE: Men with face masks spray near tents used as a quarantine facility in Balochistan.

Balochistan's provincial government is being criticized for mishandling the quarantine of more than 6,000 people returning from Iran near the Taftan land border crossing that connects the two regions. Pakistan’s confirmed cases of COVID-19 doubled to 237 on March 17. Most of them were pilgrims who were previously quarantined in Taftan after returning from visiting Shi’ite shrines in Iran.

"It was not a quarantine, it was a joke. Its trickle-down effect is coming down on the entire country," Murtaza Wahab, a spokesman for the provincial government in the southern province of Sindh, told a private television station.

On March 17, there were only 16 confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus in Balochistan, but few people were tested for COVID-19 in the province. Aamir says the region only has five ventilators and only one technician trained to operate them.

“Under normal circumstances, Balochistan residents struggle to get life-saving treatment. A pandemic will be catastrophic for the impoverished people of this region,” he noted.

But authorities in Balochistan say they are doing their best to ward off a coronavirus crisis. “This is a new disease, and even developed countries such as Italy, Britain, South Korea, Japan, and others failed to completely stop its spread,” said Jam Kamal, Balochistan’s chief minister or most senior elected official.

But Geo News, a leading Pakistani news television station, reported that in a March 16 video conference Kamal complained to Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan that Balochistan faces a “severe shortage” of testing kits for coronavirus and ventilators.

His public massage, however, was calmer. “Please be assured that our government is doing our best in terms of raising awareness through the media, medical facilitation and equipment,” he said in a video message last week. Kamal said that after sensing the threat from a coronavirus pandemic, Balochistan closed all its educational institutions last month and quickly closed border crossings with Iran and Afghanistan.

But such steps have not addressed the lack of a robust healthcare infrastructure. Balochistan’s nearly 350,000 square kilometers, roughly the size of Germany, has few hospitals capable of handling complex medical emergencies. Almost all of them are located in Quetta.

With a budget of little over $141 million during the current fiscal year, the province hardly provides basic healthcare for its more than 12 million population. “Just consider that many seriously ill people from Balochistan seek treatment in Karachi and other major Pakistani cities,” Aamir said.

Meanwhile, the Pakistani authorities are taking steps to stop the spread of coronavirus. On March 17, authorities scrapped a national cricket league and ordered to shut all gyms, swimming pools, shrines, and children’s parks for the next three weeks. Authorities in Sindh also closed shopping malls, restaurants, and beaches for the next 15 days.

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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.