South Asia

Explainer: As COVID-19 Numbers Rise, Why Is Pakistan Reluctant to Call a Lockdown?

While there are a patchwork of restrictions in place at the provincial level, the prime minister has not called a nationwide lockdown.

New Delhi: Pakistan has recorded the largest number of confirmed cases of people infected with the new coronavirus in South Asia, and this number is still very much growing. However, Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan government has not ordered a nationwide lockdown – even as the country sees a patchwork of restrictions at the provincial level.

Here is a quick explainer on Pakistan’s strategy to deal the new with coronavirus, and why it is a regional outlier.

What has been the extent of COVID-19 spread in Pakistan?

Pakistan’s first case of coronavirus, a university student who had returned from Iran, was reported on February 26. The first death was a 50 year old, who died on March 18 after refusing to quarantine, contrary to the doctor’s advice.

As shown by Samaa TV’s tracker, the new cases daily in the first two weeks were just in the single digits. But from March 16, it spiked suddenly, when Pakistan got 23 new cases in a single day. The highest daily increase till now was recorded at 178. Sindh province had reported the highest number of patients since the start of the outbreak, but Punjab province took over that position on March 28.

Just a month after the first case was reported, Pakistan’s cumulative number of positive COVID-19 cases has reached 1,870 on March 31.

Why has Pakistan’s number risen higher than other states in South Asia?

When the epidemic began from China, the Pakistan government had refused to airlift its students from the epicentre in Wuhan. The reason given was Pakistan could not afford to get even one infected person back home – and also to show solidarity with Beijing. (China paid this back by sending medical supplies and doctors last week.)

Pakistan also took steps to close down its 960-km border with Iran in late February, in order to stem any spillover from the devastating impact of the epidemic on its neighbour. But it was not possible to keep away Pakistani citizens who travel to Iran in large numbers for pilgrimage. As the situation became worse in Iran, the Pakistani government allowed some pilgrims to trickle back in batches, as they had been waiting at the border in dire conditions.

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On Sunday, ARY News reported that Pakistani pilgrims were being forced across the border by Iranian authorities, despite requests from Islamabad.

More than 4,600 people were held at the Taftan quarantine camp in Baluchistan in highly unhygienic conditions, as per several media reports. With the lack of monitoring, many of them left before their quarantine period ended or went back home without any proper testing. They were also supposed to have another two weeks of home quarantine.

Pakistan’s numbers started to go up in mid-March as many of these returnees started to test positive for the coronavirus. Reportedly, over 600 returnees from Iran – through Taftan – tested positive.

There has been a fair amount of criticism that a stricter policy of shutting down the Iran border may have stopped the flood of new cases. Zulfi Bukhari, a senior aide of the Pakistani prime minister, has come under a shadow and denied repeatedly that he was behind the relaxation in border controls.

Even as Pakistan was registering an increase in the number of cases, around 250,000 attended a five-day annual gathering of the Tablighi Jamaat outside Lahore. The provincial government had asked for the organisers to re-schedule the congregation, but they went ahead anyway. The congregation was called off on March 12, but by that time, there was a provincial lockdown in place.

As per Dawn, 27 out of 35 members of Tableeghi Jamaat out of 35 screened at the Tableeghi Markaz were found to be positive for coronavirus. Many of the foreign nationals returned, some carrying the virus. The first two cases in the Gaza strip are two Palestinians who attended the gathering, with another reported in Kyrgyzstan.

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There has also been criticism that the government has not given a clear direction on the closing down of mosques. Pakistan president Arif Alvi cited Quranic teachings to justify prayers at home, but Pakistan has only limited the size of the congregation to five.

What has been Pakistan’s testing strategy?

For countries like South Korea and Singapore, mass testing has been the key to ‘flattening the curve’. This has also been the exhortation of the World Health Organisation director general: “test, test, test, test”.

According to data provided by Pakistan’s National Institute of Health, 14,748 tests have been conducted till March 30.

Earlier in March, Pakistan’s state minister for health Zafar Mirza had said that the total number of testing kits available in the entire country was just 25,000 kits. At that time, less than 500 Pakistanis had been tested. Provinces had already rung the alarm bells that there were not enough testing kits. An individual is being tested only if they have flu-like symptoms and travel history to COVID-19 hotspots.

The Pakistan government is importing 150,000 testing kits from three countries, including China.

Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan speaks during a session at the 50th World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos, Switzerland, January 22, 2020. Photo: Reuters/Denis Balibouse

Has Pakistan gone into a lockdown?

In the second week of March, Pakistan began to take strict measures one by one – banning public gatherings and weddings, halting international flights and closing down educational institutions.

But Prime Minister Imran Khan has been ruling out a countrywide lockdown. The reason that he has given for this reluctance is that it would impact the poorer classes and that it would be difficult to implement in Pakistan. Khan’s reluctance makes Pakistan an outlier in South Asia, where Nepal, India, Bhutan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka have gone into lockdown and curfew.

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As per a model developed by Pakistan planning commission’s think tank Pakistan Institute of Development Economics, if there was a “partial lockdown of 45% which is almost implemented throughout the country”, there will be over 62,194 infected cases, 1142 deaths and 130,323 hospitalisations after 40 days. However, if there a 75% lockdown, then the numbers will come down to 51,214 positive cases, 710 deaths and 70,528 hospitalisations.

In his address to the nation on March 22, he repeated this assertion that there will be no lockdown. It was the same day that PPP’s Sindh government had called for complete lockdown. (A few days later, Pakistan’s government spokesperson claimed that Sindh had not taken the Centre in confidence while announcing lockdown, which other provinces “copied”.)

The Punjab provincial government, which is governed by the ruling PTI, closed down most shops, pillion driving and non-essential services. Nevertheless, Punjab chief minister Usman Buzdar announced that it was “neither a curfew or a lockdown situation”.

Just a day later, the new head of Pakistan army’s inter-services media wing, Major General Babar Iftikhar announced that the army had been deployed under Article 245 of the constitution to assist civilian authorities in implementing restrictions. With all the provincial governments announcing strict closures, Pakistan media termed this as a virtual nationwide lockdown, noting that the army had stepped in just a day after Imran Khan’s reiteration of his opposition against a mandatory shutting down of offices, workplaces, factories and movements of people restricted.

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Pakistan’s constitutional clause 245 enjoins that the armed forces shall “under the directions of the Federal government, defend Pakistan against external aggression or threat of war, and, subject to law, act in aid of civil power when called upon to do so”. This clause also provides that high courts lose their jurisdiction in any area in which the armed forces are acting in aid of civilian authority. This is the first time that Article 245 has been invoked in entire Pakistan – which means that no high court has any power.

After Pakistan army’s nod to lockdown, will Imran Khan change his policy?

If his address to the nation on Monday (March 31) is any indication, Khan is not yet ready to pull the trigger. He proclaimed that a newly created volunteer force “Corona Tigers Relief Force” will distribute food in lockdown areas and also help in awareness about quarantine.

There was immediate criticism from opposition leaders that no concrete steps had been announced by Khan. Opposition parties, both PPP and PML (N) have been appealing for a lockdown for several weeks.

But it seems that Khan may be inching, reluctantly and protesting, towards announcement of a lockdown.

Dawn’s Khurram Hussain wrote Pakistani industrialists had convinced the Khan government that lockdown was not the path to traverse in combating coronavirus. “After having climbed up the pole and publicly opposed lockdowns as a way of arresting the spread of the virus, the government finds that those who egged them on towards this path have suddenly fallen silent themselves, because the provincial authorities are moving decisively backed by the army,” said the article.