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March 22, 2020

Pakistan shut for world for two weeks

Top Story

March 22, 2020

By News desk

ISLAMABAD: The government Saturday announced temporary suspension of all international chartered, private, and passenger flight operations to Pakistan for a period of two weeks effective March 21 to April 4.

The decision, which has been taken to restrict the spread of Coronavirus Disease (COVID-19) in Pakistan, will not be applicable to cargo and diplomatic flights. The decision has been taken at a time when three deaths have already been reported from coronavirus in Pakistan, while the toll of infected persons has mounted to 625.

Sindh remains the most affected province with 292 cases, followed by Punjab with 137 cases, Balochistan with 103 cases, Gilgit-Baltistan with 55 cases, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa with 27 cases, Islamabad Capital Territory with 10 cases and Azad Jammu and Kashmir with one case.

The Prime Minister’s Special Assistant on National Security Moeed Yousuf shared the decision of airspace closure at a press conference also addressed by the PM’s Special Assistant on Health Dr Zafar Mirza and Chairman of the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) Lt Gen Muhammad Afzaal.

Terming it a “difficult decision” that will spell inconvenience for over 200,000 passengers who were scheduled to land in Pakistan from across the world during the suspension period, Moeed said, the Pakistan Foreign Office has directed its missions abroad to extend all possible facilitation to such passengers. However, he urged travellers not to stretch the capacity of these missions vis-à-vis a decision taken in the best interest of Pakistan and its citizens.

Moeed stated that some PIA flights which had already flown to Europe and several other countries have been allowed to return by today (Sunday), along with their booked passengers, so that they do not remain stranded. “Upon resumption of flights, RT-PCR test certification from points of origin will no longer be mandatory,” he announced.

The PM’s security aide explained that the decision has been taken because in Pakistan, coronavirus has largely been introduced by incoming travellers from countries already affected by the diseases, with indigenous cases being very few. “We cannot afford the risk of further transmission through international travellers. This is a temporary suspension which will be lifted as we review the situation,” he said. During the suspension period, health screening at airports will further be heightened, border controls will be made more effective, and some quarantine facilities will have been readied for isolation of suspected passengers.

Moeed dismissed rumours about the government contemplating lockdown of major cities in quick succession. “No such decision has been taken. Please don’t spread rumours detrimental to the country’s internal security. Trust the information being provided to you by the government, which is fully in command of the situation,” he remarked.

A reliable source in PIA says suspension also applies to all non-PIA flights and all outgoing passengers of every international flight as well. Later, talking to The News exclusively, Moeed Yusuf said that though there is no prohibition on outgoing passengers from Pakistan on non-PIA flights but since no carrier would be flying in, it is automatically understood that outbound traffic would be halted as well. "If any airline wanted to fly in with just their crew to pick up outbound traffic, they would be allowed. But keeping huge costs involved in such operations no airline would do it."

He concurred with The News' query that Pakistani airspace is now effectively shut for two weeks.

Earlier, Dr Zafar Mirza said Pakistan had 4,046 suspected cases so far; of these, 664 suspected cases have been isolated during the last 24 hours. Three people have thus far succumbed to the disease—one each in Karachi, Mardan and Peshawar. Five have fully recovered and many more are expected to be discharged in the coming days.

Dr Zafar shared that 13,991 new travellers were screened on all 19 points of entry during the last 24 hours. Overall, 1.4 million incoming travellers from various countries have been screened ever since the start of the outbreak. “Between February 28 to March 18, as many as 6,304 people entered Pakistan from Iran only; of these, 2,421 were from Balochistan, 2,012 from Punjab, 1,059 from Sindh, 176 from KP, 14 from AJK 14, and 523 from GB,” he apprised the media. The SAPM said, 3,378 people are currently isolated in quarantine facilities in different parts of Pakistan.

With reference to provision of protective equipment to frontline health workers, he said, “Their protection is our foremost priority. All measures will be taken for their protection and training.” Terming social distancing as the government’s declared policy, Zafar hoped that all Pakistanis would stay indoors during the long weekend ending on March 23.

The NDMA chairman announced lifting of sales tax on import of equipment to ease procurements, “The State Bank will start one-window operations to facilitate opening of Letter of Credit in Islamabad and other major cities,” he said, adding, “All steps will be taken to help out bulk suppliers, manufacturers, and importers of medical equipment.”

Lt Gen Afzaal said that since maximum procurements are taking place from China, NDMA will establish its office in the Pakistan Embassy in Beijing to facilitate the process. The NDMA chief said, new quarantine facilities are being established in Chaman, Taftan, and Khyber. While the facility in Khyber will have 600 rooms, the other two will accommodate 300 people, one per room. “Another 1,000 beds will be added to these quarantine facilities in the days to come,” he said.

Referring to screening facilities at PoE, he said, single scanners and thermal guns are currently being used, but arrangements will be strengthened within the next 15 days, based on arrival of procured material from China, which is extending massive support to Pakistan in its fight against COVID-19.

The media was told that 10 scanners and 20,000 testing kits had arrived in Pakistan and were handed over to NIH on Friday. “We are expecting another 100 ventilators from China in five days. Moreover, Alibaba’s owner has donated 500,000 masks (of which are 50,000 are N95 masks) and 50,000 testing kits,” the NDMA chief shared. He said, 1.5 million masks and protective equipment has been dispatched to Punjab, 1.5 million to Sindh, 700,000 each to Balochistan and KP, and 500,000 each to GB and AJK. “In the next 12 days, we will receive 80,000 testing kits for conducting 40 lakh tests. Moreover, 150 ventilators have also been confirmed. By next Thursday or Friday, seamless flow of equipment from China will begin,” he said.

Lt Gen Afzaal maintained that while the provinces have improved their quarantine arrangements, NDMA will support them to the extent possible to achieve a patient-bed ratio of 1:1. He added that hotels have been identified and booked in different cities to accommodate any suspected travellers.

After Sindh, Punjab and Balochistan have also moved towards partial lockdown as the chief ministers of the three provinces have appealed to the masses to stay at their homes.

Sindh Chief Minister Murad Ali Shah's Adviser on Law Murtaza Wahab has announced that it is "time for some tough decisions".

Murtaza Wahab said that the chief minister has discussed with Sindh Governor Imran Ismail, Corps Commander Karachi, DG Rangers and IG Sindh "to ensure full implementation" of the government's decision to "keep people at their homes".

Without elaborating on how the decision will be enforced, Murtaza Wahab has assured everyone that grocery and medical shops will remain open.

Khyber Pakhtunkhwa on Saturday reported four more confirmed cases of COVID-19, though Advisor to Chief Minister on Information and Public Relations Ajmal Wazir said the tally was only two.

Ajmal Wazir told The News that said the latest two positive cases were reported from the provincial capital. Peshawar until now was stated to be free of coronavirus, though patients with serious complications are being received here from all over the province, and some of them were tested positive for COVID-19. One of them, who belonged to the Hangu district and had returned from Abu Dhabi (United Arab Emirates) succumbed to the deadly virus in the Lady Reading Hospital three days ago.

A total of 152 patients were confirmed positive for the coronavirus in Punjab on Saturday.

Twenty-one patients have been confirmed positive in Lahore, one each in Multan and Rawalpindi, two Jhelum, three in Gujrat, four in Gujranwala and 120 Zaireen, who had arrived from Iran, tested positive in a quarantine set up in Dera Ghazi Khan. Twelve patients are admitted to Mayo Hospital, two each to Services Hospital and Pakistan Kidney & Liver Institute in Lahore, one to Benazir Bhutto Shaheed Hospital in Rawalpindi, three to Aziz Bhatti Shaheed Hospital in Gujrat, nine to Racep Tayyip Erdogan Hospital in Muzaffargarh, two to DHQ Hospital in Jhelum. Seven COVID19 patients are in the process of admission to various hospitals of Punjab.

Thirty-nine new coronavirus cases emerged in Sindh, taking the toll of suspected affected persons in the province to 396.

The Sindh government officials said they had moved 83 people, mostly pilgrims trying to cross into Iran for 'Ziarat' but due to closure of the borders could not be allowed to go ahead, to a quarantine facility at Northern Bypass and added that they would be tested and if found negative, would be allowed to return to their residences in a couple of days. On the other hand, the number of Coronavirus patients rose to 396 after 125 more pilgrims in Sukkur were tested positive for the viral disease while four people were tested positive in Karachi. This was announced at the 24th meeting of the Taskforce on Coronavirus, presided over by the Sindh Chief Minister Syed Murad Ali Shah on Saturday at the Chief Minister’s House. The meeting was attended by provincial ministers, advisor law, chief secretary, IGP Sindh, provincial secretaries, representatives of Corps 5, Rangers, WHO, FIA, Airport, civil aviation and others.

The meeting was informed that with three new cases of Coronavirus in Karachi and 125 in Sukkur, the number of total cases in Sindh has risen to 396. In Karachi, 105 people were infected with Coronavirus, of which three have recovered, one died while 101 were still under treatment. Similarly, with 125 pilgrims from Taftan tested positive for Coronavirus on Saturday, a total of 291 Sukkur pilgrims were found infected with the viral ailment, health officials said.

Speaking on the occasion, the CM said that the trend of transmission of new cases was on the increase. He said the first case was reported on Februray 2, 2020, 10 cases on March 9, 25 cases on March 19. This is a serious trend and “we would have to observe self-isolation which is the only way out to keep ourselves secure,” he said. The daily reports of suspects presented in the meeting says that 1,874 suspects were identified by government hospitals, of them 21 required test. The private hospitals reported 702 cases and five of them needed test. The airport authorities told the chief minister that there were 29 flight scheduled today but 12 were cancelled. The 17 flights brought 3,428 passengers all of whom were screened and eight were declared suspects. They were shifted to quarantine unit and their samples were sent for test.

Meanwhile, Special Assistant on Information and Broadcasting Dr Firdous Ashiq Awan said that protecting health of the people is the foremost priority of Prime Minister Imran Khan and no negligence would be tolerated on this count.

In a series of tweets and interaction with the media through video link, following the video conference with provincial information ministers on the media strategy on the virus, she said that the prime minister was personally monitoring the whole situation, arising out of the coronavirus while the federal and provincial governments as well as other relevant institutions were working in coordination to contain the situation.

She urged the people to strictly follow the precautionary measures to control the spread of the virus, adding the people would have to demonstrate exemplary discipline, avoid crowded places and prefer takeaways instead of sitting at restaurants, and confront this virus with courage, resilience and steadfastness.

Dr Firdous said that in order to combating the virus, the World Bank would provide $238 million aid while the Asian Development Bank dollars 350 million to Pakistan.

She and the provincial information ministers discussed the prevailing situation and the efforts against coronavirus pandemic. She reiterated the government resolve and said that all available resources would be provided to provincial governments in the national fight against coronavirus. She said under prevailing tense situation, media had a crucial responsibility to avoid fake news and provide correct information to the citizens. She explained that three main decisions had been taken in the video conference, which included a separate WhatsApp Group with provincial information ministers all four provinces, Gilgit-Baltistan and AJK for disseminating quick and correct information to the media, a Fake News Buster on fake news on social media.

Dr Firdous explained that the Fake News Buster would address the fake news, as all the relevant ministers and stake holders would be part of the buster, they would immediate release a clarification in case of a fake news and the PTA and Cyber Crime Wing could take action accordingly.

Dr Firdous maintained that the federal government was providing all possible resources and assistance to provinces to deal with the coronavirus threat efficiently and effectively. “On behalf of Prime Minister Imran Khan, I assure that in the current situation, we all are united, we have to give a message that being a nation, we can handle the threat of coronavirus effectively,” she remarked.

She said the government was ensuring the provision of timely and correct information to media, adding the government was also taking steps to stop fake news circulating on social media, causing panic among general public.

Dr Firdous asked the opposition parties to set aside all the political differences and interest till purging the country of coronavirus and added that protecting health, life and property of people was the top most priority of the government.

To a question, she said only the prime minister had the authority to announce lockdown in the country and that he was mindful of the financial issues of the daily wagers and down-trodden segments of the society. However, she said that the prime minister did not mean total liberty and wanted people to restrict their movements and follow the precautionary measures.

Sindh provincial minister Nasir Shah said that they were all one in fighting the virus and all other issues had been put in a quarantine for the time being at this difficult hour.

Representative from KP Ajmal Wazir said the cases of coronavirus in his province had reached 23 while two had passed away due to the virus. He stressed the unity by putting aside all the political differences.