Virus alert

March 1, 2020

Pakistan braces up for huge quarantine after coronavirus reaches via Iran

Screening for coronavirus at the airport.

After its emergence in China, the first case of coronavirus has been confirmed in Pakistan. Health authorities have confirmed two cases so far – one in Karachi and the other in Islamabad. Both patients had travelled to Iran in the past three weeks for religious pilgrimage, and stayed in the city of Qom – the epicentre of the virus in Iran. According to the health ministry, they had been displaying symptoms of the virus – cough, flu etc whilst they were in still in Iran.

“Neither patient is in mortal danger, nor do we need to panic, rather we should carefully and responsibly tackle the epidemic”, said special advisor to the Prime Minister on Health Dr Zafar Mirza. He assured the public that despite its occurrence, the government will ensure there isn’t an outbreak in Pakistan.

Read more: The mask mafia

The novel coronavirus, first identified in China at the end of the last year has now been reported in 50 countries, with the fear that it will spread further. However, Chinse authorities are hopeful that the pandemic will be fully under control by the end of April. The largest challenge is controlling the spread, and quarantining patients for at least 14 days. Despite the fact that there have been more recoveries than deaths, its power to transmit globally has created an alarming situation – as no vaccine has been developed for it so far.

After the outbreak in China, Pakistani authorities had earlier been focusing on people travelling from China via land or air. Travellers coming from China were carefully screened, and flights were reduced to limit mobility as a precautionary measure. When Iran, another neighbour, identified cases it become more difficult to prevent its entry into Pakistan as thousands of pilgrims travel to and from the holy cities of Mashhad and Qom, via air and land. Furthermore, the emergence of the virus in Afghanistan and India signaled the inevitability of its reaching Pakistan. Earlier, tests were conducted on almost 100 suspected people, both Pakistani and Chinese, who had all tested negative for the virus.

Although Pakistan had already sealed its borders with and ceased all flight from Iran, the return of upto 10,000 Pakistani pilgrims from the two cities which are prominent for reported cases and deaths remained. With the confirmation of the virus in Pakistan, authorities are preparing quarantine facilities for 6,000-10,000 returning prilgrims in the coming week, coming by road from Iran via the Taftan border from March 2, onwards.

These people were in Iran when the virus broke out in those cities. With the confirmation of the virus in Pakistan, authorities are bracing for a huge quarantine effort.

A health official said that the condition of the 22-year old Karachi resident, who was diagnosed with the virus, and started worsening on February 18 after he underwent a hijama, or cupping therapy, at a health facility in Mashhad.

After the emergence of the two cases, government officials in Karachi on February 26 visited the Soldier Bazaar area, a Shia-majority locality where most of the offices of the companies organizing pilgrimages to Iran and Iraq are situated, to collect details about the pilgrims who had left for Iran since February 6.

Chief Minister Syed Murad Ali Shah said that the provincial government had identified about 1,500 people who had returned from Iran during the past two weeks. “All of them will be quarantined for 15 days,” Shah told the media. He said 28 individuals may have been exposed to the virus in Karachi, and 5,000 across the country.

Allama Raja Nasir Abbas, a central leader of the Majlis Wahdat-i-Muslimeen, a Shia political group, said that hundreds of pilgrims are stranded on the border. “Most of them are middle-class people and cannot afford to extend their stay in Iran,” he said in a statement.

“It is a huge challenge and an uphill task. We, with the help of Provincial Disaster Management Authority (PDMA) are focusing on developing a quarantine facility for these up to 10,000 pilgrims who will starting arriving here from next week,” Dr Kamalan Gichki, focal person for coronavirus situation in the province of Balochistan, tells The News on Sunday. “A separate building with a capacity to house 2,000 people has been prepared. The PDMA is setting up tents for up to 6,000 pilgrims to isolate them for 14 days,” he says, adding, “As a policy measure, we will quarantine all these returning pilgrims for a period of two weeks.” Balochistan government, earlier, had held more than 230 pilgrims returning from Iran at the end of February.

The country is facing a health emergency amid fears of spread. The masks to protect others from this virus have gone short or are being sold for higher prices. The government has meanwhile imposed a ban on import of these items. The schools in Balochistan have been ordered closed till March 15. The Sindh government has also announced suspension of classes for a couple of days following the confirmation of the first coronavirus case in Karachi.

Authorities have issued precautionary guidelines cautioning people to avoid meeting people returning from coronavirus-affected countries, washing hands frequently and wearing masks. A Karachi University spokesman has stated that a 22-year-old patient diagnosed with coronavirus in Karachi had been attending classes after returning to Pakistan on February 20 and was hospitalized only a week later.

— Additional reporting from Zia ur Rehman

Coronavirus alert: Pakistan braces up for huge quarantine after virus reaches via Iran