Pakistan on Friday halted flights to and from China with immediate effect, a civil aviation official said, as the death toll from a virus outbreak spreading in China mounted and the World Health Organisation called it a global health emergency.
"We are suspending flights to China until February 2," Senior Joint Secretary of aviation Abdul Sattar Khokhar told Reuters by phone, adding that the situation would be reviewed after that date.
He declined to comment on the reason for the closure.
On Thursday, Pakistan International Airlines (PIA) decided to suspend flights to Beijing until Feb 2.
Khokhar told Dawn that PIA had been operating two flights between Pakistan and China but it had decided to suspend flight operations.
PIA had started two flights a week to Tokyo and Beijing in May 2019 after a gap of three months.
Yesterday, Special Assistant to Prime Minister on Health Dr Zafar Mirza announced that the government had decided not to repatriate Pakistani citizens stranded in China in accordance with the recommendations of the WHO.
"We believe that right now, it is in the interest of our loved ones in China [to stay there]. It is in the larger interest of the region, world, country that we don't evacuate them now," he told reporters at a press conference in Islamabad.
"This is what the World Health Organisation is saying, this is China's policy and this is our policy as well. We stand by China in full solidarity," he declared.
"Right now the government of China has contained this epidemic in Wuhan city. If we act irresponsibly and start evacuating people from there, this epidemic will spread all over the world like wildfire."
"So far, China has not allowed evacuation [of people]," he said. "You will, of course, remind me the United States has evacuated its diplomatic staff — not all citizens. This is a condition of the Vienna Convention which dictates that the host country can allow diplomats to leave if their country wishes for them to return."
Mirza told the press conference that the embassy in China was in contact with the Pakistani citizens. He said that the government believes that China's policies to contain the virus were adequate, pointing out that China was the first country to have developed kits to diagnose the coronavirus.
A day prior, Mirza had announced that up to four Pakistani students in China were diagnosed with the coronavirus. A large proportion of the Pakistanis living in China were students of which over 500 students were based in the central city of Wuhan, the epicentre of the new virus.
According to health officials, a man who returned to Karachi from Wuhan is being kept in an isolation ward for two weeks. His blood samples have been sent to Islamabad and he will be released if the test results are negative.
In the first major response to the WHO's declaration of a global emergency over the spreading coronavirus, as Chinese authorities on Friday increased the toll to 213 dead and nearly 10,000 infections, the United States told its citizens not to travel to China.
Chinese FM reassures FM Qureshi
Also on Friday, Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi in a telephonic conversation with his Chinese counterpart, Wang Yi, discussed the situation in China in the aftermath of the coronavirus outbreak in detail, a Foreign Office statement said.
The Chinese foreign minister told Qureshi that the Chinese government was extending all possible assistance to the Pakistani community and "facilitating them like its own citizens", according to the statement. He said the WHO had praised the Chinese government's response to the virus outbreak.
Wang also detailed the precautionary measures taken by the Chinese government to contain the spread of the virus.
According to the handout, Qureshi expressed satisfaction at China's efforts to deal with the outbreak and thanked the Chinese leadership for paying "special attention" to the Pakistani community in the country especially students.
"Pakistani people and government are standing with the Chinese government and people in this difficult hour," Qureshi said.
Measures to avoid being infected
The National Institute of Health (NIH), as well as international health bodies including the World Health Organisation (WHO) and United Kingdom's National Health Service (NHS) have issued public advisories listing preventive measures which should be taken to prevent the spread of the virus.
Here are a few simple measures you can take to avoid being infected:
Wash your hands regularly for no less than 10 seconds with soap and water. Using an alcohol-based sanitiser is also advised.
Wear a facemask and avoid close contact with anyone with a cough or flu. Fever, cough and respiratory problems have been identified as early symptoms of coronavirus.
If you have any of the above symptoms, contact a doctor at the earliest.
Cover your mouth and nose with your hand or tissue while coughing or sneezing to protect other people from germs. Discard the tissue immediately and wash/sanitise your hands.
While visiting a live market in an area where the virus has been detected, avoid contact with animals.
Avoid eating undercooked meat. Raw meat should be handled carefully in order to avoid contamination.
Additional reporting by Qazi Hassan