Pakistanis stranded in virus-hit China return as flight operations resume

Updated 04 Feb 2020

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Special Assistant to Prime Minister on Health Dr Zafar Mirza at the Islamabad International Airport (IIA) on Monday where two flights carrying Pakistanis from China landed. — Dr Zafar Mirza Twitter
Special Assistant to Prime Minister on Health Dr Zafar Mirza at the Islamabad International Airport (IIA) on Monday where two flights carrying Pakistanis from China landed. — Dr Zafar Mirza Twitter

Pakistanis stranded in China started arriving in Islamabad on Monday as the government resumed flight operations to the virus-hit country.

Speaking at a press conference in Islamabad later in the day, Special Assistant to Prime Minister on Health Dr Zafar Mirza clarified that none of the passengers that arrived in the country on Monday were suspected to have coronavirus or needed to be kept under observation.

He highlighted that no citizen, whether Chinese or Pakistani, is allowed to leave China without spending a 14-day “disease-free period”.

"This measure [...] has protected the people of our country. The flights that arrived today carried both Pakistani and Chinese citizens who were screened according to the protocol in place.

"We had them [the passengers] sign our special health declaration forms. Therefore, the overall situation [regarding coronavirus] is satisfactory," the health adviser added.

Meanwhile, Chinese Ambassador to Pakistan Yao Jing thanked Pakistan for extending their unwavering support to the country during this difficult time.

He explained that so far people leaving China are being screened over a 14-day period. However, nobody from Hubei province or the city of Wuhan, ground zero for the outbreak, had been allowed to travel domestically or internationally.

"Right now we are not encouraging Chinese citizens to travel abroad," he said. He added that the Chinese citizens traveling to Pakistan are being traced and monitored by the respective embassies and companies.

Earlier in the day, three flights carrying a total of 143 passengers arrived by noon.

Pakistan, a day after the World Health Organisation declared the epidemic a global health emergency, had halted flights to and from China on Friday.

"We are resuming flight operations with China; a China Southern Airlines flight with 145 passengers on board will land at 9am at Islamabad International Airport on Monday," Abdul Sattar Khokhar, the senior joint secretary of aviation, told Reuters.

Following the resumption of flights, two flights carrying Pakistanis arrived from China, the PM's aide had confirmed.

Taking to Twitter, Mirza had said: "We supervised implementation of 'Airport SOPs' and I interviewed passengers."

The first — a Qatar Airlines flight — arrived from Doha, carrying 40 students. Health department staff conducted medical examinations of all the students at the Islamabad airport after which they were permitted to go home.

A second flight — a China Southern Airlines flight CZ6007 — brought 69 passengers including 57 Pakistanis and 12 Chinese.

The flight included members of a group of Pakistani students and community members stranded in Ürümqi due to the suspension of flights in the wake of the new coronavirus outbreak in China. They were earlier granted an 11-day visa extension by Chinese authorities.

The third flight, carrying 86 passengers, also arrived at the Islamabad International Airport, directly from China.

Ahead of the flight arrivals, the premier's special assistant reviewed the arrangements for screening passengers at the airport.

"At all airports, screening systems have been strengthened. The Pakistani government is prepared for any emergency situation," Mirza had said, adding: "The health department has the facilities for detecting coronavirus cases.

"At all airports, comprehensive screening arrangements are available."

Screening kits arrive

The resumption of flights comes a day after testing kits for the deadly disease reached Pakistan.

Mirza earlier told Dawn that thousands of testing kits had been arranged from multiple sources and hoped that no more kits would be required in future.

Additionally, all the seven suspected patients of novel coronavirus (NCV) were found to be completely safe.

Read: Everything you need to know about the coronavirus

"Just after getting the kits we decided to test all seven suspects who were kept in isolation wards of hospitals in Karachi, Multan and other cities," he said. "Fortu­nately tests of all seven patients were found negative due to which we can surely say that there is no suspect of NCV in Pakistan."

The testing kits would be provided wherever they were requi­red, he said, adding that now the National Institute of Health had become self-sufficient in diagnosis.

Earlier samples were being sent abroad to confirm if suspected patients were infected with NCV or not.

WHO Pakistan has also provided technical guidance and tools for screening along with laboratory support for management of NCV cases at federal and provincial levels, according to an official statement.

China's death toll from the new coronavirus jumped above 360 on Monday to surpass the number of fatalities of its SARS crisis two decades ago, with dozens of people dying in the epicentre's quarantined ground-zero.

The 57 confirmed new deaths was the single-biggest increase since the virus was detected late last year in the central city of Wuhan, where it is believed to have jumped from animals at a market into humans.

The virus has since spread to more than 24 countries, despite many governments imposing unprecedented travel bans on people coming from China.

With additional input from AFP