340 Pakistanis stranded in Iran return home

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An official of Pakistan-based Chinese company (R) uses a thermo gun to check the temperature of the company's drivers, in Islamabad on January 30, 2020, after instructions from Pakistani authorities to take preventive measures against the coronavirus. - A virus similar to the SARS pathogen has killed 170 people and spread around the world since emerging in a market in the central Chinese city of Wuhan. (Photo by Aamir QURESHI / AFP) — AFP or licensors
An official of Pakistan-based Chinese company (R) uses a thermo gun to check the temperature of the company's drivers, in Islamabad on January 30, 2020, after instructions from Pakistani authorities to take preventive measures against the coronavirus. - A virus similar to the SARS pathogen has killed 170 people and spread around the world since emerging in a market in the central Chinese city of Wuhan. (Photo by Aamir QURESHI / AFP) — AFP or licensors

• Govt to allow citizens to return in batches after screening for coronavirus
• PM’s aide says condition of both patients ‘stable’, others test negative

CHAGAI/QUETTA/KARACHI: Pakistani authorities on Friday evening decided to open the Taftan border entry point temporarily to facilitate return of around 340 Pakistanis, including 184 pilgrims, stranded in the Iranian border town of Mirjaveh, for unilateral immigration by the Federal Investigation Agency.

Special Assistant to Prime Minister on Health Dr Zafar Mirza, who visited the Taftan border earlier during the day, said the government would gradually allow them to return in batches after complete health screening over the next few days.

The Pak-Iran border was closed to all kinds of movement on February 23 in the light of the swelling number of coronavirus cases in the neighbouring country.

Assistant Commissioner of Taftan Najeebullah Qambrani said that those returning from Iran including pilgrims, traders and labourers were screened on their arrival by health teams deputed at entry points of the border. He made it clear that the pilgrims who had visited “coronavirus-hit Iranian cities” would be kept in quarantine while other people would be allowed to proceed towards their destinations after complete medical check-up.

Officials said that these Pakistanis would be kept in quarantine after completing immigration process. “All Pakistanis returning to Taftan from Iran would have to spend at least a week or more in quarantine established in Taftan area,” a senior official of health department said, adding that Pakistan House had already been converted into isolation ward.

“We have arrangements for treatment if symptoms of coronavirus are found in any returning Pakistani,” the official said.

The assistant commissioner confirmed to Dawn that following an order by high-ups the border etween Pakistan and Iran was temporarily opened for unilateral immigration by FIA in Chagai district.

Spokesman for the Balochistan government Mir Liaquat Shahwani also confirmed to Dawn that the visa of returning Pakistanis had expired. “They could not stay in Iran after the expiry of their visa,” he said.

A Levies Force official privy to the immigration process told Dawn that initially those stranded at Mirjaveh for around a week were allowed to return. He said they included 161 local traders and labourers who crossed the Iranian border to enter Pakistan.

The immigration process of Pakistani citizens was under way till the filing of this report in the late hours of Friday night.

While sharing pictures from his visit to the Taftan-Zahdan border earlier during the day, PM’s aide on health said Dr Mirza said he had reviewed the situation. “At Taftan-Zahdan border. Reviewed the situation and now we have a plan! Over next few days we will gradually allow Pakistani Zaireens returning from Iran in batches after full health screening!” he tweeted. “Point of entry is being strengthened. Thanks to all for the hard work,” he added.

He said he had met Balochistan chief minister and reviewed preparation to “effectively address” coronavirus. “Spent time in Quetta with dynamic Chief Minister Jam Kamal and his dedicated team and reviewed preparations to effectively address #COVID—19. A lot is being done in Baluchistan — much more needs to be done,” he said.

Preparations under way

While reviewing measures being taken to deal with the coronavirus situation, Balochistan CM Jam Kamal Khan asked the relevant officials at a meeting to ensure screening of all people coming from Iran, Afghanistan and China.

The meeting was informed that the provincial government had released Rs200 million for purchasing required equipment, establishing quarantine, isolation wards and for making other arrangements.

The meeting was informed that coronavirus emergency had been declared in 10 districts along Afghan and Iranian borders. The screening process of pilgrims coming from Iran had already been started and the PDMA had set up a central control room of concerned districts.

The meeting was informed that establishing of isolation wards in hospitals and procurement of necessary equipments was under way.

It was informed that thermal-guns and 231 ambulances were available in districts along with Iran and Afghanistan borders, whereas isolation wards were being established in Taftan, Mashkail, Chedgi, Mand, and Gubd.

Ten-bed isolation wards had been established at Quetta’s Fatima Jinnah Chest Hospital and Sheikh Zayed Hospital while a functional laboratory had been established in Quetta, where suspected coronavirus patients would be tested.

Digital platform launched

Meanwhile, in a bid to counter misinformation around coronavirus, the government has launched an online awareness platform for the public.

The National Information Technology Board (NITB) in coordination with Ministry of National Health Services Regulations and Coordination on Friday launched a website to address concerns of the public around the disease.

“In addition to the 1166 #covid19 helpline, we are also launching an online #coronavirus platform for FAQs about the disease. Please go to http://app.nhsrc.gov.pk for more info and help spread this among your friends, family and followers,” Dr Mirza announced on Twitter.

The platform provides basic information such as precautionary measures, transmission risks, and advisories for travellers and medics.

“There is a lot of hue and cry across the country on coronavirus. The digital platform is a centralised medium for the public to stay updated on official developments around the spread of the virus in Pakistan,” NITB chairman Shabahat Ali Shah told Dawn.

Mr Shah said the website would be further updated in the upcoming days with information such as the number of cases, patient care and response to medication.

Patients ‘stable’

Earlier giving an update on the two confirmed cases in a tweet shared on Thursday night, PM’s special assistant on health Dr Mirza said that all those contacts that were traced up till then had been tested negative for the virus. “Both patients of #COVID—19 are stable and improving. Contacts traced until now and tested are all negative, Alhamdolillah,” he wrote.

The first case was confirmed in a 22-year-old male patient in Sindh had travelled to Iran where he acquired the virus. The second was confirmed in a patient at Pakistan Institute of Medical Sciences (Pims) in Islamabad who came from Skardu. The patient had also visited Iran a month ago.

In his press conference on Wednesday, Dr Mirza had said 15 suspected cases of the virus were currently under investigation in Pakistan, while 100 cases had tested negative so far.

According to Sindh government spokesperson Murtaza Wahab, no new case of coronavirus was reported till Friday.

Addressing a press conference in the Sindh Assembly, Mr Wahab said: “There has been no increase in the number of coronavirus patients. The [Karachi] patient’s family is safe and has been sent home.”

Mr Wahab said that since January, some 1,419 people went to Iran from Sindh — 952 of those had returned and 650 had been traced. “Most of the people have been tested and their results were negative,” the spokesperson noted.

On closure of educational institutes in Sindh, he said all schools would reopen on Monday and that the decision to shut them down had been taken as a preventive measure.

Published in Dawn, February 29th, 2020