Prime Minister Imran Khan on Tuesday asked Pakistanis to prepare for a coronavirus epidemic in the country but ruled out locking down cities to fight the disease.
"I want to tell all of you, this virus will spread," the premier said in a televised address to the nation, his first on COVID-19.
He said he was seeing a "state of panic" taking hold of the country but asked people to take precautions instead.
Seeking to reassure the public, Prime Minister Imran noted that while COVID-19 spreads rapidly, 97 per cent of its patients make a full recovery. Of these, 90pc people experience a mild illness similar to the flu, he added.
But he said even if 4-5pc of coronavirus patients out of thousands get critically ill, it will be a huge burden for healthcare facilities.
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The premier said the government had been in contact with the Chinese and Iranian governments since outbreaks occurred in the two countries. He lauded the Balochistan government and the Pakistan Army for their efforts to quarantine Pakistani pilgrims who returned from Iran "in very difficult conditions" and then dispatching them to various provinces.
He said the government had decided to take action to deal with the disease on January 15, after it was feared that infections would enter Pakistan from China. Screenings were started at airports thereafter and so far, 0.9 million people have been screened for the virus, he noted.
Prime Minister Imran said a meeting of the National Security Committee was called after 20 cases had emerged in Pakistan, and it studied responses of various countries to fight the virus.
He said it was suggested that Pakistan should follow some other countries in locking down its cities, but he said "Pakistan's [economic] situation is not the same as that of the United States or Europe. There is poverty in our country, with 25pc of the people living in extreme poverty."
He said the national economy is recovering from a "very difficult time" and so it was decided not to lock down cities as that could result in people "dying from hunger".
Instead, the government banned public gatherings, closed education institutions and formed a national coordination committee, the premier said.
He added that the government had activated and provided funds to the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) and tasked it with importing necessary medical equipment from abroad, including ventilators.
Meanwhile, a core committee of medical experts is monitoring the world's response to the pandemic and giving its advice to the government. President Arif Alvi, too, is visiting China to learn from Beijing what measures Pakistan can take if the disease spreads here, the prime minister said.
He said a third committee will assess the economic impacts of the virus on the country and suggest helpful measures. Imran predicted that the biggest impact will be seen in exports and businesses.
In this regard, he said the government will also talk to the International Monetary Fund in order to give relief to industries and exporters.
The committee will also ensure that food inflation does not take place in the country due to the virus. "I fear that an attempt will be made to cause inflation as was done by hoarding sugar and wheat stocks."
"There will be a severe reaction from the government against you," the prime minister said while directly addressing hoarders. "The state will act against you and punish you if somebody tries to take advantage of people's difficulties again."
'No reason to worry'
Prime Minister Imran said the government alone cannot fight the "war" against coronavirus. "We have to win this war as a nation," he said, asking people to act responsibly.
"First of all, there is no reason to worry," he told the nation, urging them to take precautions.
He urged the public:
- Not to attend large gatherings of more than 40 people
- To avoid gatherings held in closed rooms
- To avoid shaking hands and wash them with soap frequently
- To self-isolate if they arrive in the country from abroad
- Not to rush to get tested if they experience a minor cold
The premier said he has directed Pakistani embassies abroad to fully assist overseas Pakistanis. He said he was aware of the "difficult time" families of Pakistani students in the Chinese city of Wuhan had to face after the government decided against repatriating them.
But he said the "good news" was that China had nearly controlled the epidemic.
Prime Minister Imran also urged ulema to "continuously counsel" people on what precautions to take and how to go through this "difficult period".
The COVID-19 outbreak, which first emerged in China late last year, has quickly marched across the globe, infecting more than 180,000 people and killing over 7,000.