GB govt retracts news of first coronavirus death after confirming it

Published March 18, 2020
A security guard wearing a facemask amid concerns over the spread of the COVID-19 novel coronavirus stands guard outside a currency exchange shop in Rawalpindi on March 18. — AFP
A security guard wearing a facemask amid concerns over the spread of the COVID-19 novel coronavirus stands guard outside a currency exchange shop in Rawalpindi on March 18. — AFP

Minutes after confirming Pakistan's first death from the novel coronavirus, the Gilgit-Baltistan government on Wednesday backtracked from its statement and said the patient who passed away did not have the disease.

The confusion began when GB Health Secretary Rashid Ahmed told a news conference alongside GB Chief Minister Hafeezur Rehman that a "58-year-old" man from Diamer district had died from COVID-19.

Minutes later, GB government spokesperson Faizullah Firaq issued a "clarification statement", saying that although the patient had tested positive for COVID-19, he also had pneumonia and therefore the cause of his death was not clear. He also stated the patient's age to be 90, not 58.

In a second statement, Firaq said a report from the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology (AFIP), Rawalpindi, had shown that the deceased, in fact, did not have coronavirus. He said the patient died from pneumonia.

A copy of the lab report provided by Firaq of the purported patient, seen by Dawn.com, stated that the man had tested negative for COVID-19. It also stated his age to be 80, not 90.

The government accepted its error in another "clarification statement", this one issued by Rasheed Arshad, media coordinator to the GB chief minister, who was present at the press conference when the death was announced.

Arshad stated that the news of a "90-year-old" man in GB dying from COVID-19 was "completely false", adding that such news reports spread panic and fear among the public.

The chief minister's spokesperson acknowledged that the GB government spokesperson had released the news of the man's death "without verification", adding that the government "completely dissociates" itself from the report.

Arshad also stated that the man died from pneumonia and kidney ailments.

The statement urged media outlets to publish information about coronavirus after verification from the health department's focal person.

Special Assistant to Prime Minister on Health Dr Zafar Mirza, the federal government's point person for COVID-19, in his tweet, however, did not acknowledge miscommunication on the part of the government and instead put the blame on the media.

"I can confirm that until now there is no corona related death in [Pakistan]. Geo report about a death in GB is incorrect. The coronavirus test of the patient is -ve. I request media reporters that in rush to break the news first, please don’t misreport. Check your facts twice," he tweeted.

A similar confusion had taken place on Tuesday when Punjab Health Department Secretary Kaiser Sharif said a suspected coronavirus patient in Lahore had passed away. Although Sharif had said the patient's coronavirus test results were awaited, some media outlets reported that the man died from COVID-19.

Punjab Chief Minister Usman Buzdar later confirmed that the patient had not died due to coronavirus.

Struggling with the math

As the coronavirus pandemic creates ripples across the world, disrupting economies and social structures, countries struggle to cope with the pressure, with many going into lockdown to control the spread of the virus.

WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said on Wednesday that isolating, testing, treating and tracing every suspected case must be the "backbone of world's response" to the pandemic, according to Reuters.

Globally, governments have stressed on building a central repository of data to monitor the number of cases, most importantly to keep citizens abreast of the latest developments and if there are any patients in their vicinity.

In Pakistan, the federal government, led by Dr Mirza, has been leading the country’s response to the coronavirus threat. It has even constituted a National Coordination Committee for COVID-19.

The committee comprises federal ministers, chief ministers, chairman of the disaster management authority and representatives of ISPR, ISI director general and DG military operations.

Despite the body's formation, however, a lack of coordination has been seen between the federal and provincial governments regarding information sharing.

Dr Mirza, the committee’s convener, has been seen on several occasions to have reported outdated or incorrect numbers — a fact that has on at least one occasion been pointed out by the Sindh health department’s media coordinator.

Just today, Mirza while providing an update on the spread of COVID-19 in the country tweeted that Punjab had nine cases of the virus.

However, Punjab Chief Minister Buzdar had announced a day earlier that the number of confirmed cases in the province was 26.

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