• Masks arranged, China to provide 100 ventilators soon
• Punjab govt inches towards lockdown
• Sindh seeks army deployment
• Protest at Sukkur quarantine over hygiene
ISLAMABAD: As the tally of confirmed novel coronavirus (Covid-19) cases rose to 645 with 4,046 suspected cases across Pakistan, the government on Saturday decided to start screening of passengers of domestic flights and suspend international flight operations for two weeks.
A policy decision was taken to keep suspected patients in separate rooms at quarantine centres after reports that a large number of people had contracted the disease because they had been ‘quarantined in groups’, while for ventilators and other medical equipment the government decided to approach China in the wake of their unavailability in the west.
Hinting at a possible lockdown in coming week, the government appealed to the people to stay indoors during the three holidays including Pakistan Day to help flatten the curve.
The decisions of the National Coordination Committee meeting, which had been chaired by Prime Minister Imran Khan a day ago, were shared with the media during a press conference held by Special Assistant to Prime Minister (SAPM) on Health Dr Zafar Mirza, SAPM on National Security Division Dr Moeed Yusuf and National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) chairman Lt Gen Mohammad Afzal.
They said the armed forces would support the civil administration in the fight against the deadly virus.
Dr Mirza said five patients fully recovered.
He said people should take advantage of the three holidays and isolate themselves at their homes as a ‘rehearsal of a possible lockdown’ in the coming days.
In a late-night development, the Sindh government in the wake of increasing number of Covid-19 cases in the province sought armed forces’ help in aid of civil power.
The home department, in a letter written to the interior ministry, requested for deployment of armed forces in the province.
Besides, the government of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa banned inter-district public transport for seven days, starting on March 23. However, intra-district passenger transport, plying of private vehicles and goods/freight transport will be exempted from restriction.
Dr Yusuf said it was decided to suspend international flights till April 4 but there would be no such restriction on diplomats and cargo planes.
“Flight operations will remain suspended till 4th April at 8pm, as 200,000 passengers are expected to travel to Pakistan. However, some planes of PIA, which are in Europe, will be allowed to arrive in Pakistan on Sunday (today).
“When flight operation will be resumed, there will be no condition to provide Covid-19 testing certificate at the time of arrival at airports of Pakistan,” he said.
The NDMA chairman said that flight operations were being suspended to ‘improve border management’. “Moreover, it has been decided that one room and one toilet will be designated for each suspect at quarantine centres. There are 600 rooms at Taftan and 300 each at Chaman and Khyber. A thousand more container rooms will be established at border entries,” said Lt Gen Afzal.
About testing kits, scanners and other protective gears, he said: “Over the past 10 days, Pakistan had received 20 scanners and 20,000 testing kits which were set to increase to 80,000 in the coming 10-12 days.”
He announced that the government had arranged masks. Within the next two days, he said, 1.5 million masks would be provided to Sindh and Punjab each. Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa would be given 700,000 masks each while Azad Jammu and Kashmir and Gilgit-Baltistan would be provided 500,000 each. He explained that e-commerce store, Ali Baba, would provide 500,000 masks including 50,000 N-95 masks.
Lt Gen Afzal said China would also provide 100 ventilators soon.
Meanwhile, spokesperson for Pakistan International Airlines (PIA) Abdullah Hafeez said the management had decided to suspend all international flights following the government directive. However, senior joint secretary and spokesman for aviation division Abdul Sattar Khokhar in a press statement explained that this was a temporary suspension imposed due to exceptional circumstances.
Diplomats and special/ cargo aircrafts would be exempt though they would be subjected to appropriate health screenings on arrival, he said, adding that they could also be quarantined as per advice of health professionals.
Meanwhile, a coronavirus patient was brought from Jhelum District Headquarters Hospital to the quarantine centre set up at the Rawalpindi Institute of Urology (RIU), a senior official of district administration told Dawn. RIU Medical Superintendent Dr Khalid Randhawa confirmed the arrival of second coronavirus positive patient in the quarantine set up by the Punjab government.
Apprehending a surge in number of pandemic coronavirus cases, the Punjab government on Saturday ordered closure of all markets, shopping malls and restaurants till Tuesday morning.
The decision was taken at a meeting of the Punjab cabinet committee on coronavirus, which was chaired by Chief Minister Usman Buzdar.
Officials say other public places and educational institutions are already closed, the Punjab government decided to order further closures as people were not considering self-isolation in these testing times.
In Sukkur, suspected patients who were kept at a quarantine centre protested over hygiene issue. Chaos was caused among residents of surrounding localities when rumours were spread that many coronavirus patients slipped away during the protest at the centre.
The suspected patients were among more than 100 pilgrims who had recently returned from Iran and shifted to the Sukkur’s Labour Colony quarantine centre from Balochistan.
Fear and panic gripped several areas in Sukkur for hours before Sindh Minister for Transport Syed Awais Shah turned up and explained the factual position, stating that none of the confirmed or suspected virus patients had come out of the centre. He said the volunteers held the protest for proper facilities to be ensured at the centre and they ended the protest after being given assurances in this regard.
Quarantine in Balochistan
Earlier, Balochistan Chief Minister Jam Kamal Khan advised the people of the province to stay indoors for 10 days and deplored those who had set fire to a quarantine centre set up along the western bypass on the outskirts of Quetta. He appealed to the people not to oppose establishment of quarantine centres in their areas.
In Gilgit-Baltistan, nine more people were tested positive for coronavirus. The patients were shifted to isolation rooms in Gilgit, according to the GB information department.
Mohammad Asghar and Aamir Yasin from Rawalpindi, Mansoor Malik from Lahore, Waseem Shamsi from Sukkur, Saleem Shahid from Quetta and Jamil Nagri from Gilgit also contributed to this story
Published in Dawn, March 22nd, 2020