A man wearing a facemask walks past a sign board displaying preventive meausres against the spread of the COVID-19 novel coronavirus, outside a mall in Islamabad on March 16, 2020. (Photo by Aamir QURESHI / AFP) — AFP or licensors

Dear overseas Pakistanis, stay put and save lives

We all want to reunite with our families but this is not an extended holiday. It's a pandemic.
Updated 30 Mar, 2020 01:54pm

On March 21, the government of Pakistan announced the suspension of all international flights to Pakistan until April 4, to contain the novel coronavirus outbreak in the country. These restrictions have been met with disdain from overseas Pakistanis across the globe who feel abandoned and stranded.

In the context of repatriation schemes open to citizens of other countries, complex and expensive bureaucratic processes for Pakistanis, including a nebulous document called a coronavirus certificate, seem unfair. And while the government has said travel restrictions are temporary as it expands the country's quarantine capacity specifically for overseas citizens’ arrival, that may not be sufficient to absorb the steadily rising numbers of Covid-19 patients already present in Pakistan.

One doesn't need mathematics to answer the question that each country is posed with today: is there enough intensive care capacity to match the rate of infection from Covid-19? Intensive care capacity includes sufficient beds, ventilators, hospital personnel with adequate personal protective equipment, testing kits and medication to treat all patients who need it.

Data from PBS, NHS and Lancet.
Data from PBS, NHS and Lancet.

The last available information on ICU bed capacity in Pakistan is World Bank data that suggests that there were around 0.6 ICU beds per 100,000 people in the country in 2014, with most located in urban centres such as Karachi, Lahore, Islamabad, and Quetta. This means that the rural population, which makes up two thirds of the public, will be travelling to these urban centres to access intensive care for Covid-19. In these circumstances, does it make sense for Pakistanis to travel from, for example the UK where there is more intensive care capacity, back to Pakistan?

Courtesy: https://www.statista.com
Courtesy: https://www.statista.com

The Pakistani government, like others across the globe, is responding to this pandemic by working on its healthcare capacity on an emergency basis. The situation begs the question whether importing expats into precious quarantine spaces be helpful or will it negate the efforts made to beef up Pakistan's healthcare capacity. Given what we've seen, there will be no shortage of local Covid-19 cases in the country in the days to come.

Although the emerging statistics are preliminary and a fuller picture will only be visible later, we have the opportunity to learn from contexts further along the pandemic trajectory. Prime Minister Imran Khan contends that we are not in the same position as Italy. This is true, our population is larger, our ICU capacity lower, our economy poorer, and our healthcare system not entirely free or accessible. Simply put, Pakistan’s healthcare system, like that of many countries in the global south, is donor dependent, ill-equipped, and unable to handle the double burden of an infectious pandemic on top of pre-existing burdens of chronic illnesses like cancer, diabetes, renal diseases, polio, and other infectious diseases like tuberculosis and HIV. This is combined with evidence that in Pakistan there are significant numbers of cases within a younger age bracket who are additionally more likely to cause the spread of the virus through their generally increased mobility. Additionally, in a context where families struggle to contain children in overcrowded houses and religious gatherings continue, the fact is that if we are not proactive, we will be a lot worse than Italy a lot faster.

About two weeks ago, I was also relaxed compared to friends in Italy, their news about hundreds of deaths each day, while upsetting, seemed like their experience and distant from my own. Since then, the number of cases of Covid-19 and deaths in the United Kingdom has shot up, and I now have a personal list of friends and acquaintances who have been infected here, in Italy, Spain, and the United States. For overseas Pakistanis in any of these countries, maybe this is one reason why you want to leave and go home, so you can be with your families and away from the epicentres of the pandemic.

I want to urge my fellow overseas Pakistanis, particularly the thousands of students who have the ability to think critically about future possibilities, to look at the data and think about what this pandemic could and might look like in Pakistan.

There is a reason why Pakistan did not repatriate students from Wuhan at the beginning of the outbreak there. There is no point in running away from the epicentre of the virus. As live hosts of the virus, when we move, the epicentre of the pandemic moves too.

In theory, Pakistani citizens with sufficient funds can return home if they test negative for Covid-19, if they obtain a certificate issued within 24 hours of travel confirming a negative test result. The NHS in the UK does not test healthy bodies, but news outlets have quoted a GP as saying that some private practices offer the service at prices around £375.

Ultimately, the question is, should individuals be taking these measures to reunite with their families at the expense of public health and fellow citizens’ access to healthcare. I think this certificate serves as a barrier that gives us an opportunity to stop and think literally about the cost, material and other, of this journey.

We all want to reunite with our families but this is not an extended holiday. It's a pandemic. This means we have a role in the global coordinated response to contain it, by staying put. Some say: let us enter Pakistan, test us there and put us in quarantine if they can. My question is: do you want to be part of the problem or would you rather be part of the solution? We have history intersecting with our lives. Which side of history do you want to see yourself standing on?

These tests are in limited supply, so limited that the general population in the UK is not yet being tested. Tests have only just been rolled out to frontline health workers. I recommend that if you have the means to travel home, use those means to support yourself abroad and stay where you are. It is better to leave limited tests for healthcare professionals whose diagnosis has a direct impact on the well-being of their patients. Secondly, your negative test results might not be a confirmation you are virus free. They may just mean it’s too early and you might test positive a few days later, or you may be asymptomatic and unknowingly spread the virus. We still don’t know enough about Covid-19. We don’t know if it can withstand warm temperatures or not. The only sensible course of action is that which scientists have recommended across the world, work from home, wash your hands, and practice social distancing. While the rate of spread is still unclear, a rough estimate tells us that if the nearly 40,000-strong Pakistani student body in the UK were to take flights back to Pakistan, they would run the risk of infecting around two people each on average along the way, and once in the country, would then go on to do the same. Double that number on a loop and think about the impact that could have.

Restricting flights may appear to be an act of abandonment. As Pakistanis, our instincts are to stick together and it is natural to want to be with our loved ones in times of uncertainty.

However, we need to remember that by staying where we are we are playing a part in not burdening healthcare systems and are allowing the most vulnerable to access treatment. If we are based overseas, we are more likely to have access to health systems with greater capacity and systems that are more equitable than the ones back home. This means that we will get treatment if needed. By staying where we are, we are flattening the curve. On the other hand, by moving, at best we are taking up quarantine beds and medical attention, thus robbing fellow citizens of their right to adequate and timely treatment. And at worst we are risk of contracting and spreading the infection to an already vulnerable population.

My request to the Pakistani government is to take a tough decision and restrict travel further, which can of course be reviewed in a few weeks. There may be practical problems facing Pakistanis overseas who unexpectedly need to remain abroad for longer than planned. Our government can liaise with foreign governments to address these. Some measures have already been taken. For example, the UK has launched a scheme to extend visas that were expiring between January and May. To mitigate Pakistanis running out of monetary resources, I urge the government to consider a monetary relief scheme to be administered through the missions abroad.

To fellow overseas Pakistanis, I request you to stay where you are. We have all seen images of crowded hospital corridors across the globe, and testimonials from frontline health workers attending to the ill until they reach their physical limits, not to mention images of truckloads of coffins being carried from homes to warehouses to crematoria in Italy. Those dying of Covid-19 die alone, and at best in the company of doctors. I think we can bear our solitude away from our families in the meanwhile. You may feel isolated, but at least you are healthy, and the alternative can cost lives. Meanwhile, if you look around, you will see that you are not alone in this, because the other thing about a pandemic is that we are all going through it at the same time.


The views expressed by this writer and commenters below do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.

Comments (31) Closed

Mar 30, 2020 02:13pm
Great, very informative article. I am locked in Pakistan and have my full support for all stranded Pakistani including PTI Government in these difficult and trying time. The Government is trying their level best to fight the epidemic with very limited resources resulting from the looting by previous leaders who instead of supporting both financially and morally have reverted to point scoring through criticisms.
Recommend 0
Asif A. Shah
Mar 30, 2020 02:26pm
A good public service article.
Recommend 0
Mar 30, 2020 02:42pm
I disagree with your article, what use is it to keep Pakistanis out of the country when we already have so many cases within the borders now? This wont stop the virus. You cannot keep people out indefinitely because they too are as much Pakistani as are we, how do you suggest they will survive with meagre budgets and financial constraints? And what about those who have to rejoin their jobs? Return to their families? Not all the stranded Pakistanis are Covid-19 positive. There are several people who went overseas on tourism and emergency purposes who need to be repatriated to the country. Keeping them out of the country isnt a solution when most of the countries are focusing on their own local populations. Lets understand the situation entirely before commenting and recommending such baseless suggestions. For once act like a responsible, caring and united nation who values each of its citizen.
Recommend 0
Mar 30, 2020 02:43pm
A Pakistan student in Wuhan, posted video on social media, that he was running out of food as well as money. IK was mocking about these students posting videos.
Recommend 0
Mar 30, 2020 02:44pm
Easy to say, but in what situation are they living, nobody cares.
Recommend 0
Mar 30, 2020 02:47pm
Right now no one is buying SYMPATHY or encouragement, who are selfish breaking rules set by the government to stay indoors.
Recommend 0
Mar 30, 2020 03:10pm
Listen genious who wrote this article. Ypu obviously are oblivious. Pakistanis stranded in pakistan want to go home, and they are willing to pay one way expensive tickets. Its PIA leeches who arranged TWO WAY flights, uplifted everyone, gathered them in one room only to tell them flight is cancelled. This incompetent airline cant even book tickets online or over the phone, yet wants to prevent an outbreak by making people physically cone to their lame sales staff. And if you think pakistan has less cases than UK and Canada, ypu are dreaming. Cases have not been tested or they are being under-.reported
Recommend 0
Mar 30, 2020 03:49pm
Fails to mention the issue in reverse - the many hundreds if not thousands of British nationals whose rescue flights back to the UK have been cancelled. All they want is to be home reunited with their children.
Recommend 0
Mar 30, 2020 03:59pm
Do u even know what problems we are facing by this restriction. We came to pakistan to meet elderly parents and now can not leave putting our livelihoods back home in danger.
Recommend 0
Lost track
Mar 30, 2020 04:14pm
Overseas Pakistanis stay where ever you are, Don’t plan about coming to Pakistan next 3-4 months, But send all your Bank Balance to Pakistan ASAP or Country will become Bankrupt
Recommend 0
Mar 30, 2020 04:14pm
Do you really think that the confirmed cases truely reflect the actual extent of virus spread in Pakistan or for any other country? The testing criteria mostly captures the overseas travellers and their immediate contacts which is why there is a notion that this is mostly spread by the overseas travellers. I think Pakistan has had the cases bubbling up since it all started in China end of last year due to extensive travel between the 2 countries and by now most of the community is immune to infection which is reflected by low death rates despite under resources medical care and unrealistic social distancing measures in Pakistan. The deaths are hardly reported due to Pneumonia like illness which is why we do not know how many people had died already before March this year. These travel restrictions and even the other measures to restrict movements are fruitless and will only contribute to the misery of Pakistani population in the country and living abroad.
Recommend 0
Mar 30, 2020 04:18pm
"Dear overseas Pakistanis, stay put and save lives" You are our biggest source of foreign currency. If you get sick and stop remittance, whole nation will get sick. Save money, donate money but don't expect anything in return. Our consulates won't track your wellness. You are not VIPs to get call answered. You are just the hen which lays golden egg and nothing more.
Recommend 0
Mar 30, 2020 04:29pm
In current situation only really needy person want to travel and it is shame that country closed his doors for his own citizens on the name of lack of hospital and test kits. Thousands of people like me are stuck (in more dangerous place like construction site ) due to this. We need to come back to protect ourselves at our home in this difficult situation, we understand the risk of travel and lack of facilitates in Pakistan.
Recommend 0
Davinder Gill
Mar 30, 2020 05:07pm
Don't you think every country should take responsibility for its citizens, Pakistan like others should recall all its citizens and deal with the problem. Not let other nations take up the burden cost which the natives should be getting
Recommend 0
Davinder Gill
Mar 30, 2020 05:09pm
Don't you think every country should be responsible for its citizens, no country should have to take the burden and cost of citizens not from there country. That money should go to the natives, Pakistan as any other country needs to take its citizens back and look after them
Recommend 0
Mar 30, 2020 07:26pm
Get your facts straight. Getting a COVID19 certificate is not just about money. No health authority is issuing such a certificate. And on top of that, the results do not come out in 24 hours so how is one supposed to get such a certificate within 24hrs of flight ?
Recommend 0
Azhar Ashfaq
Mar 30, 2020 07:27pm
What about overseas Pakistanis who are already here and want to leave to reduce the burden on the health system? We deel trapped for no reason.
Recommend 0
Mar 30, 2020 07:42pm
There are overseas Pakistanis who are stranded in Pakistan due to blanket flight cancellation without prior warning. Many I know need to go back to UK etc so they can start working overseas or else they will lose jobs, unable to support families back in Palistan.
Recommend 0
Andherr Nagri
Mar 30, 2020 10:14pm
@Sara, I totally agree with you, the only people I know who are desperate to go home are the people stranded in Pakistan by the incompetent and money grabbing PIA officials who have dragged their feet and not even honoured the return ticket holders. They should hang their head in shame! Maybe this will be the final nail in the coffin of this overpriced and incompetent Airline:
Recommend 0
Mar 30, 2020 10:53pm
Don’t come to Pakistan and keep sending money.
Recommend 0
Mar 30, 2020 10:58pm
Any Pakistani corona virus patient anywhere In the world is at the end of the day a Pakistani. Pakistan must take care of its citizens who keep sending their hard earned money.
Recommend 0
Mar 30, 2020 11:47pm
let them be enter and recruite them in tiger force, overseas will be very handy, and IK also had 20 years aborad experience that is become a bone of contention for Pak.
Recommend 0
Sairbeen plus.
Mar 31, 2020 12:19am
The situation is same almost in the whole world. The Coronavirus is going to be under control gradually after the graph curved flattened like we saw in China, Singapore,and S.Korea. The research scientists are hopeful to get completed the process of introducing Vaccine in 18 months max. The vaccine already trialed , but has to go through 4 stages, that’s in process. At the moment only isolation,quarantine is helpful, please understand.
Recommend 0
Mar 31, 2020 12:32am
A great farsighted article for the people to understand the cruciality of time.
Recommend 0
Mar 31, 2020 01:21am
Very good article. Pakistanis should think LOGICALLY and NOT emotionally. Look at the broader picture, do not infect others just because you want to stay close to your families. Use common sense, this is what faith also asks and expects you to do.
Recommend 0
Dr. Gonorrhea, Aamir Ahmad
Mar 31, 2020 01:43am
@NACParis, So the current government has eliminated all the looting?
Recommend 0
Mar 31, 2020 01:45am
UNFAIR . Overseas Pakistani are welcome when they bring dollars but now they are being asked to die and buried in foreign lands . very selfish
Recommend 0
Mar 31, 2020 03:41am
A very sensible article. We have been all demanding similar steps from our government here over the past 3-4 weeks now, to no avail.
Recommend 0
Mar 31, 2020 03:49am
Overseas Pakistanis must help themselves. I am in Sydney and Indian community here is ensuring no Indian is sleeping without a meal or a bed. Many NGOs, restaurants have organised free lunch, dinner service to student, tourists who are stranded here. Even door delivery facility is also provided. Anybody without a place to stay are taken care within 24 hours. Elderly are given utmost priority.
Recommend 0
Citizen Khan
Mar 31, 2020 06:48am
When the PM itself behaves so immature, what do you expect the people to behave like?
Recommend 0
Mar 31, 2020 10:43am
Stay safe, wait for the pandemic to end.
Recommend 0