At least 105 Pakistanis who were flown to Islamabad from the United Arab Emirates on a repatriation flight have tested positive for the coronavirus, Rawalpindi Deputy Commissioner retired Capt Anwarul Haq said on Monday.
The development, along with a rise in positive cases among passengers returning from other Gulf countries, has caused concern among officials and Special Assistant to Prime Minister on National Security Dr Moeed Yusuf said the matter has been taken up with UAE authorities.
The 105 passengers were among 209 nationals who were brought home on an Etihad Airways flight from Abu Dhabi on April 28, according to the government's Covid-19 portal.
The travellers were initially moved to the quarantine facility at the Fatima Jinnah Women University.
However, the 105 people who tested positive were eventually shifted to the Rawalpindi Institute of Urology (RIU) while 79 others who tested negative were allowed to go home with directions to self-isolate, Haq told DawnNewsTV.
He said the tests of 27 passengers were being conducted again to verify their status.
The government has been running a repatriation operation through the Pakistan International Airlines (PIA) and other airlines to bring home Pakistanis stranded in other countries.
The development comes days after 190 passengers who were brought to Karachi through special flights from Dubai, Sharjah and Colombo tested positive for the virus.
Out of the 190, 92 belonged to Sindh, 56 to Punjab, 24 to Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and 18 to Balochistan, according to Sindh Chief Minister Murad Ali Shah.
Also, Dawn reported last week that a total of 259 passengers who were among the 3,554 Pakistanis who came back to Punjab by 22 special flights from various countries during the last two weeks tested positive for the coronavirus.
More than 760 passengers, who returned from the UAE, Qatar, New York and Colombo on April 28 and April 29, had been quarantined to complete their incubation period before undergoing the testing process.
Issue taken up with UAE
Speaking on Geo News programme Aaj Shahzeb Khanzada Kay Saath, SAPM Yusuf said that after the government had opened airports for some flights on April 4, it was decided that the number of passengers being repatriated will be increased gradually to see if the country's health facilities can handle the new cases.
He said approximately 15,000-16,000 Pakistanis have so far been brought home and on certain flights, a "majority" of the passengers tested positive for Covid-19.
According to Yusuf, this was seen predominantly on flights coming from the UAE which carried labourers who often live in cramped and unhygienic conditions in the Gulf country.
"We have now formally taken this up with the UAE government," he said, noting that if arriving passengers continue to test positive, the provinces' health capacity will come under pressure and the government will have to reduce the number of people being repatriated.
He said the government wants to bring home a maximum number of people but in a "safe manner".
Citing data and health experts, he said it was wrong to assume that all the passengers get infected after travelling in an airplane, adding that many of them are positive prior to travelling but often don't show any symptoms.
Answering a question, he said other countries are often not willing to spend PCR Covid-19 tests on passengers travelling to Pakistan and tend to reserve them for their own citizens. They are ready to conduct other types of tests of the passengers but those aren't considered accurate by Pakistani health experts, Yusuf added.
He said although several thousand Pakistani workers in the Gulf countries are returning home because they have been laid off, many others have been suspended or given paid or unpaid leaves.
However, he acknowledged that all of these workers are among Pakistanis who send remittances home and therefore "a lot of work is being done and we are talking to other countries to save the jobs of as many labourers as possible".