ISLAMABAD: While it was alleged that the coronavirus reached Pakistan through pilgrims returning from Iran, a think-tank in a report said that the government’s poor handling of the pilgrims upon their return from the pandemic-stricken country intensified the controversy.
The report claimed that the pilgrims remained in quarantine for a minimum of 28 days and were allowed home only after they tested negative for Covid-19.
“In some instances, the pilgrims remained on quarantine for up to 50 days. Therefore, the pilgrims cannot be responsible for local transmission,” the report saod.
PML-N leader Khawaja Asif had alleged that pilgrims were allowed to enter Pakistan without tests on directions from Special Assistant to the Prime Minister on Overseas Pakistanis Syed Zulfiqar Abbas Bukhari. However, Mr Bukhari denied the allegation.
Says pilgrims cannot be blamed for virus transmission as they remained in quarantine and were allowed home after testing negative
The report, Covid-19 in Pakistan: The Politics of Scapegoating Zaireen was prepared by Islamabad Policy Institute (IPI).
The report, which said that around 7,000 pilgrims returned from Iran after the coronavirus outbreak there, looks into the handling of pilgrims at the Taftan border crossing, their transfer to the provinces and the political and media narratives about their return.
IPI Executive Director Sajjad Bokhari said there were genuine fears about the new disease but the row was driven mainly by intense political polarisation, undercurrents of sectarian bias and anti-Iran sentiments.
He noted that government’s communication on the pilgrim crisis was particularly “irresponsible” and could have consequences for a society with a delicate sectarian balance.
The report said the government had consistently tried to evade responsibility for the mishandling of pilgrims at the Taftan border by presenting it as a deserted and remote border outpost.
“As a matter of fact, it is a regular border crossing on a well-frequented land route between Pakistan and Iran which ought to have been better equipped and well prepared,” it said.
The report cites official figures stating that about 300,000 people use the border crossing annually. The inadequate facilities at Taftan often hit headlines at the time of peak traffic periods every year. Covid-19, however, underscored those inadequacies unlike before.
Shortcomings at Pakistan’s ports of entry were also pointed out in a World Health Organisation (WHO) evaluation in 2016 which showed that they were not fully prepared to prevent, detect and respond to health threats.
The IPI report said the haphazard closure of the border crossing on Feb 23 and absence of a proper explanation for shutting it down and then its subsequent reopening on Feb 28 contributed to the deluge at Taftan amidst aggressively spreading disease in Iran. This particular mistake led to allegations within Pakistan that the decision to reopen the border was politically influenced and motivated by sectarian considerations.
It said tests conducted at provincial quarantines showed that of the 6,834 pilgrims who had returned from Iran 1,331 were positive for Covid-19. This included 701 in Punjab, 280 in Sindh, 141 in Balochistan, 68 in KP, 139 in GB and two in AJK. No tests were done at Taftan.
It infers that the higher infection rate among the pilgrims was because of all of them being kept together at the ‘Taftan quarantine’ and the long distances they travelled with each other without adequate protection.
Published in Dawn, May 23rd, 2020