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As Pakistan Braces For Second Wave, Health Officials Warn More Measures Needed

A Pakistani security official stands guard outside a residential area of Islamabad sealed off as part of the new smart lockdown after increasing numbers of coronavirus infections were reported.
A Pakistani security official stands guard outside a residential area of Islamabad sealed off as part of the new smart lockdown after increasing numbers of coronavirus infections were reported.

Despite declaring victory in flattening the curve of coronavirus infections in early September, Pakistan is now bracing for a second wave of the pandemic as numbers are starting to rise since lockdown measures were lifted in August.

Hospital beds in the capital, Islamabad, are reaching capacity, and few people in the country of 220 million are reportedly following recommended health guidelines to avoid infection, particularly in rural areas. The government, controversially, has responded with a plea to keep the economy going.

November 5 marked the highest number of daily coronavirus infections since September with 1,376 new cases and the most deaths of any day in the past six months, with 30 nationwide. Since February, there have been a total of 338,875 cases while 6,923 people have died of the virus.

Prime Minister Imran Khan instructed government officials on November 3 to refrain from imposing restrictions that would impact the economy or society. Khan, who once called the highly infectious coronavirus a “a kind of flu,” told the National Command and Operation Center (NCOC) -- which oversees Pakistan’s coronavirus response -- that a balance is necessary “between disease control measures and livelihoods of the people.”

However, health officials warn the newest set of implemented measures do not go far enough. They have dismissed the effectiveness of so-called herd immunity in preventing a second wave, which had previously been heralded as a possible bulwark against the deadly virus.

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Dr. Fazale Rabbi heads the COVID-19 intensive-care unit at the country’s largest hospital, the Pakistan Institute of Medical Sciences. He told Radio Mashaal that doctors had hoped the population would achieve herd immunity if 60 percent to 70 percent contracted the virus.

However, he added, they now have no illusions that this would be effective. “We are receiving patients who were previously affected and developed antibodies but who once again are affected by the same virus,” he said.

Rabbi said many of the new cases registered these days are categorized as severe, often with the need for patients to be put on ventilators.

‘No Place For New Patients’

On October 31, the government imposed a so-called smart lockdown in several cities and the NCOC launched a hotline for people to report violations of health guidelines. But health officials worry a delay in stricter measures will lead to health services becoming overloaded.

"We have 26 beds for COVID patients. All are occupied right now, and there is no place for new patients,” he said, adding that the infectious diseases hospital in Islamabad has already reached capacity and stopped admitting new coronavirus patients on October 30.

Rabbi said the country was able to get the first wave under control by August because of effective public awareness campaigns. The looming second wave, however, isn’t being taken seriously enough by either the government or the public, he said, which is why the numbers are increasing daily.

Pakistan’s first coronavirus case appeared on February 26, and the country’s first death attributed to the virus happened on March 18. Subsequently, the authorities announced a countrywide lockdown that ground businesses and society to a halt.

Khan, who initially resisted the strict measures -- arguing they would disproportionately affect the poor and working classes -- conceded to a lockdown in late March. In April it was downgraded to a “smart lockdown,” which entailed shutting specific neighborhoods and markets instead of entire cities or regions.

In March, Pakistani authorities quickly launched an awareness campaign via radio, television, and print media and held meetings with clerics and prayer leaders at mosques to ensure they encouraged health precautions. But as the number of cases dropped over the summer, the coronavirus stopped making headlines and people began to treat it lightly.

According to officially reported numbers, the month of June saw the highest number with 141,000 cases and 2,850 deaths. June 13 marked the peak, with 6,825 cases reported. The curve began to flatten in late June, which gradually brought the number of daily positive cases down to a low of 181 on September 8.

Officials were also lax, which only bolstered public opinion that the virus was no longer a threat. Government ministers and other leaders attended meetings and public rallies without masks or physical distancing. Opposition parties held three mammoth rallies in major cities last month where few followed precautions. On October 17, Khan addressed an indoor gathering of party youth in Islamabad where no one wore a mask or kept their distance.

As part of the new smart lockdown, Khan’s administration declared face masks compulsory in schools, universities, and other public places. However, in a November 2 statement Education Minister Shafqat Memood said there were no plans to close schools.

False Security

Despite appeals by the government for people to wear masks and follow other guidelines like social distancing, few people in rural areas in particular appear to be doing so.

In the Swabi district in northwestern Pakistan, Mashaal correspondent Zaland Yousufzai reported that people diligently wore face masks from early March through June, but the summer’s low numbers gave a false sense of security. Now they call it a simple flu despite numerous warnings by the authorities and health experts.

Radio Mashaal correspondent Imran Younus reports that for Islamabad residents it’s business as usual in the capital. He said the wearing of masks is rare and people don’t follow the measures even in closed areas such as busy shopping malls.

Health Ministry spokesman Sajjad Hussain told Radio Mashaal that the government successfully implemented coronavirus SOPs during the first wave and is adopting the same strategy this time again. "We fear the second wave as the number of COVID cases are on the rise. Our teams are closely watching the situation in the NCOC,” he said.

According to official figures, the number of active coronavirus cases in the country was 15,317 as of November 5 while the number of deaths stand at 6,893. There were 1,302 new cases reported on November 4 and 26 deaths.

Radio Mashaal journalist Ahmadullah contributed to this story.