Coronavirus epidemic: Army called out to help civil admin

ISLAMABAD: The Punjab, Sindh and Balochistan governments called out the Pakistan Army to help them in dealing with the coronavirus pandemic, as the number of confirmed cases in the country crossed 600 on Sunday.

Punjab Chief Minister Usman Buzdar said he was calling in the military to help tackle the COVID-19 pandemic during the ongoing emergency situation. The army is being called out under Article 245.

“This is a time of emergency; we all need to face the challenge of this pandemic together,” Buzdar said. He urged all the citizens to act responsibly and stay at home for the next two days as per the restrictions imposed for social distancing.

Punjab has entered a critical phase of local transmission of coronavirus, as 70 patients were confirmed in a single day on Sunday. Adding to Saturday’s tally of 152 patients, the total number of confirmed patients has reached 222. As many as 36 patients have been confirmed Covid-19 positive in Lahore, two in Rawalpindi, three each in Jhelum and Gujrat, four in Gujranwala, one in Multan, and 153 pilgrims, who hadarrived from Iran, were declared as coronavirus positive in a quarantine set up in Dera Ghazi Khan.

As many as 20 corona patients are in the process of being shifted to different hospitals in various districts after their confirmed diagnostic reports were received Sunday. On the other hand, the Balochistan government has written to the Ministry of Interior asking for the army deployment in the province to help contain the infection from spreading.

Earlier, an influx of Pakistani pilgrims from Iran through the Taftan border had led to the spread of virus in the country, despite that the patients had been quarantined at the border. The cases were confirmed when the said people were tested again in Sukkur and other parts of Sindh, including Larkana.

Separately, Sindh Chief Minister Murad Ali Shah Sunday announced a province-wide lockdown in the province, effective midnight. “After 12am tonight [Sunday night], Sindh will undergo a lock-down,” he said.

“People will not be allowed to venture out of their homes unnecessarily,” Shah said, adding that if citizens needed to go to the hospital, only three persons would be allowed to travel in a car.

In an earlier statement issued after a meeting, the chief minister had said the government was taking this important decision in the interest of people and hoped that the public would support the government. The provincial authorities also sought army’s help to ensure compliance of its orders after people ignored the CM’s appeal on Friday to stay indoors.

Sindh is struggling to contain the coronavirus as it has reported the highest number of coronavirus cases at 292.

“We are about to take major and difficult decisions for the safety of people,” Shah said, adding that the government was concerned about the welfare of the masses. Murad also directed the utility companies to provide relief to the masses.

The Quetta Electric Supply Company (QESCO), Sukkur Electric Power Company (SEPCO) and the K-Electric have been asked not to collect bills for the ongoing month from consumers whose monthly bill was less than Rs5,000 and charge the amount in installments over the next 10 months. The same instruction is for the Sui Southern Gas Company (SSGC) as well. Consumers whose monthly bill was up to Rs2,000 should be allowed to pay the amount in 10 installments. The chief minister also said electricity and gas connections would not be disconnected in the next two months. Owners of home and shops were also asked to show flexibility in rent collection. The CM said he would request the federal government to ensure continuous supply of gas and fuel to power producers and gas distribution companies.

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Imran Khan Sunday urged the nation to opt for self-quarantine and discipline to save themselves from the coronavirus.

Addressing the nation on the state-run media, the prime minister said a complete lockdown would make life of 25 per cent population miserable, already living below the poverty line.

He said a big debate was underway that there should be complete lockdown of the country, which meant imposition of curfew and deployment of the army and police to shut people inside their homes, ensuring none comes out.

“Had there been conditions like those in the US, France, England or Italy, I would have completely locked down Pakistan. But our problem is those 25 per cent people, who live below the poverty line, which means they can’t afford two-time meal for their families. In case of complete lockdown, rickshaw wallahs, vendors, daily wagers, taxi drivers and street shopkeepers will be shut inside their homes.

“Do they have enough resources to feed their families for two weeks? Does the country have that capacity to supply food to them on their doorsteps? We don’t have that capacity now,” he maintained and conceded China did so but it was the world’s second richest country to afford this with enough resources.

But, the prime minister added, if he thought of complete lockdown, then what would be the fate of those 25 per cent people of this country. Therefore, he said, people should opt for self-quarantine and if they have complaint of flu or sneezing or cough, then they should confine themselves to homes, as 90 per cent people would be fine, if they are hit by the virus.

“We will have to be mindful of elderly people, who will have to be treated in hospital. The virus spreads fast, if precautionary measures are not observed,” he said.

The prime minister pointed out that if weddings were to be held at homes and with meals being served and holidays being celebrated, then it would spread fast.

“Then it would be a great injustice to the elderly, being our responsibility to take care of them. It was for them that the government had spared space at hospitals. It was because of this, educational institutions have been closed, as well as shopping malls and sports so that people should show ultimate responsibility and take precautionary measures on their own, applying their mind and wisdom.”

He contended that Allah Almighty tested people’s faith by putting them in difficult situations to see how they would conduct themselves; whether or not they rise to the occasion and this way, a nation has to undergo a test of difficult time.

“I have seen my nation in 2005 earthquake and then in 2010 floods. I am proud of my nation. In those two difficult times, the people, including overseas Pakistanis, braved them with steadfastness and we came out of those difficult times,” he remarked.

“Today, again, I need your support. If precautionary steps are not taken properly, then the entire nation will have to suffer. If I go for complete lockdown, it will have its own repercussions and all will have to face difficulties. That is why, I am saying that impose discipline upon yourself as well as lockdown. And then God willing, we shall come out of this difficult time, as did China,” he maintained.

The prime minister said he was quite hopeful that people would not disappoint him and they should bear in mind that he and his entire team was deliberating upon how to combat the coronavirus and how were the industries and businesses to be taken care of for which he would announce a comprehensive package on Tuesday.

He urged people to dispel the impression that there might be shortage of food items and they should go for storing food, as this would lead to panic and those having money would opt for panic buying.

“You need not worry at all. We have enough food items. There is no need to store food,” he added.

The prime minister reiterated that the most worrying thing could be panic, which would be more dangerous than the virus; if people got panicky, they would resort to buying more and then there would be shortage and some people would do silly things, which would hurt the society in real terms.

“That is why, you should have full confidence in me, we are thrashing out as to how to wriggle out of the coronavirus crisis and how to lessen your difficulties and bring improvement in your life. You will not panic and instead collectively the government and people will defeat the virus God willing, as has China,” the prime minister said.

He emphasized that the media had a very important role of not letting panic grip people. Meanwhile, prohibiting over-the-counter sale of anti-malarial drug Hydroxychloroquine, which is widely being speculated as a cure for Coronavirus Disease (COVID-19), Prime Minister’s Special Assistant on Health Dr. Zafar Mirza Sunday announced the formation of an expert group of infectious disease specialists who have been tasked with developing national treatment guidelines with reference to use of the said drug.

“With an export ban already in force, Hydroxychloroquine is going nowhere out of Pakistan. Whatever stocks we have will remain within the country. However, it will no longer be sold without prescription,” Dr. Zafar stated at the National Coordination Committee media briefing, which was also addressed by the PM’s Special Assistant on National Security Moeed Yousuf.

Dr. Zafar disclosed that during the last 36 hours, the government had completed nationwide stock-taking of chloroquine — be it in the form of tablets, injections, syrup, or raw material.

“There has been a lot of talk about Hydroxychloroquine in recent days. While research is still underway to determine its efficacy in the treatment of COVID-19, rumours started circulating about disappearance of the drug from the market. Please know that we have huge stocks of chloroquine in shape of medicines and raw material. The Drug Regulatory Authority of Pakistan has also issued an advisory regarding stocks and sale of the drug,” the SAPM stated.

Dr. Zafar said while there was no evidence supporting the use of Hydroxychloroquine as a prophylactic drug for COVID-19, standard treatment guidelines will be ready within the next couple of days.

“The group of infectious disease experts will establish how Hydroxychloroquine can be used for COVID-19 patients, in what dosage, and for how long. There are no two opinions about the fact that this medicine does not offer protection from Coronavirus,” he said contradicting the commonly held view.

Sharing the latest data, the media was informed that 188 countries were now affected by the COVID-19, with over 300,000 cases and 13,000 deaths.

The number of suspected cases in Pakistan stands at 5,650, of which 1,650 have been detected in the last 24 hours. Dr. Zafar also confirmed 112 COVID-19 cases during the last 24 hours, with the total number of laboratory confirmed cases in Pakistan being 646.

A provincial break-up shows Sindh as being the worst affected province with 292 confirmed cases, followed by Punjab (152), Balochistan (104), Gilgit-Baltistan (5), Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (31), Islamabad (11), and Azad Jammu and Kashmir (1).

Dr. Zafar said by the end of one month, 5,000 doctors will have attended a crash course on treatment and management of COVID-19 patients in the first phase of a capacity-building programme.

He also repeated simple measures that the public can take to keep themselves protected from Coronavirus, and later tweeted: “Corona will not come to your homes till such time that you yourself go out and bring it in with you.”

Meantime, Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi Sunday emphasised the need for a uniform national policy to deal with the coronavirus, saying the provinces and the federation were not separate from one another.

Qureshi requested the provinces to put forward their recommendations to the National Coordination Committee rather than taking decisions separately.

“Those recommendations which can be implemented will be considered by the federal government and will be implemented,” said Qureshi.

The foreign minister regretted that people were not taking the coronavirus seriously. Qureshi said that Prime Minister Imran Khan had emphasised that the situation was changing rapidly, requiring greater self-discipline.

He said China had adopted a targeted approach to tackle the coronavirus with the help of its people. “We are appealing to the people to take this matter seriously. It is this century’s biggest pandemic challenge,” said the foreign minister.

In a related development, Adviser to the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Chief Minister on Information Ajmal Wazir announced the country’s fourth death from the novel coronavirus on Sunday, as the nationwide tally of confirmed cases rose to 761.

Speaking to reporters in Peshawar, Wazir said the test results of a woman who had arrived from Taftan and shifted to Dera Ismail Khan had come as positive on Sunday, making it the province’s third coronavirus related death.

Wazir in the presser also said the provincial tally of confirmed cases in the province was still at 31. Earlier this week, two patients from KP who tested positive for the coronavirus had died, officials said. However, both had a travel history in countries that have been hit by the outbreak.