A train that has been converted into a Covid-19 ward.
Photo credit: Twitter Posted on 30/03/2020

According to Pakistan’s Ministry of National Health Service, as of 30th April there have been 16,117 cases of the coronavirus in Pakistan, with 358 of these patients unfortunately succumbing to the virus. At first glance Pakistan appears to be less vulnerable to the virus due to its youthful population, warm climate and widespread administration of the TB vaccine (which research has suggested may reduce the impact of coronavirus). However, the country borders China and Iran, two of the most heavily Covid-19 affected countries. In addition, Pakistan’s major cities, Karachi and Lahore, are two of the world’s most populated cities, thus the risk of infection spreading within these cities is obviously very high.

Initially, Prime Minister Imran Khan was criticised for resisting increasing international pressure to enforce a hard lockdown. However, this now appears to have been a smart decision. Much of the Pakistani population consists of migrant workers who have moved from rural villages to major cities to earn their livelihood. Evidence from neighbouring countries with similar demographics, that enforced a sudden and hard lockdown, led to millions of migrant employee’s workplace being closed and as many of these people live at their employment sites, workers and their families including small children were left with no home. In effect this led to mass gatherings at train stations and many people travelling hundreds of miles on foot in their quest to make their way home, battling hunger and fatigue. The Pakistani Prime Minister argued that in a poor country the impact of a hard lockdown would lead to an unprecedented amount of mortality due to hunger and starvation, potentially even more than Covid-19 related mortality. In light of seeing the effects of a hard lockdown in Pakistan’s neighbouring countries, most citizens now support the Prime Minister’s decision.

Pakistani celebrities have collaborated to make a short film called ‘call to action’ to raise awareness on the corona virus.
Photo credit: Twitter Posted on 24/04/2020

Instead, Pakistan is trying to curb the spread of the virus by enforcing strict social distancing rules, a soft lockdown, school closures, banning of large social gatherings and suspension of major travel services. Whilst train transportation services have been suspended in the country, the railway is still in use. Trains have been converted into mobile Covid-19 wards, to provide citizens living in remote areas with access to healthcare and ease pressure on healthcare services in high-infection areas. Also this has the added benefit of infected patients not having to travel to get to hospitals, which further reduces the risk of spreading the virus.  In addition, a government funded relief programme has also been launched with $70 payments being given to 12 million poverty-stricken families to provide social protection. However, for a poor country this will be unsustainable in the event that Covid-19 persists for a longer period of time.

Social distancing lines for facilities in Pakistan.
Photo credit: Twitter Posted on 26/03/2020

The lockdown has also sparked widespread conversations throughout the country and between major leaders regarding the Kashmir humanitarian crisis, as citizens are now able to empathize with Kashmiris who have been in a military-forced lockdown and communications blackout since August 2019. This has led to the Prime Minister also investing time into increasing awareness of this situation and engaging in a number of discussions with the United Nations regarding these human rights violations.

As the holy month of Ramadan has begun, a time when mosques are at their busiest, Pakistan needs to take careful steps to prevent an increase of infection spread. Precautionary rules have been enforced including worshipers having to maintain a 6ft distance during congregational prayers, no hand shaking and no gatherings after prayer. The government has advised mosques to close and is advising worshipers to stay at home for their prayers. However, the government has controversially insisted that it will be impossible to close down mosques as poorer communities rely on mosques for survival, and especially since this is a time that many people are seeking solace in their religion in light of the virus. In addition, there are concerns that some religious groups may protest on the streets in large gatherings if mosques are forcefully shut, following incidences of this having already occurred in isolated areas in response to the government advising closure.

Overall, Pakistan has a relatively lower infection rate than its surrounding countries. The Country Head of the World Health Organisation, Dr Palitha Gunarathna Mahipala applauded Pakistan for its ‘timely’ and ‘best national response’, in addition to saying that ‘Pakistan was keeping the virus at bay, which is something quite praiseworthy’. However, he has also expressed the need for more diagnostic facilities in case of the number of suspected patients increasing. We hope that Pakistan will be able to continue with its efforts at controlling the virus, and its citizens will continue to express their characteristic generosity by helping each other as they work to overcome the virus.

Ayla Mahmud
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Ayla Mahmud is a 4th year Dental Student at King’s College London. She previously completed a Biomedical Science BSc and has a particular interest in dental public health. She recently completed a summer programme studying dental public health at Harvard University. She is from London, UK with Pakistani heritage.