Pakistan decided Sunday to temporarily suspend incoming pedestrian movement at overland border crossings with Afghanistan and Iran to “restrain import of any new mutation” of the coronavirus.
The restriction will take effect Tuesday night and remain in place until May 20, said the National Command and Operation Center (NCOC), which oversees Pakistan’s response to the outbreak.
Pakistani nationals in Afghanistan and Iran, as well as Afghans seeking extreme emergency medical treatment in Pakistan will, however, be allowed to enter the country. All outbound pedestrian movement will be permissible, the statement said.
The tightened border controls come a day after officials in the southern Pakistani province of Sindh said they had detected the South African and Brazilian coronavirus variants in “some samples.” The highly contagious variants have raised fears of escalations in new infections.
A British variant, however, officially remains the primary source of the current surge in infections across Pakistan.
The country of about 220 million people detected the virus a year ago and has since reported more than 18,000 deaths among an estimated 830,000 infections. They included 113 deaths and 4,414 new cases authorities reported Sunday.
The NCOC said the border restriction will not be applicable to bilateral and transit cargo/trade movement with Afghanistan and Iran, but that drivers will undergo “thermal scanning” at border terminals.
Pakistan shares a nearly 2,600-kilometer border with Afghanistan and about a 930-kilometer border with Iran.
Pakistan’s special representative to Afghanistan, Mohammad Sadiq, defended the border restriction, calling it “the most important step” in curbing the wave of infections.
“The spread of COVID-19 is alarming. It is important that we take difficult decisions to protect our people from this scourge,” Sadiq tweeted.
Thousands of Afghan pedestrians travel daily in both directions. They are mostly members of the Afghan refugee community, students and patients seeking treatment in relatively better Pakistani health facilities.
Pakistan has already banned land and air travel from India because of the devastating wave of coronavirus cases across the neighboring country, which on Sunday recorded its highest daily death toll since the start of the pandemic, with nearly 3,700 people dying in 24 hours.
The health crisis in India has sparked fears Pakistan may be next. The traditionally neglected and underfunded Pakistani health care system, critics say, may not be able to sustain the kind of pressure and surge of cases India is experiencing.
The Pakistani government last week called in troops to assist civilian law enforcement agencies in strictly implementing coronavirus public safety measures to stem the record number of deaths from the infection in recent days.
Authorities have placed virus hotspot areas either under complete or partial lockdowns and are racing to increase the number of beds as well ventilators to hospitals across Pakistan to stave off shortages.
Pakistan authorities launched a nationwide vaccination campaign in February but just over 2 million people have so far been inoculated, the lowest rate in South Asia.