ISLAMABAD - Pakistan's Prime Minister Imran Khan deployed the army into cities Friday to assist in enforcing coronavirus public safety restrictions to contain the pandemic outbreak, warning the country may soon be facing a health crisis similar to that of neighboring India unless the current tide of infections is reversed.
Khan addressed the nation after chairing an emergency meeting of his top advisors as the number of COVID-19 infections soar across the country of about 220 million people.
"I have also asked the Pakistan army to now come out on the streets and help our law enforcement, our police to ensure people are strictly following (COVID-19) SOPs (standard operating procedures), including wearing masks," he said.
Officials said hospitals in major Pakistani cities, including the capital, Islamabad, are nearly filled to capacity with coronavirus patients.
Pakistan has recorded more than 784,000 confirmed COVID-19 cases, including at least 17,000 deaths, since the start of the pandemic early last year. Officials said Friday 144 deaths and nearly 5,900 new cases of infection had been reported in the last 24 hours.
Pakistan's prime minister said people are still violating social distancing rules, noting that so far, he has resisted calls from health care workers to impose a nationwide lockdown to contain the spread of the virus. But Khan added the government may not resist those calls for long.
"If our circumstances become the same as India, then we will have to close down cities. We really don't want to do that because we know that the poor suffer the most when lockdowns are imposed," Khan said.
Federal Minister Asad Umar, who heads the national response to the outbreak, said authorities were struggling to maintain the much-needed supply of oxygen to hospitals across Pakistan for COVID-19 patients, as the number of cases soars.
"We have reached 90% capacity of oxygen supplies and a big chunk of it is being used to treat patients with coronavirus infection," Umar said while speaking alongside Khan.
The Pakistani government has imposed partial lockdowns in virus hotspots, closing all educational institutions in areas with a five percent positivity rate, banning public gatherings, sports events and wedding ceremonies.
The restrictions were further tightened Friday, restaurant dining was banned after 6 p.m., and only essential trade allowed after those hours.
Help offered to India
Meanwhile, Pakistan's prominent Edhi charity has offered to send its ambulances and medical staff to help Indian authorities deal with the devastating health crisis.
Faisal Edhi, the head of the Edhi Foundation, said he had conveyed his offer through a letter to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
"We sympathize with you greatly and during this strenuous time, we would like to extend our help in the form of a fleet of 50 ambulances along with our services to assist you in addressing, and further circumventing, the current health conditions," Edhi wrote.
India reported the world's highest daily tally of COVID-19 cases for the second day Friday, surpassing 330,000 new infections amid an alarming shortage of oxygen for patients and beds in hospitals across the world's second most populous country.
"Pakistan's Edhi Foundation, founded by the late great Abdul Sattar Edhi, has done what most of the world's richest governments have declined to do: Extend an offer of assistance to an Indian nation deeply in need," tweeted Michael Kugelman, deputy Asia program director at Washington-based Wilson Center. "This is the example that must be set, and that the world must see."
The devastating health crisis in the neighboring country, prompted people in Pakistan to take to Twitter expressing sympathy and solidarity with Indians, and urging the Khan government to offer help to India, Pakistan's arch-rival. The hashtag #IndiaNeedsOxygen becoming a top trend Friday.
Tensions between India and Pakistan, the two nuclear-armed rivals, have gradually eased since February when their militaries agreed to restore a mutual truce in the disputed Kashmir region.