ISLAMABAD - Pakistan extended a partial lockdown for two more weeks Friday to contain the spread of the coronavirus in the country, though the number of confirmed cases is relatively very low.
Officials say more than 11,000 Pakistanis have contracted the virus, at least 240 have died and more than 2,500 have recovered since the pandemic hit the South Asian nation of 220 million people in late February.
Federal Minister Asad Umar, who heads the government body dealing with the COVID-19 crisis, told reporters the restrictions on public movements would remain in place until May 9. He cited prevailing concerns that the number of cases could spike in Pakistan in the coming weeks.
The head of the World Health Organization warned Thursday that "without effective interventions" an estimated 200,000-plus people in Pakistan could contract the coronavirus by mid-July.
"The impacts on the economy could be devastating, doubling the number of people living in poverty," Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said while participating in the virtual launch of Pakistan's "preparedness and response plan" to deal with the health and economic fallouts of the pandemic.
Tracing suspected patients
Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan revealed Thursday that the country's main spy agency, Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), is using its counterterrorism "track and trace system" to locate people who may have been in contact with coronavirus patients.
Participating in a live broadcast for fundraising to support the government's economic relief plans, Khan said the ISI is effectively using its system to limit local transmissions of the pandemic.
It will enable the government, he said, to move toward a "smart lockdown," allowing more businesses to reopen and restore the livelihoods for millions of daily wagers in Pakistan who are suffering from weeks of restrictions on movement.
Khan's government has announced an $8 billion emergency economic stimulus package to hand out cash grants of more than $70 each to 12 million low-income families and to support businesses that are hard hit by the economic shutdown.
Despite opposition criticism and demands from doctors' unions, Khan has refused to impose a total lockdown in Pakistan, fearing it would have devastating impacts on daily wagers and the poorest in a country where nearly 40% of people live below the poverty line.
China gives more aid
Meanwhile, two special aircraft flew into Pakistan from China, bringing a 10-member team of military doctors along with more emergency medical supplies and equipment as part of Beijing's continued assistance in helping Islamabad fight the virus.
The Chinese doctors, with expertise in treating infectious diseases, will support local health officials during their two-month stay in the country, a Pakistani military statement said.
"The Chinese support reaffirms that being 'Iron Brothers' and 'All-Weather' friends, Pakistan and China have always helped each other in the time of need," it added.
Beijing's ambassador to Islamabad, Yao Jing, said this week that his government had already donated $4 million in cash to help build a quarantine hospital in the Pakistani capital for coronavirus patients.
He noted another team of Chinese doctors visited Pakistan last month and shared their expertise on how to effectively prevent the spread of the virus and treat patients.
"We have also donated around 150,000 PCR [test] kits, more than 3 million medical masks, 500,000 N95 masks and about 200 ventilators so far," the Chinese envoy said, adding that more assistance was on the way.