ISLAMABAD - Scores of lawmakers and government officials in Pakistan have tested positive for the coronavirus over the last week as the national tally of infections surged Wednesday to about 114,000.
The South Asian nation of 220 million people recorded the highest number of confirmed COVID-19 cases Wednesday since the outbreak hit Pakistan in late February.
Several members of national and provincial legislatures are among nearly 2,300 Pakistanis who died after contracting the virus. The speaker of the National Assembly barred members from attending house sessions unless they are tested for the virus.
COVID-19 infections have particularly soared since late last month when the government relaxed nationwide restrictions on commercial and public activities. Hospitals, particularly in major Pakistani cities, have warned over the past several days they are running out of space, and some even turned away new patients.
WHO skeptical of response
The escalation in the COVID-19 outbreak prompted the World Health Organization (WHO) this week to urge Pakistan to impose a new round of public lockdown restrictions to curb the spread of the disease.
Palitha Mahipala, the WHO’s country chief, wrote a letter to health authorities in Punjab, Pakistan’s most populous province, suggesting intermittent lockdowns of “two weeks on, two weeks off” to combat the virus.
The strategy, Mahipala said, would keep economic activity going in the country. He also recommended Pakistani officials double their testing capacity to 50,000. "As of today, Pakistan does not meet any of the prerequisite conditions for opening the lockdown,” said Mahipala.
Pakistani Health Minister Zafar Mirza, while responding to the WHO assertions Wednesday, defended the government policy, reiterating that lockdowns would badly impact the poorest in a country where two-thirds of the population depend on day-to-day earnings.
“The government's choice of policies has been guided by the best evidence available about the disease spread and our best assessment of the fast deteriorating socioeconomic conditions in the country," Mirza said in a statement.
Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan has been under fire for opposing a complete coronavirus lockdown despite accelerating COVID-19 infections. Khan has said that about 150 million people in Pakistan would suffer from starvation because his cash-starved government cannot feed them beyond a few months.
Meanwhile, the Paris Club of creditor nations has agreed to suspend debt service payments from several more countries, including Pakistan, as part of a G-20 (the grouping of 20 leading economies) debt relief deal in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak.
The overall debt relief means the suspension of $1.8 billion payable by Pakistan over the next year.
The Paris Club said in a statement it had agreed to suspend interest and principal repayments from Chad, Ethiopia, Pakistan and Republic of Congo in the latest wave of countries given some financial leeway to help them focus on fighting the coronavirus pandemic.