ISLAMABAD - Pakistan has converted hundreds of hotels into temporary quarantine centers, one of several urgent steps to ensure its traditionally ill-prepared public health care system can deal with the coronavirus pandemic.
The rapid response, critics say, is unusual in the wake of limited resources facing the cash-strapped country.
Islamabad’s close ally, Beijing, has also stepped in to deliver critical medical staff and supplies to help in limiting the effects of the pandemic.
Pakistani officials said Friday that the number of confirmed cases of coronavirus had risen to at least 1,300, and at least 11 people had died, since the country detected its first case a month ago.
The number of infections are the highest in South Asia, though Pakistani officials insist the spread is “very slow” compared with rates in other countries.
Chinese aid, struggling health care system
On Friday, China and Pakistan briefly opened their only overland crossing, known as the Khunjerab Pass, 4,700 meters above sea level, to transfer urgent medical supplies from the Chinese side, such as test kits, ventilators, face masks and protective suits.
Chinese private organizations, such as the Alibaba and Jack Ma foundations, have donated hundreds of thousands of face masks, tens of thousands of test kits, and protective suits.
“We are ready to provide whatever assistance and support to Pakistan. In China we believe in that if you give me a drop of water, I will dig a spring for you,” Yao Jing, Beijing’s ambassador to Islamabad, said in a video message.
When the coronavirus first emerged last year in Wuhan, in China’s Hubei province, Pakistan was among the first nations to respond, delivering critical medical supplies to its neighbor and staunch ally.
Critics fear that Pakistan’s strained public health care system, with a history of failing to contain infectious disease and marred by neglect, lack of funds and nepotism, is already strained and not in a position to tackle a major outbreak.
Prime Minister Imran Khan said his government had launched a massive effort to establish new hospitals and boost capacity of existing health facilities to prepare for such a scenario.
The head of Pakistan’s National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) said Thursday that the process of importing medical equipment had also been set in motion.
General Muhammad Afzal told reporters that, until a month ago, Pakistan had fewer than 500 “so-called” quarantine beds, but the number has since been increased to 162,000.
“This is because we have also booked roughly 1,795 three-star and four-star hotels, with a collective capacity of 42,000 single-bed rooms, to use them as quarantine centers. We have also locked six hotels with five-star facilities if needed,” Afzal said.
The number of intensive care units in hospitals around Pakistan has risen from 700 just a couple of weeks ago to about 20,000, Afzal said.
The general said two transport aircraft would be sent to China on Saturday to bring back roughly 100 tonnes of medical equipment.
The Chinese assistance, Afzal said, includes “walk-thorough testing technology” that will be deployed next week to conduct mass testing in Pakistani cities with higher infections.
Pakistani Health Minister Zafar Mirza has said about 7,000 people with suspected cases of COVID-19 are undergoing testing or are waiting to be tested, suggesting the number of patients is likely to increase exponentially. He told reporters Friday that the virus was behaving differently in Pakistan and that experts were trying to examine the causes, including its slow rate of infection.
“Unlike other nations where coronavirus victims are elderly people, 61% of the patients in Pakistan are between the ages of 20 and 50,” the minister said.
Khan’s government has imposed a partial lockdown in the country as part of measures to prevent the spread of the virus and has ordered all educational institutions to remain shut until the end of May.
Urgent IMF loan
Khan this week announced an economic package of around 1.2 trillion rupees ($7.3 billion) to protect people and the economy from adverse effects of the spread of COVID-19. The money will also be used to provide food rations and cash to millions of working-class and poverty-stricken Pakistanis.
The International Monetary Fund (IMF) on Friday confirmed it was looking into a request by Pakistan for an emergency loan disbursement to help fight the coronavirus.
“Our team is working expeditiously to respond to this request so that a proposal can be considered by the IMF’s executive board as soon as possible,” Kristalina Georgieva, IMF managing director, said.
The IMF statement did not discuss the size of the loan under its Rapid Financing Instrument program, but Khan’s adviser on finance, Abdul Hafeez Shaikh, said the previous day that Islamabad was seeking an additional sum worth $1.4 billion in the wake of the pandemic.
Pakistan already has received $6 billion from IMF’s Extended Fund Facility loan program to implement much-needed economic and structural reform policies for sustainable growth.
Pakistan a 'priority country'
The United States also has redirected $1 million in existing funding and provided $1 million in new funding to assist Pakistan in its fight against the coronavirus.
U.S. Ambassador to Pakistan Paul Jones said in a video message Washington had made Pakistan “a priority country” for emergency coronavirus assistance.
“The United States and Pakistan are long-standing partners in tackling global health challenges and this partnership has been critical as we work together against the coronavirus,” Jones said.