ISLAMABAD - Pakistan temporarily halted all international incoming and outgoing flights Saturday to try to curtail the spread of coronavirus as the national tally of confirmed infections grew to nearly 700, including three deaths.
Top government officials made the announcement at a news conference in Islamabad, noting the number of suspected patients had increased to more than 4,000 with around 3,400 under quarantine.
The two-week air traffic suspension covered passenger, charter and private flights but not those transporting cargo or diplomats, said Moeed Yusuf, an aide to the Pakistani prime minister on national security.
“We are aware of the difficulties this decision will create for roughly 200,000 passengers, a majority of them Pakistanis, who were due to arrive in Pakistan in the next two weeks,” Yusuf told reporters in Islamabad.
The government was making tough decisions as part of an all-out effort to ensure the safety and security of its people in the face of the growing threat of the COVID-19 pandemic, he stressed.
Pakistan says a majority of its confirmed and suspected cases are Shiite Muslim nationals who recently traveled to pay homage to religious sites in Iran, one of the worst-hit countries.
Return of pilgrims
Health Minister Zafar Mirza said that within the last three weeks, more than 6,000 pilgrims have come back from the neighboring country, where the virus has killed more than 1,300 Iranians and infected thousands more.
Pakistani officials say around 5,000 of their nationals remain stranded in Iran and they are expected to return in the next few days, fueling fears of a rise in the number of coronavirus cases.
Pakistani nationals traveling back from countries, including Syria, the United Kingdom, Saudi Arabia, the United States and Iraq, are also suspected of importing the virus.
National Disaster Management Authority chief General Muhammad Afzal said the government was working to import medical equipment from abroad to establish new hospitals at key points in the country to boost national anti-coronavirus efforts.
The general said emergency aid, including 20,000 virus testing kits, scanners and ventilators, had also been received from neighboring China, where the virus originated and killed more than 3,200 people.
“Starting next Friday, a bridge of aircraft will be established with China to bring medical supplies and other essential equipment to Pakistan,” he said.
Schools shut, assemblies banned
Pakistan, a country of 220 million, has closed all educational institutions and banned public meetings and wedding parties to try to prevent the pandemic from spreading in the country.
Islamabad has temporarily sealed its borders with Iran, Afghanistan and India for all human and trade traffic. It has also delayed the post-winter reopening of the country’s only overland crossing with China.
Prime Minister Imran Khan, however, has rejected domestic calls for a nationwide lockdown. “A lockdown means a curfew-like situation that will spark unrest in the country. We cannot afford that. It would make poor people more vulnerable,” Khan argued while talking to reporters on Friday.
Khan also urged the United States to lift punitive sanctions against Iran to help the country fight the coronavirus. "It is extremely cruel that they [Iranians] are dealing with an outbreak at this massive scale and remain under international sanctions at the same time."
Local media reported Saturday that a U.S. diplomat had tested positive for the coronavirus at Islamabad airport after he arrived from Doha.
The American Embassy said in a statement it was aware of reports of a COVID-19 case related to an embassy employee but did not share additional information, citing privacy concerns.
“We are aware of reports that a separate embassy employee arrived at Islamabad airport on March 21 showing signs of illness. That employee is currently being evaluated,” it said.
The embassy noted that in coordination with Pakistani authorities, the U.S. diplomatic mission was implementing all appropriate measures to help control the spread of the virus.
Washington has responded to the COVID-19 outbreak in Pakistan with initial aid of $1 million.