Spike in coronavirus in Pakistan as lockdown eases ‘concerning’, experts say

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Four weeks ago, with its most important festival coming up and millions of people facing starvation as economic activity dwindled, Pakistan lifted a two-month-long coronavirus lockdown.

Prime Minister Imran Khan has said despite rising infections and deaths, the country would need to learn to “live with” the virus to avert pushing tens of millions living on daily wages into destitution.

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Now, a Reuters review of government data shows over 20,000 cases of the virus were identified in the three weeks before the lockdown was lifted, and more than double that figure were identified in the three weeks since.

To be sure, testing rates have also increased. But of those tested, the daily average of positive results climbed from on average 11.5 percent in the three weeks before the lockdown was lifted, to 15.4 percent on average in the subsequent three weeks. The ratio is around 23 percent this week, according to the data.

Pakistan has officially identified over 80,000 cases of COVID-19, with 1,770 confirmed deaths.

“Those numbers are concerning, since they do suggest there may still be widespread transmission in certain parts of the country,” said Claire Standley, assistant research professor at the Department of International Health at Georgetown University.

Experts say measures that could curb cases – like limits on religious gatherings and crowded shopping areas and emphasizing social distancing – should be reinstated and some doctors are
raising the alarm.

According to a letter seen by Reuters, a committee of experts backed by the local health department in Pakistan’s most populous province, Punjab, told the provincial government the lockdown needed to continue.

The letter said random testing suggested more than 670,000 people in the provincial capital Lahore had likely contracted the virus, many of them asymptomatic.

Also read: Coronavirus: Don’t book repatriation flights online warns Pakistan consulate in Dubai

The Punjab Health Minister Yasmeen Rashid said the letter had not been disregarded but set aside in light of a Supreme Court decision that lockdowns should be lifted.

Most hospitals in Lahore are now full and are sending cases to Mayo Hospital, a public facility with more than 400 beds dedicated to COVID-19 cases, said Salman Kazmi, general secretary of the Young Doctor’s Association, who is treating coronavirus patients there.

Asad Aslam, the CEO of Mayo, however disputed claims that Lahore hospitals were saturated. “We can handle further burden of patients,” he said.

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