Pakistan began quarantining at least 200 people near the Iranian border, officials said yesterday, as fears spiralled over the growing toll from the coronavirus in the region amid allegations of a cover-up in Iran.
The quarantine announcement came hours after Pakistan sealed off its land border with Iran, while neighbouring Afghanistan said it had detected its first infection.
It also came as Iranian authorities denied allegations of an official cover-up following reports that dozens of deaths had gone unreported in the country.
Special Assistant to the Prime Minister on Health Zafar Mirza said yesterday that Pakistan is concerned about the outbreak in Iran, but stands in solidarity with Tehran as it managed the outbreak in the city of Qom.
“We’re concerned with the outbreak of #COVID2019 in Qom/Iran causing 5 deaths. We are alert and monitoring the situation closely and taking rapid actions to keep Pakistan safe,” he tweeted. “We fully support efforts of IR Iran in managing the outbreak and we stand in solidarity with them.”
In Baluchistan province, the authorities moved fast to quarantine at least 200 people after Shia pilgrims returning from Iran entered the country and briefly interacted with residents.
“We have decided not to take a chance, and keep all of them under observation for the next 15 days,” Najeebullah Qambrani, assistant commissioner at the Taftan border crossing, told AFP, saying that 250 people were being quarantined.
Baluchistan’s secretary of health Mudassir Malik confirmed the quarantine but estimated that between 200 and 250 were being held.
He added that around 7,000 pilgrims had returned to Pakistan from Iran this month alone.
A large number of pilgrims and traders travel to Iran via the Taftan border crossing daily.
Authorities sealed the border and introduced screening procedures and increased patrolling in a bid to ensure the infection does not spread to Baluchistan.
The decision comes a day after Baluchistan Chief Minister Jam Kamal Khan announced that an emergency had been imposed in the province due to the outbreak of the virus in Iran.
However, flights to and from Iran have not been suspended, confirmed an official of the Civil Aviation Authority.
“The staff of health ministry is already present at the airports and a passenger is allowed entry only after clearance of health declaration,” he said.
Afghanistan and Pakistan share porous borders with Iran that are often used by smugglers and human traffickers, while millions of Afghan refugees live in the Islamic Republic – raising fears that the virus could easily spread over the border.
Pakistan – bordered by China to the north and Iran to the south – also suffers the burden of having a lacklustre healthcare system following decades of under-investment by the state, leaving impoverished, rural communities especially vulnerable.
Baluchistan in particular is woefully unprepared to handle a public health emergency after being beset for decades by a separatist insurgency, religious extremist violence, and neglect from the central government.
The novel coronavirus has spread to more than 25 countries, with more than 2,500 dead in China, and is causing mounting alarm due to new pockets of outbreaks in Europe, the Middle East and Asia.
Meanwhile, Baluchistan government spokesman Liaquat Shahwani said that Pakistan had decided to keep its pilgrims in Iran for the time being.
He added that the provincial government had decided that Pakistanis from districts bordering Iran will not be allowed to travel to the country.
“The government is alert about the coronavirus. We are speaking to the Iranian government about our pilgrims in Iran,” he said.
Shahwani said that pilgrims from Iran will be allowed to enter Pakistan after a thorough screening process.
He said that isolation wards had been set up, medicines are being provided, and doctors are monitoring the situation at the border.
Shahwani said that the provincial government has asked the Iranian government to give clearance certificates for its people coming to Pakistan.
“People coming from Iran will be quarantined there for 14 days,” he said.
“Very few people will travel to Iran from Pakistan. However, more people from Iran come into Pakistan via the crossing,” Shahwani added.
He said that only those who had a clearance certificate will be allowed to enter into the country from Iran.
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