Federal ministers announce major relaxations to movement restrictions as prime minister warns cases will continue to rise for months
Prime Minister Imran Khan on Thursday announced that Pakistan would from Saturday gradually start ending ongoing lockdowns to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus, adding that this decision had to be taken as “our people are suffering.”
Addressing a nationally televised media briefing after a meeting of the National Coordination Committee, the prime minister admitted that confirmed case of COVID-19 were increasing daily, as were deaths. “We cannot yet say when we will hit our peak,” he said. “It could be two months from now, or three months from now,” he said, adding that the country could not sustain being shut down indefinitely.
According to Khan, Pakistan’s economy was already struggling prior to the coronavirus pandemic, and it has only gotten worse. He said there had been a 35 percent reduction in tax revenue, and the government could not afford to take care of everyone impacted by the lockdowns.
“Laborers, daily wagers, rickshaw drivers, taxi drivers are facing difficulty in earning their livelihoods,” he said. “Small- and medium-enterprises are in danger of closing permanently,” he said, noting the government had already provided a massive relief package under the Ehsaas program, but this could not continue.
Urging people to take responsibility for their own protection, the prime minister said that the success of the next phase depends on people following the standard operating procedures (SOPs) issued by the government to ensure social distancing and prevent the virus from spreading.
He warned that if people failed to follow the guidelines and cases spiked—though he did not clarify what that spike would entail as cases have already started increasing by 1,000/day—the government would be forced to enforce the lockdown once more.
The prime minister said he had wanted to restore public transport services, but there had been pushback from provincial authorities and so the idea had been shelved. “I have asked Asad Umar to keep discussing the matter with the provinces so we can alleviate their concerns, and resume it,” he added.
After Khan, the focal person on coronavirus Dr. Faisal Sultan told media that while the number of COVID-19 cases in Pakistan was rising, it was primarily due to an increased testing capacity. He claimed the country’s coronavirus trajectory is “slower than other countries,” and claimed there is now sufficient data for Pakistan to create its own projection models.
However, Sultan warned, the ease in lockdowns did not mean the virus had been defeated. He urged people to exercise precautions, and also noted that other diseases could be missed because of the coronavirus pandemic.
The Planning Minister told the briefing that it had been decided to allow markets—small retailers, sectors related to construction, neighborhood shops—to open for five days a week. He said that shops would be allowed to open after sehri during Ramzan, and would be required to close by iftar or risk penalties.
He said the government had also decided to open select out-patient departments in various hospitals to allow for continued treatment of specific diseases and illnesses.
According to Umar, it is a “misconception” that the government cares more for the economy than the lives of the people. “The quality of life of the impoverished has been significantly impacted,” he said, adding that all decisions had been taken in cooperation and consultation with provincial governments.
Umar also announced that the government had decided to delay reopening schools amid rising case of coronavirus, with Education Minister Shafqat Mahmood saying that schools, universities and other educational institutions would now reopen after July 15.
The minister said that it had also been decided to cancel all board exams. “We will pass/fail students based on their results from the previous year,” he said, adding that there would be compromise on students’ health or education.
The Federal Industries minister said it has been unanimously decided to open all allied industries of the construction sector, including paint and pipe mills, ceramics and tiles, electrical and industry, and hardware stores across Pakistan.
Special Assistant to the P.M. on National Security Yusuf sought to clarify the belief that most of the stranded nationals being flown back to the country were testing positive for the coronavirus. “Please do not stigmatize those returning to the country,” he said, adding that this had not happened in the majority of flights.
“Only 30-40 percent of the returning passengers have tested positive and we are in discussions with the origin countries to determine how to prevent this,” he said.
The prime minister concluded the briefing by once again addressing members of the volunteer Corona Relief Tiger Force. He urged them to educate people in their neighborhoods on how to protect themselves from COVID-19, and advised them to clarify misconceptions about the virus and encourage anyone with symptoms to immediately get tested.
Pakistan on Thursday hit 24,073 confirmed cases of the coronavirus, with 564 deaths and 6,464 recoveries. Nationwide, there are presently 17,045 active cases of COVID-19.