FeaturedNationalVOLUME 15 ISSUE # 18

Covid-19: Hoping against hope

The government has allowed mosques to arrange Taraweeh prayers in Ramazan under 20-point standard operating procedures to avoid the spread of the coronavirus. The decision could compound the situation at a time when the number of deaths has risen to over 300 and the cases have already exceeded 13,000. Though the fatality rate is low, yet it is feared Pakistan may have to face the pandemic for a longer period than the rest of the world.

The government is also aware of the impending threat, though it has allowed mosques to hold congregational prayers in Ramazan, perhaps under pressure from the powerful religious circles. The government has cautioned people that the coronavirus can rapidly spread in Ramazan, leaving a frail health system incapable of treating all patients. The warning came from Special Assistant to the Prime Minister on Health Dr Zafar Mirza hours after an ENT surgeon in Peshawar died from the coronavirus amid doctors’ concerns over the government measures to contain the local transmission of the contagion.

The government has allowed congregational prayers in mosques despite severe reservations by doctors and health experts. In a number of press conferences, doctor organizations demanded the government enforce a strict lockdown and ensure the protection of frontline health professionals. Doctors and paramedics in Quetta, Karachi and Lahore also protested against the non-provision of personal protective equipment to them. Prominent health experts and representatives of major associations of physicians and surgeons appealed to the federal and provincial governments to enforce strict measures for several more weeks, aimed at curbing the spread of Covid-19, warning that the total number of Pakistanis testing positive could top 70,000 by May 15. They said that up to 10pc of all Covid-19 patients could require ventilators, but the country’s healthcare system didn’t have the equipment in such high numbers. They also called for a ban on all types of gatherings and congregations, including those at shopping malls and mosques, saying people should not gather at any place over the next one to two months so that the transmission of the virus could be avoided as much as possible. They also urged ulema and people to offer prayers at homes.

Their warning was based on latest figures, which show it took 46 days for the first 5,000 cases of the virus to emerge in the country, but it took only 12 days for the cases to double. And, the number of deaths more than doubled — from 86 on April 11 to 220 only 12 days later. It indicates an exponential growth in the cases. The medical professionals had rightly advised the government against allowing gatherings at mosques, markets or at other places.

Ignoring their advice, the government allowed Taraweeh prayers at mosques under 20-point SOPs, which say there will be no carpets in mosques and Imambargahs; people will be encouraged to bring their own prayer mats; social distancing will be observed; no discussions will be allowed; mosques which have compounds will hold prayers outside; elderly and sick people will not come to mosques; Taraweeh preparations will be made only on mosque premises, not on roads; people will be encouraged to offer Taraweeh at home; mosque floors will be washed with chlorine disinfectants; prayer mats will also be disinfected with chlorine mixture; congregational rows will be formed with a six-foot distance between worshippers; committees will be formed to ensure preventive steps are followed; ablution should be performed at home; mandatory wearing of masks at mosques; no handshakes or hugs will be allowed; worshippers will refrain from touching their faces; people will be encouraged to perform Aitekaf (prayers in isolation) at home; no preparations for sehri and iftari will be made in mosques; mosque administration will remain in contact with the local police and cooperate with them; mosque administration and the police will ensure social distancing is maintained during prayers; and the government can review and change any part of its policy on mosques during Ramazan if the measures are not followed or the rise in Covid-19 cases is exponential. According to media reports, almost 80pc of mosques are not following the SOPs. It may lead to a sharp rise in the cases.

As confirmed coronavirus cases jumped past 11,700 with 248 deaths, the government decided to extend the lockdown till the middle of Ramazan (May 9), while cautioning the nation that the anti-virus fight had entered a decisive phase that would set the future course of action regarding the restrictions. The second extension in the lockdown was made with consensus, though some provinces demanded longer and some shorter extension in the lockdown. In a bid to contain the virus, the government is using the track and trace system of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) to identify affected people and areas.

It is feared the pandemic may persist in Pakistan till June while Europe and America are likely to control it in May. In fact, the disease has spread more rapidly in the past few weeks. Almost 80pc beds in isolation wards and intensive care units of hospitals, where Covid-19 patients are being treated, have already been occupied. It is feared there will be no space left for the patients even in isolation wards while the country already lacks ventilators for serious patients. However, despite the grim situation, it is hoped the death toll from the virus will remain low, as has been the case since the first case was detected in Pakistan in February despite serious warnings and gloomy forecasts by health professionals and the government.