ISLAMABAD – Pakistan moved Friday to temporarily seal borders with Iran and Afghanistan, close all educational institutions and ban large gatherings at public places for three weeks, including wedding parties, to prevent the coronavirus pandemic from spreading in the region.
The preventative measures were announced on a day when officials raised to 28 the national tally of people infected with the virus. Pakistan, with a population of more than 200 million, has reported no fatalities since detecting its first confirmed case late last month.
State Minister of Health Zafar Mirza said that all of Pakistan’s cases were imported by its nationals returning from countries, including Iran, Syria, China and the United Kingdom. He said there were no local transmissions of the virus as of Friday.
Syrian authorities, however, are reported to have denied the presence of coronavirus on their soil, saying dozens of suspected cases have tested negative.
Dr. Zafar Mirza, Special Assistant to the Prime Minister on National Health, speaks to reporters in Quetta, Pakistan, Feb. 26, 2020.
Mirza and other senior cabinet colleagues told a Friday night news conference that the decision to introduce emergency measures was taken at a meeting of the national security council chaired by Prime Minister Imran Khan and attended by top civilian and military leaders.
“We are completely closing our western border with Iran and Afghanistan for all human and commercial traffic for two weeks,” Mirza said. The only overland border crossing with China will also remain closed for another two weeks for all traffic.
“This will allow us to boost existing screening systems at entry points there to prevent infected people from entering Pakistan,” Mirza said, adding the decision would be reviewed after two weeks.
A health official of an emergency rescue service checks the body temperature of a government employee in Peshawar, Pakistan, March 12, 2020.
Pakistan shares a roughly 900-kilometer border with Iran, where officials have confirmed that COVID-19 has killed more than 500 people and that well over 10,000 others have been infected.
Pakistan’s border with landlocked Afghanistan stretches to nearly 2,600 kilometers, with several authorized entry points for people and trade as well as transit activities. Afghan officials have confirmed seven coronavirus cases, linking them with the Iranian outbreak
Mirza said Pakistan also decided to restrict outgoing and incoming international flights to only three airports in the country, in Islamabad, Karachi and Lahore, saying screening measures at those airports would be reinforced immediately.
Pakistan’s air links with Iran and China, where the coronavirus outbreak originated, remain suspended in the wake of the outbreak in both countries.
A barber wears a protective mask as a preventive measure amid coronavirus fears, as he gives a haircut to a customer along a road in Peshawar, Pakistan, March 13, 2020.
Schools closed, gatherings banned
Mirza said public and private schools as well as technical institutions across Pakistan would remain closed for three weeks. All public gatherings will be banned, including wedding halls and cinemas, for two weeks.
Pakistan’s chief justices are being requested to instruct all courts not to schedule cases for three weeks, and no visitors will be allowed to visit prisoners in jails during this period, Mirza said.
Critics note that Pakistan, like other South Asian countries, is ill-equipped to deal with a large-scale health emergency such as coronavirus because of a poor and deteriorating health infrastructure.
Army spokesman Major General Babar Iftikhar confirmed to VOA on Friday that the annual national day military parade scheduled for March 23, where thousands of guests are invited, had also been canceled.
Organizers of Pakistan’s largest national cricket competition, which features prominent international players, also shortened and closed its remaining matches to spectators. Many foreign players have opted to leave Pakistan.