Students wearing facemasks and gloves take part in an assembly at a school in Karachi on September 15, 2020 after the educational institutes were reopened nearly six months after the spread of the Covid-19 coronavirus. Photo: AFP/Asif Hassan

PESHAWAR – Pakistan’s coronavirus outbreak is surging again with authorities imposing new “mini, smart lockdowns” to prevent a second wave of infections as winter approaches and Pakistanis increasingly flout social distancing and mask-wearing precautions.

Daily infection rates have recently doubled over tallies recorded in August, with 615 new cases reported on October 14. At least 6,600 Pakistanis have died from the virus, with another 518 patients currently in critical condition, according to government statistics.

Underscoring the severity of the disease’s recent surge, Chief Minister of Balochistan province has tested positive for the virus and his currently in quarantine, he revealed over social media.  

Sindh province and Pakistan-administered Kashmir have both been hit hard by the new outbreak, prompting the authorities to reimpose partial and full lockdowns in areas to contain local transmission of disease.

Mini smart lockdowns have been imposed in Karachi, Islamabad and Pakistan-occupied Kashmir.

The new outbreak has been linked to the reopening of educational institutions. Universities and colleges reopened from September 15, while primary schools resumed operations from September 30.

A health official (L) collects a swab sample from a student to test for the Covid-19 coronavirus at a government school in Lahore on October 1, 2020. Photo: AFP/Arif Ali

The pandemic resurged soon thereafter and dozens of schools and universities have been closed since hundreds of students, faculty members and employees tested positive.

Prime Minister Imran Khan tweeted earlier this month that cold winter weather could cause a second spell of the pandemic. He warned the people to use face masks in public to avoid infections.

Minister of Planning and head of National Command and Operation Center (NCOC) Asad Umar has said that indoor restaurants and marriage halls were “super-spreaders” of the virus. He announced smart, mini-lockdowns for certain cities to contain the spread.

Dr Khizar Hayat, chairman of Young Doctor Association Punjab, however, said the recent rise in coronavirus cases was still negligible and not alarming.

“Yes, patients do come to hospitals for treatment but not in the intensity we used to see in May-June when a multitude of patients would swarm into the hospitals,” he said, adding that perhaps people now prefer to approach doctors only when the disease gets alarmingly serious.  

In mid-June, Pakistan was at the peak of its Covid-19 outbreak with daily spread hitting the 7,000 mark. The situation stabilized by mid-June onward when the pandemic started to show a clear downward trajectory.

It is still a mystery how Pakistan flattened the curve considering most did not observe by now accepted precautions such as mask-wearing and social distancing, including for religious and social gatherings.

A passenger waring a facemask sits on a bus in a street in Karachi on June 8, 2020. Photo: AFP/Asif Hassan

Experts give various explanations for an unanticipated plunge in the spread and transmission of the contagious disease. Some attribute the fall-off to high summer temperatures.

A pre-published thesis on the “Impact of Heat Index and Ultraviolet Index on Covid-19 in Major Cities of Pakistan” in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine makes such an argument.

The thesis, compiled by Shahzada Adnan, Muhammad Hanif, Azmat Hayat Khan and their team examined the impacts of the Heat index (HI) and Ultraviolet index (UVI) on daily Covid-19 cases in Pakistan’s major cities including Karachi, Lahore, and Peshawar.

In their examination, the medical experts evaluated the significance of basic reproductive number (RO), growth rate (Gr) and doubling time (Td) of the coronavirus with HI and UVI. The study found both indices showed a significant positive correlation to R0, Td and Gr of Covid-19.

In sum, the study’s results showed that the minimum threshold temperature of 33°C for HI had a significant impact on the prevalence of new cases. The study also concluded that HI and UVI had a significant impact on the decline of Covid-19 cases in the region.

While Pakistan has so far avoided a Covid-19 health catastrophe, as seen in neighboring India, it’s economy has felt the blow.

From March to June, Pakistan received around $2.6 billion worth of grants in cash and kind from the World Bank (WB), Asian Development Bank (ADB), International Monetary Fund (IMF), Islamic Development Bank (IDB) and the US government.

Pakistan has also approached G20 countries for debt relief of over $2 billion. Among the G20 creditors, China and Japan are the major contributors of over $14 billion.

An employee walks past a closed restaurant after being sealed by authorities for violating Covid-19 coronavirus prevention guidelines in the Pakistani port city of Karachi, October 2, 2020. Photo: AFP/Asif Hassan

International financial agencies disbursed these grants with the understanding that Islamabad would take timely and effective measures to strengthen the country’s healthcare system and mitigate socioeconomic disruptions.

None of these objectives, however, has arguably been met. Pakistan’s response to the coronavirus pandemic has been inadequate as hospitals still lack crucial protective suits and other supplies.   

Dr. Farrukh Saleem, an Islamabad-based Pakistani economist, financial analyst and former member of the prime minister’s economic advisory council, told the Asia Times that the pandemic has impacted the economy on numerous counts.

“We estimate around 10 million people would become jobless in the industrial, services and manufacturing sectors but as compared to the developed world the situation here is not so bad,” he said, noting that 42% of Pakistan’s labor force work in agriculture, which has seen little or no impact from the pandemic.

A research paper entitled “Impact of Covid-19 pandemic on micro, small, and medium-sized enterprises operating in Pakistan” shows that Pakistan has lost around one-third of its total national revenue, exports have dropped by 50% and the prices of essential commodities have shot up due to the pandemic.

Pakistan’s real GDP growth in fiscal year 2020, the study predicts, is expected to contract by 1.3% as national and global economic activity slows down abruptly during the last few months of the fiscal year amid a new cold-weather surge in infections.