A teacher (L) checks the body temperature of a student wearing facemask upon her arrival at the Islamabad Model College for Girls in Islamabad on January 18, 2021, as the government reopened educational institutes from grade 9th to 12th after remaining closed as a preventive measure against the Covid-19 coronavirus. Photo: AFP/ Aamir Qureshi

PESHAWAR – Pakistan’s Covid-19 situation is fast deteriorating in the middle of a third wave, as hospitals are nearly overwhelmed and oxygen supplies at health units running low. Authorities fear the situation could spiral out of control, similar to the outbreak now ravaging neighboring India if the current trajectory holds in the weeks ahead.

A third Covid-19 wave hit Pakistan in late February soon after Prime Minister Imran Khan’s government lifted previous containment restrictions and allowed the economy to reopen. The government let down its guard just as the more contagious and potentially more virulent British variant of the coronavirus gripped the country.

The virus has taken 3,200 lives and added 200,000 new cases within 51 days from March 1 to April 22 this year, according to official data. The deadly wave prompted the government on Monday to ban travelers from India due to its record surge in the number of Covid-19 cases, with estimates now as high as 200,000 new infections every day.

Pakistani authorities are now also contemplating extending the travel ban to other, so far unnamed highly infected countries.

Asad Umer, minister of planning and head of the National Command and Operation Center (NCOC) — a high-profile Covid-19 decision-making body of civil and military officials — said on Wednesday that the situation has become “extremely serious” while declaring that major cities may soon be closed down if the situation did not improve.

Asad told the media that over 90% of total oxygen production was being consumed to treat Covid-19 patients. He said that there has been a surge of over 500% in the number of patients visiting hospitals and most of them needed oxygen.

The NCOC head revealed that currently, 4,500 such patients were on oxygen in different hospitals all over the country as opposed to 3,400 patients last year in June, the previous peak of the pandemic in Pakistan.

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, after the educational institutes reopened nearly six months after the spread of the Covid-19 coronavirus. Photo by Arif Ali / AFP

On Thursday, Pakistan reported 5,857 new infections, raising the total tally of confirmed cases to 778,238 in the country, including 84,935 active cases. Pakistan has reported 16,698 Covid-19 deaths, including 98 during the last 24 hours.  

Health data reveals that the British variant is wreaking havoc in particular in the densely populated northeastern region of Punjab and northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP), where the majority of deaths and infections have been reported.

On Wednesday, Punjab had 2,969 new coronavirus cases and 103 deaths in the last 24 hours. It was the second day in a row the province has reported more than 100 coronavirus deaths.

The positivity rate, or the percentage of all coronavirus tests performed that show someone has Covid-19, is rising. The recorded current rate is 26% in Peshawar (KP), 20% in Nowshera (KP), 38% in Bahawalpur (Punjab), 25% in Faisalabad (Punjab), 27% in Lahore (Punjab), 21% in Multan (Punjab) and 28% in Rawalpindi (Punjab).

The number of critically ill patients has increased by 30% over the peak in June last year, which health authorities say is exposing the nation’s already frail health infrastructure. Presently, over 4,700 patients are on ventilators in Pakistan.

Nabeel Awan, Secretary of the Specialized Healthcare and Medical Education Department in Punjab, told the Asia Times by telephone that Punjab’s hospitals are now “overcrowded” with Covid-19 patients.

“We are trying to cope with the situation and improve our infrastructure and capacity to deal with an alarming number of new cases in the coming days,” he told the media.

Pakistan lags badly in vaccination and mostly depends on donations from China and the World Health Organization (WHO) for its supply of vaccines. Out of a total population of 216.6 million, 1.3 million people, mostly health workers and aged citizens, have been vaccinated, amounting to 0.60 doses per 100 people.

A senior citizen receives a dose of the Chinese-made Sinopharm vaccine against the Covid-19 coronavirus at a vaccination center in Quetta on April 6, 2021. Photo: Banaras Khan/AFP

Recent data shows that worldwide countries have given on average 11.9 doses per 100 people.

While the government’s vaccination drive is moving at a snail’s pace, it has allowed the profit-oriented private sector to import Covid vaccines for those Pakistani citizens who can afford them.  That’s sparked yet another source of controversy.

The Association of Physicians of Pakistani Descent of North America (APPNA) recently wrote a letter to Prime Minister Khan expressing concern over “gouging and inflated prices” fixed by the Drug Regulatory Authority of Pakistan (DRAP) for the import of Covid-19 vaccines.

DRAP has allowed a 40% mark-up for importers of vaccines plus an additional 15 percent mark-up for retailers, the letter said. APPNA said such pricing practices would put the vaccines out of reach for Pakistan’s poor.

“As per this formula, the price for two doses of the Sputnik-V vaccine has been fixed at 8,449 rupees (US$55.2) and that for a single dose of the Cansino Biologics vaccine at 4,225 rupees ($27.6),” reads the letter.

Meanwhile, there has been near-complete public disregard of Covid-19 protective protocols, a situation abetted by government leniency and half-backed measures to contain the virus.

A prototype appeal to the public was sounded in NCOC head Asad’s presser when he said, “Take care of yourself and your fellow Pakistanis. The situation needs to be taken seriously.”

Private school students sit-in as they take part in a demonstration demanding the government to reopen all educational institutes, which were closed since last month to contain the spread of the Covid-19 coronavirus, in Islamabad, April 6, 2021. Photo: AFP/Aamir Qureshi

There are currently no lockdown measures and shops, factories, public transport, mosques and business centers are all still fully open, with authorities relying on the public to independently take precautionary measures.

Dr Qaiser Sajjad, secretary-general of the Pakistan Medical Association (PMA), told Asia Times that Pakistanis are not following standard operating procedures (SOPs) and even laugh at those who wear facemasks.

“I understand restrictions should be lifted after vaccination of 70% of the population is completed,” he said, adding that the government lacks urgency in its inoculation campaign.