ISLAMABAD: Pakistan's coronavirus cases jumped to 13,304 on Sunday, as a top medical body warned that mosques are becoming a major source of transmission for the novel coronavirus in the country and urged people to pray at home during Ramzan.
According to the Ministry of National Health Services, at least 18 people have died in the last 24 hours, taking the death toll in the country to 272. A total of 1,508 new cases were reported in one day, taking the total number of infections to 13,304, reports said.
It said that the number of those recovered also increased to 2,936. Pakistan's worst-hit Punjab province reported 5,446 cases, Sindh 4,615, Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa 1,864, Balochistan 781, Gilgit-Baltistan 308, Islamabad 235 and Pakistan-occupied Kashmir 55 cases.
So far, 144,365 tests have been done in the country, including 6,218 in the last 24 hours. "Mosques are becoming a major source of virus transmission," Pakistan Islamic Medical Association (PIMA) President Dr Iftikhar Burney said.
Talking to reporters on Saturday, Burney said that the infected cases have surged rapidly during the past week. "Around 6,000 cases for coronavirus surfaced in a month but the same has doubled in the last six days," he said, warning that the infection would further go up in the coming months of May and June.
The Pakistan government early this month succumbed to pressure from the hardline clerics and allowed conditional congregational prayers in mosques during Ramzan. However, the 20-point agreement signed by the leading clerics with President Arif Alvi on restricting access to mosques during Ramzan was not being followed completely.
Alvi has written a letter to the Imams of mosques urging them to ask worshippers above the age of 50 to pray at home. He pointed out that the point number six of the standard operating procedures set in the agreement said that persons over the age of 50 should avoid offering prayers at the mosque.
Alvi also visited mosques in Rawalpindi to review arrangements made by the administration of mosques to contain the spread of the virus, he wrote in a tweet. He shared a picture of Jama Masjid Ghousia and said the administration had arranged for Taraweeh (special prayers offered at night during Ramzan), keeping in mind necessary preventative measures to curb the spread.
However, the face masks were lacking. President Alvi said that the people, including politicians and opinion makers, should keep an open mind regarding the handling of the coronavirus outbreak as the strategy can change with the new data.
"Lockdown or no lockdown? Coronavirus is new so there is a major difference of opinion in the world and in Pakistan on how to handle it. As data comes in, opinions change. So please keep an open mind," he tweeted.
Prime Minister's Advisor on Health Dr Zafar Mirza also took to Twitter and again urged the "citizens to demonstrate responsibility & avoid congregations during Ramzan to protect themselves from COVID-19'.
However, the government was still reluctant to close down the mosques due to fear of backlash by the hardline clerics. Addressing news briefing in Islamabad, Mirza said that 80 per cent positive cases were local transmission in the country.
He said that government was providing protective equipment to frontline paramedical staff in various hospitals and also working to further enhance testing capacity of laboratories.
Prime Minister's Special Assistant on Information Firdous Ashiq Awan expressed disappointment at the people's "failure to grasp the seriousness" of the coronavirus threat. "The government is doing its job but the public is still not fulfilling its responsibility and not practising social distancing," she said.
Planning Minister Asad Umar chaired a meeting of the National Command and Operation Centre to review the implementation of Ramzan guidelines and other issues. Interior Minister Ijaz Shah told the meeting that people in cities should be continuously educated to follow the guidelines and not operate business as usual during Ramzan.
There were reports of violation of lockdown from different cities and police arrested 78 people and sealed 107 shops on Saturday in Quetta, capital of Balochistan, for violating the lockdown, Balochistan government spokesperson Liaquat Shahwani said.
He said that a total of 2,707 shops had been sealed over violations so far. In Sindh province, Chief Minister Syed Murad Ali Shah warned citizens that extraordinary measures will have to be taken to keep the pandemic under control in the province.
Sindh is the only province in Pakistan which has not allowed taraweeh or Friday prayers in mosques during Ramzan. The emergency department of the Abbasi Shaheed Hospital (ASH) - one of Karachi's biggest public hospitals - has been sealed after a doctor tested positive for the novel coronavirus on Sunday.
In Punjab, the government announced that lockdown would not apply to pushcart street vendors, selling fruit, vegetables and other products. Due to lack of observance of lockdown, Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) criticised the partial lockdown policy and asked the government either impose total lockdown or withdraw it.
Meanwhile, Special Assistant to Chief Minister Khyber Pakhtunkhwa on Local Government Kamran Bangash tested positive for coronavirus, provincial Health Minister Taimur Jhagra said on Twitter. "Kamran is well and at home. I talked to him, he is in high spirits, and will insha'Allah be back leading from the front soon," Jhagra said.