ISLAMABAD -- Pakistan has quarantined 20,000 worshippers and is still searching for tens of thousands more who attended an Islamic gathering in Lahore last month despite the worsening coronavirus pandemic, officials said April 5.
Authorities said they want to test or quarantine those who congregated at the event held by Tablighi Jamaat, between March 10-12 on concern they are now spreading COVID-19 across Pakistan and overseas.
More than 100,000 attendees went to the meeting, said organisers who ignored the government's request to cancel it as the virus hit the country.
Pakistan has 3,520 confirmed COVID-19 cases with 52 reported deaths, Dawn reported Monday (April 6).
In Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP), authorities so far have quarantined 5,300 Tablighis who attended the Lahore meeting.
"Health officials are conducting tests for coronavirus, and some of them have tested positive," Ajmal Wazir, a spokesperson for the region, told AFP April 5.
Thousands of Tablighis from KP were stranded in other regions because of the closure of major highways across the country, said Wazir.
These serious concerns come amid growing condemnation of the active disinformation campaigns about the virus being waged by the governments of China, Russia and Iran.
Quarantines, self-isolation, shutdowns
About 7,000 have been quarantined in Lahore, while in Sindh Province as many as 8,000 Tablighis have been quarantined, government officials said.
Dozens more have been forced to self-isolate in Balochistan Province.
The Tablighi mosques and the movement's other places of worship were shut down or marked as quarantine centres at the end of March.
At least 154 worshippers who went to last month's Jamaat had tested positive for coronavirus, with two fatalities, authorities told AFP.
However, with only limited testing available, observers worry the number of infections and deaths is far higher.
Tablighi Jamaat is considered one of the world's largest faith-based movements, with millions of followers, particularly in South Asia, and sends preachers to countries to spread Islam's ideas.
Potential spread to many countries
Numerous foreign nationals attended this year from countries including China, Indonesia, Nigeria and Afghanistan, organisers said.
About 1,500 foreigners are now quarantined in Pakistan, but others left the country without being tested.
Gaza's Health Ministry confirmed last month its first two cases of coronavirus were Palestinians who had attended the gathering.
Pakistan's science minister, Fawad Chaudhry, earlier expressed exasperation that the event had gone ahead, blaming the "stubbornness of the clergy".
"Any group of people who will not adhere to the government advice and will continue to do their normal activities will become a danger to others," he told AFP.
Organisers said they cut the gathering short following advice from the authorities; however, at the time they said it was because of rainy weather.
Similar Tablighi Jamaat congregations held in Malaysia and India during the coronavirus pandemic have been blamed for spreading the virus to other nations.
Meanwhile, a large number of existing cases of COVID-19 in Pakistan have been linked to Iran.
"Eighty percent of the COVID-19-confirmed patients in Pakistan originated from Iran, which lacked the capacity to deal with an international public health emergency," Dr. Zafar Mirza, special assistant on health to Prime Minister Imran Khan, told a news conference in Islamabad March 24.