Health

Tehran's COVID-19 recklessness casts pall over Pakistan's reopening

By Zia Ur Rehman

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A Karachi health official on June 14 sprays disinfectant on a man before allowing him to enter a coronavirus testing facility. [Zia Ur Rehman]

ISLAMABAD -- As Pakistan begins reopening amid a significant drop in the number of new COVID-19 cases, government and health officials continue to fault Tehran's negligent actions for fuelling the virus outbreak in the country.

Pakistan gradually started lifting the nationwide lockdown on August 10, with restaurants and cinemas among businesses reopening. On September 7, the government announced plans to open educational institutions in phases starting September 15.

Pakistan's success in stemming the spread of COVID-19 comes despite the actions of the Iranian regime.

'Criminal negligence'

Pakistani citizens and government officials have accused Tehran of "criminal negligence" for enabling the coronavirus to spread to Pakistan as a result of the regime's late announcement of the coronavirus outbreak within its own borders.

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An employee of City Girls College in Peshawar September 13 dusts chairs in a classroom after the federal government announced the reopening of educational institutions starting September 15. [Shahbaz Butt]

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Rescue 1122 personnel on September 13 disinfect an academic block of the Shaheed Benazir Bhutto Women University Peshawar ahead of the school's reopening. [Shahbaz Butt]

The first two cases of COVID-19 in Iran became public knowledge February 26.

At the start of the pandemic in February, Iranian authorities deported hundreds of Pakistani pilgrims without testing them for the virus, resulting in transmission to the local Pakistani population.

By April, 51% of people infected in Pakistan could be traced back to those pilgrims.

The Iranian regime did not deliver accurate information to thousands of pilgrims visiting Iran about the outbreak of coronavirus within the country, said Musawir Hussaini, a Karachi-based travel agent who manages pilgrimage tours to Iran and Iraq.

"In early February, rumours had already started in Iran about deaths due to the coronavirus spread," he said. "But the Iranian regime hid the information from everyone, particularly pilgrims from other countries."

Because of that negligence, pilgrims continued to cross the border and spend time in Iran until Tehran finally announced the first COVID-19 cases on February 19, Hussaini said.

As infections in Iran began to rise rapidly, Pakistani authorities sealed the Pakistan-Iran border on March 16.

Despite the border closure, hundreds of pilgrims crossed into Pakistan from Iran, according to Pakistani government officials.

"Iran did not co-operate with Pakistan in containing the coronavirus," a senior health official in Balochistan said on the condition of anonymity. "Instead, its negligence and non-co-operation have caused the virus's spread in [Pakistan]."

Tehran "allowed the continued movement of Pakistani pilgrims from Iran into Pakistan and did not screen them before sending them home", said the official.

"International borders with both Iran and Afghanistan have been closed since March 16, 2020, and that has been officially communicated to Iran, but it continues to send pilgrims home," he said.

"Pakistan has been badly hit by the virus mainly because of Iran's criminal negligence," an Islamabad-based senior health official who spoke on the condition of anonymity said in April.

Tehran 'did not listen'

Provincial authorities in Balochistan Province, which shares a border with Iran, have expressed concern over the Iranian regime's role in fuelling the coronavirus pandemic in the region.

"When the outbreak first began in February, the Balochistan government asked the federal government to inform Iranian authorities to not send any pilgrims back to Pakistan without proper screening," Provincial Home Minister Mir Ziaullah said in a July interview with local media.

Balochistan government officials had met with Iranian authorities to communicate their concerns, he said.

"But sadly the neighbouring country did not listen to Pakistan and sent thousands of pilgrims back without screening them," he said.

The Iranian regime forced about 5,000 Pakistani nationals through the border in Balochistan, despite Islamabad's request for the regime to wait until coronavirus quarantine facilities were ready to receive them, Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi said in May during a National Assembly session.

"I spoke with the Iranian foreign minister and requested time to make arrangements [for the Shia pilgrims]," he said.

After the Iranian regime replied that it could not co-operate on the timing, "Pakistan had no option but to receive its nationals," Qureshi said.

Iran is among the worst-hit countries in the world with more than 416,000 cases of COVID-19 and nearly 24,000 deaths from the disease, according to global trackers that rely on countries' self-reporting.

The real number of deaths from coronavirus in Iran is almost triple what the Iranian regime publicly claims, the BBC Persian service reported in early August.

Iranian government records -- leaked to the BBC -- show almost 42,000 patients died with COVID-19 symptoms through July 20, versus 14,405 reported at that time by the regime's Health Ministry.

The number of patients known to be infected is almost double the official figure, the report said.

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