April 14, 2021

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Pakistan continues to grapple with third wave of coronavirus

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Islamabad, Pakistan – Wracked by a third wave of coronavirus infections, Pakistan continues to tighten social distancing and movement restrictions, implementing a new ban on all gatherings in areas with a high number of cases.

On Sunday, the National Command and Operation Centre (NCOC), which is managing the country’s coronavirus response, announced a slew of new measures to attempt to control the spike in infections, which appear to be centred in Punjab province and the capital Islamabad.

“All kind of gatherings (indoor/outdoor) will be banned with immediate effect,” read a statement issued by the NCOC. “This will include all social, cultural, political, sports and other events.”

A boy sells protective masks in Peshawar after a spike in COVID cases across Pakistan [File: Arshad Arbab/EPA]

The government has also banned all wedding events from April 5 onwards, although it has given provincial authorities the prerogative to impose the ban earlier if needed.

The new regulations will come into effect in cities and regions where the test-positive rate is higher than 8 percent, based on a three-day rolling average.

Current regulations allow outdoor wedding events for up to 300 guests, a policy widely criticised by health experts in Pakistan as being detrimental to efforts to control the spread of the virus.

The NCOC will also consider this week proposals to reduce the number of passengers and vehicles used for inter-provincial transport, including road, air and rail travel.

Pakistan registered 4,525 new cases of the coronavirus in the last 24 hours, according to official data, with 41 deaths taking the country’s death toll from the pandemic to 14,256.

Sunday’s rise of 4,525 was the fourth consecutive day of more than 4,000 new cases a day, the first time that has happened since the country was coming down from its first peak of cases in June 2020.

Test-positive rate rising

The proportion of people tested positive for the virus on Sunday was 11.2 percent, a marker of a continuing upward trend.

Senior citizens wait to receive COVID vaccines in Karachi [File: Shahzaib Akber/EPA]

“A high percent positive means that more testing should probably be done – and it suggests that it is not a good time to relax restrictions aimed at reducing coronavirus transmission,” according to Johns Hopkins University epidemiologists David Dowdy and Gypsyamber D’Souza.

Last year, the World Health Organization’s (WHO) guidelines suggested test-positive rates must remain below five percent for two consecutive weeks before government loosen restrictions.

In Pakistan, low daily testing rates have meant that the test-positive rate has remained higher than in many other countries, but the numbers have spiked this month.

The current outbreak of cases is centred around Punjab province, where the test-positive rate was 17 percent in the provincial capital Lahore and 15 percent in Rawalpindi and Faisalabad, according to official data.

The capital Islamabad, a city of roughly two million people, has seen a large number of infections as well, registering a test-positive rate of 16 percent on Sunday.

Northwestern Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province has also seen a spike in cases, with the test-positive rate recorded at 23 percent in the Swat valley, 22 percent in the provincial capital Peshawar and 19 percent in Nowshera, according to government data.

Asad Hashim is Al Jazeera’s digital correspondent in Pakistan. He tweets @AsadHashim.

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