Islamabad, Pakistan – Pakistan’s government has loosened restrictions on a range of industries across the country in a bid to battle the economic fallout of a continuing lockdown, in place to curb the spread of the coronavirus in the country.
Prime Minister Imran Khan announced that the construction industry would be foremost among more than a dozen sectors that would be allowed to reopen operations on Wednesday.
A lockdown on all public gatherings and the closure of educational institutions and non-essential businesses remains in place until at least April 30, he said at a news conference a day earlier.
“We were aware that if you suddenly close down a country, then different classes, especially the poorer classes … all of those people, small shop owners, pushcart sellers, all suddenly became unemployed,” he said.
Pakistan imposed varying levels of restrictions across the country late last month, with provincial governments dictating regulations on which businesses were allowed to remain open.
Broadly, only grocery stores, pharmacies, banks and other essential services were allowed to operate before the prime minister’s announcement.
From Wednesday, other industries that will be allowed to operate include cement, fertiliser, chemical manufacturing, glass manufacturing, e-commerce (aimed at exports), mines, paper and packaging manufacturers and a number of other smaller businesses, federal Minister Hammad Azhar said.
Pakistan has at least 5,988 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 107 deaths from the disease, according to Johns Hopkins University data.
At least 1,424 patients have recovered, government data shows.
Since the beginning of the outbreak in the country in late February, Prime Minister Khan has warned that Pakistan’s already slowing economy could not withstand the shock that a full lockdown would entail.
Earlier this week, the World Bank predicted the economic outlook for South Asian countries was “dire”. The International Monetary Fund estimates Pakistan’s economy will contract 1.5 percent this year.
Shortly after the prime minister’s announcement, a group of influential religious leaders announced that they would defy government orders banning congregational prayers across the country, restarting services from Wednesday.
“From today onwards there will be no lockdown on mosques … mosques will be functional,” said Muneeb-ur-Rehman, a prominent religious leader.
“We have pledged that the medical suggestion of social distancing will be maintained, and mosques will host prayers five times a day and Friday prayers as well … all of these will remain ongoing.”
Taqi Usmani, an influential preacher, likened congregational prayers to “essential services” like banks that have been exempted from the countrywide lockdown.
“For a Muslim, offering prayers as part of a congregation and the Friday prayers are an important need,” he told reporters in the southern city Karachi on Tuesday.
“Especially being able to go to the mosque in Ramadan and to offer prayers as a congregation. It is not just a need, it can be an important way to be rid of the virus through [prayer].”
Usmani, reading an agreement signed by more than a dozen heads of prominent religious organisations, said mosques would reopen, but would follow precautionary measures such as providing sanitiser through dispensers at mosque gates, disinfecting prayer mats and ordering social distancing between congregants wherever possible.
“Mosque administrators should make sure that between rows of worshippers there should be space of one row in between them, and in a single row, people should stand with a reasonable distance between them,” said Usmani.
The orders to reopen mosques are in defiance of government recommendations that mosques limit all congregational prayers to a maximum of five people, all of whom must be members of the mosque administration.
Pakistani President Arif Alvi is due to meet with prominent religious leaders later this month to negotiate on what measures will be taken at mosques during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, due to begin next month.
Asad Hashim is Al Jazeera’s digital correspondent in Pakistan. He tweets @AsadHashim.