Pakistan on Saturday began a nine-day shutdown affecting travel and tourist hotspots in a bid to prevent a surge in COVID-19 cases during the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Fitr.
Already battling a third wave of infections and increasingly nervous about the crisis across the border in India, the government has imposed the most severe restrictions since a one-month lockdown in April last year.
“From today all businesses across the country will be closed. People will not be allowed to go into the markets to do their shopping for Eid,” Al Jazeera’s Kamal Hyder reported from the capital, Islamabad.
Hyder said the Pakistani government feared that it will not be able to cope due to a possible lack of ventilators and oxygen if the “situation sees the likes of which India is confronting”.
Asad Umar, the planning minister who is responsible for leading Pakistan’s pandemic response, said Pakistan was facing a “dangerous situation”.
“These measures have been necessitated by the extremely dangerous situation which has been created in the region with the spread of virulent mutations of the virus,” Umar said on Twitter, adding the country needed to “unite”.
The need for caution is clear. The danger is higher than ever and knocking at our doors. Need the country to unite in response and achieve once again what we achieved in the first wave, for which we received global praise. Inshallah we will do it again, together
— Asad Umar (@Asad_Umar) May 8, 2021
Eid, which comes at the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, usually sees the mass movement of people around the country and tourist spots crowded with Pakistanis.
Last year the country saw a spike in cases in the weeks after the celebrations.
Businesses, hotels and restaurants, as well as markets and parks will be closed, while public transport between provinces and within cities has been halted.
The military has been mobilised to monitor the restrictions.
Mosques, however, will remain open. Authorities fear curbs on places of worship could ignite confrontation in the deeply conservative Muslim republic.
Impoverished Pakistan has recorded more than 850,000 infections and 18,600 deaths, but with limited testing and a deprived healthcare sector, many fear the true extent of the disease is much worse.
Pakistan has seen a daily death toll of more than 100 in recent weeks.
Health officials have warned that hospitals are operating at close to capacity and they have rushed to increase the number of intensive care beds.
International flights have been slashed and border crossings with Iran and Afghanistan closed, except for trade.
Flights and land crossings with neighbouring India – reeling from a devastating outbreak with hundreds of thousands of new cases a day – were closed before the pandemic because of political tensions.
Since last year, Pakistan has reported nearly 18,800 deaths from COVID-19 and more than 854,000 confirmed cases, according to Johns Hopkins University.
COVAX doses arrive
Pakistan, which has so far vaccinated only a fraction of its population, received its first batch of 1.2 million AstraZeneca doses on Saturday under the delayed COVAX global vaccine sharing scheme for lower-income countries.
The prime minister’s special aide on health, Faisal Sultan, asked people over the age of 40 to register for shots and said the Pakistani government would soon be able to expand its immunisation programme to other age groups.
A statement issued by Pakistan’s National Command Operation Center said that 1,238,400 vaccine doses arrived in the first COVAX allocation while another batch of 1,236,000 was expected to arrive in a few days.
Pakistan has until May 6 administered just over 3.32 million doses across the country, which has a population of more than 200 million.