ust three days after Pakistan suspended flights to China as a result of the global health emergency declared by the World Health Organization, the South Asian country of over 200 million people has resumed them.
This makes Pakistan the very first country to resume China flight operations – a curious decision as a great number of countries with far more robust public health systems have decided to stop all China flights.
Dr Zafar Mirza, Special Assistant to the Prime Minister on National Health Services, announced that Pakistan was “now equipped to diagnose novel coronavirus” with the arrival of testing kits from China.
China sent Pakistan about 1,000 testing kits even as Hubei province, where the outbreak has been particularly acute, has continued to face a shortage of kits amid a surge in suspected cases over the past week.
Anger and disbelief
News of the resumption of flights was overwhelmingly met with disbelief on Pakistani social media.
On the Facebook page of The Express Tribune, a leading English-language newspaper in Pakistan, the story was greeted by mostly angry emojis.
The government was widely criticized for its decision last week not to evacuate Pakistani nationals, mostly students, from Wuhan.
“We believe it’s in the interest of our loved-ones in China [to stay there]. It’s in the larger interest of the region, the world, and the country that we don’t evacuate them now,” said Mirza.
Just under 500 Pakistanis are studying in universities in Wuhan, and four of them have since tested positive for the novel coronavirus.
Healthcare is one of Pakistan’s most corrupt sectors, according to surveys by Transparency International. The country also ranked 122 out of 190 countries in a World Health Organization report.
“Pakistan is not capable of treating the coronavirus,” Athar Niaz Rana, a senior medical practitioner at Islamabad’s Shifa International Hospitals was quoted as saying in the South China Morning Post. “We don’t have any facility to properly test suspected cases.”
Faced with a surge in novel coronavirus cases, Pakistan’s public health system could be swiftly inundated, public health experts warn.
3. Chinese spokesperson: China and Pakistan are iron-clad friends that share a good tradition of mutual assistance. As China fights the outbreak, Pakistan has stood firmly with us, maintaining flights and pooling medical supplies all over the country to help China.
— Lijian Zhao 赵立坚 (@zlj517) February 3, 2020
Best friends forever?
Pakistan’s latest move has come at a crucial time when the coronavirus crisis has taken a heavy toll on the Chinese economy, delivering a huge shock to stock markets and rattling supply chains.
The country’s China debt now stands at about $6.7 billion – money it needs to return over the next three years. That’s more than twice the $2.8 billion it needs to pay the International Monetary Fund over the same period.
Pakistan has been increasingly relying on Chinese loans to stay afloat and borrowing has surged since the start of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, part of China’s Belt and Road Initative.
Zhao Lijian, deputy director-general at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs Information Department, who was formerly deputy chief of mission in Islamabad, has described the friendship between the two countries as “ironclad”.
“We are deeply grateful and touched by such trust and confidence from Pakistan,” he added.