With the coronavirus death toll in Iran rising to 15 among 64 reported cases, Tehran has allegedly blamed Islamabad for the epidemic, saying it was brought to the country by Pakistani nationals illegally crossing into Iranian territory.
The outbreak of the 2019 novel coronavirus — a severe acute respiratory syndrome named ‘COVID-19’ by the World Health Organization (WHO) — is an ongoing pandemic that originated in the central Chinese province of Hubei’s capital city, Wuhan.
The virus, as of February 25, has claimed 2,663 lives with over 25,000 recoveries. COVID-19 spreading to other parts of Asia, the Middle East, Africa, North America and Europe, has infected more than 80,000 people globally.
In Hubei, the number of cases appears to be stabilising, according to government figures. But the number of people infected elsewhere in the world is rising quickly, with clusters in South Korea, Italy, Iran and a cruise ship docked in Japan.
While Pakistan International Airlines (PIA) has suspended flight operations to China and Japan till March 15 due to the outbreak, Pakistan has closed its border with Iran after casualties from the deadly coronavirus were reported on Monday.
The outbreak in Iran began in the city of Qom, an often-visited religious destination.
According to authorities, Islamabad has suspended trade activities across the western border and barred citizens from travelling to Iran through the five existing border gates. The border town of Taftan in Balochistan has been quarantined for screening, while a 100-bed tent hospital has been set up in the area for pilgrims coming back from Iran, officials told The Current.
“The government is in close contact with Iranian authorities to save Pakistani pilgrims from coronavirus,” Federal Minister for Religious Affairs and Interfaith Harmony Noorul Haq Qadri said in a statement. He added that his ministry had deployed a special team in Taftan to protect Pakistani pilgrims returning from Iran.
Amid Pakistani actions aimed at what the government calls “continuing to successfully avoid” an outbreak of the novel coronavirus, Iranian officials have claimed it reached the country with Pakistani, Afghan and Chinese nationals illegally crossing the border to enter Iran.
“It is not possible for the virus to reach Iran otherwise,” an Iranian official said on the condition of anonymity. They added that Afghanistan had also confirmed its first infection, so the possibility of the virus reaching the country via its northern neighbour, could not be ruled out either.
The claims were, however, contradicted by government sources.
They said these “unverified” claims were untrue and being made by some local Iranian media agency, but it was not the time for blame game. “Coronavirus is a real threat. Every country in the region and the world is at risk. We all need to pool together our resources and fight it instead of shifting blame on one country or the other.”
Government sources also said that both Pakistani and Iranian health advisers and their ministers knew each other for a long time. “Cooperation is quite good between the two health ministries and the governments are in close touch with each other. They are satisfied with the mutual assistance.”
‘NO CORONAVIRUS IN PAKISTAN’:
Speaking to The Current, National Institute of Health (NIH) Focal Person Dr Muhammad Salman rejected the claims and clarified that for Pakistan to be responsible for the pandemic in Iran, there should’ve been any cases on this side of the border first.
“Pakistan has in a scientific way, and while using evidence-based public health measures, dealt with the threats of a coronavirus outbreak in the country, and not even a single case has surfaced until now,” he said and reiterated that all such claims were false.
He maintained that Dr Zafar Mirza had been on the frontline in curbing the potential risk, and owing to the efforts of the government, Pakistan was safe until now despite the virus affecting neighbouring Afghanistan, Iran and reportedly even India.
In late December, a cluster of pneumonia cases of unknown aetiology was reported by health authorities in Wuhan. The initial cases mostly had epidemiological links to the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market and consequently, the virus is thought to have a zoonotic origin.
The virus that caused the outbreak is known as SARS-CoV-2, a new virus which is closely related to bat coronaviruses, pangolin coronaviruses and SARS-CoV-1.
The earliest reported symptoms occurred on December 1, 2019, in a person who had not had any exposure to the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market or to the remaining 40 of the first cluster detected with the new virus.
Of this first cluster, two-thirds were found to have a link with the market, which also sold live animals.
A large response, both in China and globally, followed an increase in cases in mid-January 2020, bringing travel restrictions, quarantines and even curfews.
Examples include the quarantine of the British cruise ship, Diamond Princess, in Japanese waters; the curfew of over 780 million people in China, a voluntary curfew in South Korea, and the curfew of a dozen towns with over 50,000 people in Italy.
The outbreak has been declared a Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC) by the WHO, and airports, as well as train stations, have implemented body temperature checks, health declarations and information signage in an attempt to identify carriers of the virus.
Among the wider consequences of the outbreak are concerns about potential economic instability and incidents of racism against people of Chinese and East Asian descent, which have been reported in several countries.