As virus cases soar, Pakistan says it must keep economy open

ISLAMABAD (AP) - The coronavirus is spreading in Pakistan at one of the fastest rates in the world, and its overwhelmed hospitals are rejecting patients. But the government is pushing ahead with the country's opening, trying to save an almost collapsed economy in which millions have already slipped into poverty due to pandemic restrictions.
To further complicate the dilemma, many people ignore government demands to wear masks or comply with social distance rules.
Millions of human markets and mosques. Tough clerics urge followers to trust that faith will protect them. Many call the virus a joke. Even some government officials deny warnings and say road accidents kill more people.
"I'm nervous when I go out because I see that our people still don't take it seriously," said Diya Rahman, a radio broadcaster for Radio Pakistan in the capital, Islamabad. Two of her colleagues have died of the virus and more than 20 others have tested positive.
She fears that "until they see their families die, they won't understand that if we follow the guidelines to wear masks, we can save ourselves."
Pakistan is a prime example of fragile developing countries who say they only have to live with rising infections and deaths because their economies cannot withstand an indefinite strict ban.
However, the rapid pace of infection in Pakistan this month could be an indicator of what other countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America can expect.
The number of new cases in Pakistan rose from around 2,000 to 3,000 per day at the end of May to 6,800 per day in mid-June. The number of deaths is 150 per day. So far, more than 180,000 people in the country have been infected with 220 million people, and the government said the number could reach 1.2 million people on Sunday in August. The authorities reported 3,590 deaths.
The number of infections has risen by a spectacular 257% in the past month, the International Rescue Committee said on Monday, demanding international support "for local communities displaced by violence and natural disasters, as well as for Afghan refugees who are facing the health and economic impact of the pandemic are exposed to deteriorating living conditions. "
More than 1.5 million Afghan refugees live in Pakistan.
In a letter earlier this month, the World Health Organization in Pakistan warned that it is among the top 10 countries in terms of virus spread and has devastating effects of premature opening. She asked the government to switch between two weeks of closure and two weeks of opening. The Associated Press acquired a copy of the letter, some of which was reported in the press.
The government rejected the proposal. A legislator even accused the WHO of "imperialism".
Prime Minister Imran Khan said the refusal to impose a total ban saved the country from economic collapse. In television speeches, he asked the public to wear masks, ignore conspiracy theories, and take the virus seriously.
A Gallup Pakistan poll released on Monday found 55% of Pakistanis think the virus threat is exaggerated. The survey of 1,050 people has an error rate of 2-3 percentage points.
As the cases worsened, the government closed a few districts in Islamabad and other cities last week where new outbreaks were found. Otherwise, it has largely lifted the restrictions.
The restrictions were imposed in mid-March, but gradually lifted within a few weeks. Now most companies, including markets and shopping malls, have reopened, as has public transportation. Schools, restaurants and wedding halls remain closed, gyms had to be closed again, but mosques were never closed because clergymen refused. Last week, the border with Iran - which was blamed as the source of the first infections - was only reopened for trade.
At the same time, the hospital beds have filled up.
Zeeshan Hassan said his uncle was turned away from three hospitals in the southern city of Multan, a virus hotspot. Administrators said they had neither a bed nor the medication to treat him, Hassan said. His uncle was eventually taken to a government hospital, where he died within 15 hours.
A few family members in protective gear were allowed to bury him.
"Now we are all afraid that we will get this COVID-19," said Hassan.
According to Dr. Qaiser Sajjad, secretary general of the Pakistan Medical Association, health professionals are infected at an alarming rate. Over 3,000 tests are reported positive and more every day.
Even before the pandemic, Pakistan lacked enough trained health workers to manage devices like ventilators. With less than 3,000 acute beds across the country, Sajjad warned that the system would falter if it collapsed.
"People are getting scared now and the government is taking it seriously, but I think we're too late because COVID-19 has already spread massively across the country," he told the AP.
Misinformation is widespread, and many Pakistanis believe that doctors invented the coronavirus to explain deaths in an inept and failing health care system. It also doesn't help that some government officials went on TV to downplay the effects of the virus, Sajjad said.
"The poor and the ignorant absolutely don't believe the virus exists. They think it's a government-doctor conspiracy," he said.
Pakistan is dealing with serious economic problems. Economic growth has slowed since 2018, but the virus put it in contraction for the first time: this month, the country saw negative growth of 0.38.
"Pakistan is officially in recession," said Haroon Sharif, a former economic advisor who is still advising the Prime Minister.
The number of people living in poverty has increased from 30% since the pandemic started to 40%, and massive job losses could trigger unrest, Sharif warned.
Sharif said the prime minister is trying to help the poorest Pakistanis, while his cabinet ministers - many of whom are wealthy industrialists and landowners - focus on the elite. Middle-income earners and small businesses with 15 or fewer employees are largely ignored, he said.
They have little savings and much of their business is done in cash, so the banking system has little or no support for them.
"I know of examples of teachers selling fruit," said Sharif.
Associate press clerk Asim Tanvir from Multan, Pakistan, contributed to this.

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