If the virus spreads much further, Pakistan’s entire health care system may melt down. In Karachi, a port city of some 20 million, there are only 600 beds in intensive care wards. There are 1,700 ventilators across the country, and last week, there were only 15,000 N95 masks for doctors and nurses, officials said.
“We don’t even have anti-rabies vaccines. How can we deal with thousands of people who will come here for coronavirus treatment?” said one doctor at a state-run hospital, who also complained that they had not been issued protective gear. As a government employee the doctor had been barred from talking to the media, and requested anonymity to express concerns.
In February, it became clear Pakistan was facing a major outbreak of coronavirus, as the disease surged in Iran, which quickly became an epicenter. Thousands of Pakistanis visit Iran every month for work or religious pilgrimage, and the countries share a long border.
Officials closed the border, but hundreds of Pakistanis managed to get back in anyway, either rerouting through Afghanistan to cross the border there, or bribing guards to get back in, witnesses and officials said.
In order to prevent thousands more from illegally crossing, officials decided to quarantine them in Taftan, a border town. But conditions were so bad — cramped and filthy, with the virus spreading quickly — that people being held there rioted, burning part of the camp down.
“We had no proper food, no screening of anyone for coronavirus,” said Syed Haider Ali, a student who had been quarantined at Taftan.
“It was not an attack on the camp, but an attempt to rescue ourselves from the animal-like treatment we were receiving,” he said. “We appealed to the government to treat us like humans, but it fell on deaf ears.”