Pakistan prepares for Eid, rattled by India's second wave

By Secunder Kermani
BBC News, Lahore

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image captionWorshippers gather to pray at a mosque in Lahore last week

At a mosque in Lahore last week, hundreds of worshippers crowded together during Friday prayers. The vast majority wore masks, but they prayed shoulder to shoulder.

"You're right, there should've been gaps between us," said one man a little sheepishly. "God knows if the virus is there or not, but it's important to be careful."

Others were more bullish. "As long as you wear a mask it's fine," said another. "We only fear God, not corona."

The terrible scenes from the Covid crisis across the border in India, however, have rattled officials and medical professionals in Pakistan. Last month, cases began rising dramatically here too, a result, it is thought, of the spread of the more infectious UK variant of the disease. There were significantly more critical patients than at any time since the outset of the pandemic.

Then, just as it seemed as if the healthcare system might be overwhelmed, with senior politicians warning that oxygen capacity was being dangerously stretched, admission rates began to stabilise, and then fall back.

There is still pressure on hospitals, with more patients requiring intensive care treatment even than the time of the country's first "peak", last year. In Lahore, Pakistan's second largest city, about 75% of beds with ventilators in public hospitals are currently occupied.

Professor Saqib Saeed, the CEO of Mayo Hospital in Lahore, told the BBC he believed the images of people dying outside hospitals in India had "a terrifying effect" on the public, improving mask wearing and social distancing, and so reducing transmission. But he warned that with "limited resources" and "limited numbers of beds" hospitals would struggle to cope with any further dramatic rise in cases.

image captionThe Anarkali bazaar in Lahore last week, where social distancing was largely impossible

Most of the shoppers at the crowded Anarkali bazaar in Lahore last week were wearing masks, something many Pakistanis had previously not done. Social distancing in the narrow street however, was impossible, as men and women heaved past each other making last minute Eid purchases. The period leading up to the festival, which marks the end of the holy month of Ramadan is usually the busiest of the year for retailers.

But a partial lockdown began at the weekend and will last until next week. All non-essential businesses have been closed, while domestic tourism has been banned. "What we earn in these days (before Eid) keeps us going throughout the whole year," said one forlorn jewellery stall owner. "Without them, we'll die."

Officials hope that reducing transmission rates now will not only save lives but also prevent further, more stringent lockdowns. The security forces have been called in to help ensure the restrictions are being followed, and last week a small fleet of police and paramilitary rangers descended on another normally crowded market. Only the grocery stores were open.

The greater challenge will be posed by families holding their own private gatherings as they traditionally would to celebrate Eid. Deputy Commissioner for Lahore, Mudassir Riaz Malik told the BBC the local authorities would attempt to prevent any gatherings of more than 50 people, and he appealed to the public to "behave more responsibly". But he admitted that, in a huge city like Lahore, it was simply not possible to monitor every household.

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image captionPakistan Railways laid on extra trains for Eid

It was shortly after Eid last year that Pakistan's hospitals first struggled to cope with the influx of Covid patients. Since then, Pakistan seems to have fared unexpectedly well - just 19,000 recorded deaths amid a population of 220 million.

Medical experts are confused about why the situation in India has been so much worse. Pakistan has a younger population, and its cities are somewhat less densely populated, but the differences seem surprisingly stark given the similarities in genetics and social behaviours.

A vaccination campaign is under way in Pakistan, but progress has been relatively slow, with fewer than four million doses administered. Professor Saeed, of the Mayo Hospital, warned against complacency. Even just a few gatherings over Eid, without precautions, could cause "havoc", he said.

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