Pakistan has said it would not evacuate its citizens – mostly students – from Wuhan, a city of 11 million people in the central Chinese province of Hubei, which has been quarantined by authorities in an attempt to stem the spread of the novel coronavirus which has killed over 170 people and infected nearly 8,000 since its outbreak.
“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,” Dr Zafar Mirza, the special assistant to the prime minister on National Health Services, told a presser in Islamabad on Thursday.
“This is what the World Health Organisation (WHO) is saying, this is China’s policy, and this is our policy as well. We stand by China in full solidarity,” he added. “Right now the Chinese government has contained this epidemic in Wuhan city. If we act irresponsibly and start evacuating people from there, this epidemic will spread all over the world like wildfire.”
“That is the reason China has not allowed any foreigner to travel out. Only US diplomats have been allowed to fly out of China under the Vienna Conventions,” he said at the presser where Foreign Office spokesperson Aisha Farooqui was also present.
The 195 Americans evacuated from Wuhan have been flown to the US air force base in Southern California and federal health authorities have instructed them to remain there for three days. The US is planning to evacuate more Americans by aircraft as soon as next week.
Dr Mirza’s presser came a day after he disclosed that four Pakistani students in Wuhan have been tested positive for the mysterious pathogen. Almost 500 Pakistanis are studying in various universities of Wuhan, which is in virtual lockdown, while the total number of Pakistani nationals in China is between 28,000 and 30,000 – most of them are students.
The stranded students have been making appeals for their evacuation in video clips shared on social media platforms.
Dr Mirza said Pakistan’s Embassy is in contact with the infected students. Their condition is improving as they were diagnosed at an earlier stage. China is taking good care of them, he added. “China is the first country which has developed kits to successfully diagnose the mysterious illness,” he said. “Pakistan is also trying to improve its capability to diagnose and treat the deadly virus.”
“Government cares about its citizens just as much as their own families. But we don’t want to take an emotional decision and become a reason for the spread of this disease,” he added. “Our responsibilities include ensuring that our citizens, especially those in Wuhan, are being looked after properly.”
The Foreign Office spokesperson said a high-powered technical committee has been formed to monitor and review the situation. “All stakeholders are members of the committee, which will be presenting its recommendations for the best possible solutions for the wellbeing and safety of our people,” she said.
“The Embassy and our Consulates have reached out extensively to all students, who are in the Embassy database, and have been in touch with Chinese officials,” Aisha further added. “We have also appealed to all those Pakistani nationals and students who are not registered with the Embassy to contact the Embassy on hotline, so that their concerns are addressed and they are properly looked after.
She held out an assurance that the “Pakistani government was making an all-out effort for its citizens” stranded in China and was doing everything to assist them. She clarified that other countries were also in contact with China but none had attempted to repatriate its citizens.
But the claim appears to be untrue. Japan has evacuated 416 of its citizens from Wuhan on two charter flights since Wednesday. Three of them are found to be infected, while Japanese health officials say that another 13 also felt unwell.
The WHO is evaluating the situation to decide whether or not to declare a global emergency as the mysterious pathogen has spread to 15 other countries, including India, Japan, Canada, the United States, and Australia, among others.
Aisha said the government is aware that some Pakistani citizens are stranded on the Urumqi airport, adding that it is due to a flight delay. The government has contacted Chinese authorities and hasrequested them to “take care” of the Pakistani citizens, she added.
She also said that the Pakistan-China border opening has been delayed until April due to the viral outbreak. The Khunjrab Pass border crossing was scheduled to open in Feb, but the Gilgit Baltistan government had sought a delay as a precautionary measure.
No confirmed case of the coronavirus has been detected in Pakistan but the government has started taking precautionary measures, including screening of passengers at airports. Thermal scanners have been installed at four major airports to scan incoming travellers.
Meanwhile, Chairman Senate Standing Committee on Interior Senator Rehman Malik has asked the interior ministry to take all possible measures for evacuation of Pakistani students from China.
He said many stranded students have contacted him, while several families have also approached him asking for safe evacuation at the earliest. He expressed serious concern over the delay as, according to him, other countries have already evacuated their citizens.
Another PPP Senator, Raza Rabbani also voiced concerns over the “insufficient” measures taken by the government and demanded that the stranded Pakistanis be brought back by a charter flight. He said that a parliamentary committee should be formed to review the measures taken by the federal government to deal with the situation.